March 14th, 2021 homily on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21 by Pastor Galen
A Plague in the Wilderness
The Israelites had been wandering around in the wilderness for a long time. It was hot, and they were tired, and after years of them asking the question, “are we almost there yet?” I’m sure Moses wished he could just turn the whole caravan around and go back to Egypt!
Often when the Israelites complained of being thirsty, God would provide water for them in miraculous ways. When they complained they were hungry, God would send bread down for them out of the sky, or little birds called quail would flock to the camp so the Israelites could capture them and cook and eat them.
But this time, the Israelites went too far. They accused Moses of bringing them out into the wilderness so they could die, and they complained about the miserable food that God had miraculously provided for them, saying it was detestable (Num. 21:5). And so this time in response to their complaints, God sent poisonous serpents among the people. Many of the Israelites were bitten by the poisonous vipers and died.
Upon seeing the deadly destruction that resulted from their complaints they acknowledged they had messed up, and they begged Moses to ask God to take the serpents away from them (Num. 21:7). God heard Moses’s prayers and offered a way for the people to be saved from the poisonous snakes.
A Simple Remedy
Now it’s important for us to note here that God did not send the serpents away from them. Instead, God offered them a remedy. God told Moses to make a bronze replica of one of the poisonous serpents and to raise it up on a pole In the middle of the camp. Whenever someone got bitten by one of the snakes, all the person had to do was to look at the bronze snake on the pole, and that person would be healed.
Now I’m sure the Israelites would have much preferred that the snakes would just be gone from their midst. And I don’t know why God didn’t immediately send the snakes away. Perhaps God wanted them to be reminded of what they had done. Perhaps God wanted them to know that sin has consequences and repercussions. Perhaps God wanted them to have a way to participate in their own healing.
But whatever the reason God didn’t completely remove the snakes from them, God did make a way for them to be healed. Anyone who was bitten had only to look up at the bronze serpent hanging on the pole, and they would live.
I imagine that some of the people were probably too weak to even walk over to the place where the serpent was held up on the pole. They had to have other people carry them out into the middle of the camp so that they could see the bronze snake and be healed. Others no doubt thought it was ridiculous to look at a bronze snake. They swore up and down that they would never do such a crazy thing. Perhaps they ridiculed others who declared they were healed because they looked at the snake. But when they themselves got bitten by the serpents, they were forced to either swallow their pride and look up at the snake on the pole, or allow the poisonous venom to course through their body.
Faith AND Science
Of course today when we think about a deadly plague affecting a whole population, it’s not a huge leap for us to think about the coronavirus pandemic that we’re living through right now. Like the plague of serpents in the wilderness, as much as we’ve prayed, God has not taken away the Coronavirus completely. Instead what we have been given are various ways to slow down and stop the spread. Masks, social distancing, handwashing and sanitizing, and now the vaccines. All of these are relatively simple ways that we’ve been given to cope with this deadly virus.
Like the Israelites, all throughout this past year we’ve had to work together. As a church we’ve been especially concerned with looking out for the most vulnerable among us. We’ve continued to operate our food pantry, adjusting the way it’s run to conform with CDC guidelines. We’ve limited the size of our in-person gatherings, and followed the mask mandates and social distancing guidelines set for us. We’ve worked together to share information about the vaccine.
But like the Israelites, there have been many in our society who have refused even the most simple remedies like wearing masks or social distancing, and no doubt there will be many who will refuse to take the vaccine as well. Some will abstain for religious reasons, some because they’re worried about side effects, some because they feel like they don’t need it.
Some people of faith think that taking the vaccine would be a denial of their faith and trust in God. Like many over this past year who refused to wear masks or social distance, they claim that they’re living in “faith rather than fear,” and they believe that God will protect them even if they don’t wear masks or take the vaccine.
But one of the lessons we learn from the story of the serpents in the wilderness is that God often works through human means to bring about God’s purposes and plans in this world! Just as God worked through Moses in casting a bronze serpent and raising it on the pole in the middle of the camp, so too I believe it is God who gives public health experts the ability to identify problems and work towards solutions on a global scale. It is God who gives researchers and scientists the amazing intelligence to develop medicines and vaccines. It is God who has put lawmakers in places of leadership and influence, and who has given them the wisdom to enact policies for the good of our society. And it is God who gives doctors and nurses the patience and the skills to treat those who are afflicted.
And so for people of faith, looking to science or modern medicine for healing is not contradictory to our faith, as long as we remember who it is that gave humans the ability to study science and to develop modern medicine in the first place! As people of faith we can wear masks, and socially distance, and we can in good conscience receive medicines and vaccines just as the people of Israel looked at the bronze serpent hanging on the pole, knowing that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” as we’re told in the book of James 1:17.
Lessons from the Wilderness Plague
Now I realize that in saying all of this, I’m preaching quite literally to the choir (since many of you are part of the Hampden UMC choir!) Those of you who are here this morning are wearing masks, and you’re spread out throughout the sanctuary more than 6 feet apart, and we’re well under the 25% capacity set for us by Baltimore City. Many of us have already received the vaccine, or you’re on the waiting list to get it. And many of you who are watching online or reading this later are at home rather than here with us in person because you’re quarantining at home!
But I believe the story of the serpent on the bronze pole in the wilderness is important for us to consider for several reasons.
First, because there’s so much confusion out there. Many of us have friends and neighbors who have fallen prey to conspiracy theories, or received misinformation. Many people are lacking guidance and direction in terms of what’s right for them and their families. Even though most of us are not scientists or medical doctors, we can at the very least assure our friends and family members that following the guidance of medical doctors and public health experts and government officials is not contrary to having faith in God.
I think it’s especially important for people of faith to speak up in this area because so many non-churchgoers think that following Christ would require denying science or buying into strange conspiracy theories. It’s important for us to reassure people that following Christ does not involve “checking your brain at the door,” and that you can be a person of faith and accept scientific and rational thought.
God So Loved the World
But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that this story here in Numbers is significant for us to consider because it is a wonderful reminder of God’s great love and mercy towards us. When Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of Jesus’s day, came to Jesus at night with a spiritual inquiry, Jesus told him, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:14-16).
You see, there is a plague facing our world that is even worse than poisonous serpents or the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s the plague of sin that infects all of humanity. Sin is both outright rebellion against God, and missing the mark or falling short. Sin begins in the human heart as such things as selfishness, lust, and greed, but it manifests itself in outward expressions such as sexism, racism, and violence. As humans we’re held captive by sin. It’s something that’s been passed down to us from the first human beings, and yet we’re all complicit. We’ve all hurt others, and we’ve all been hurt by others. There’s nothing we can do on our own to escape the consequences of our sin. There’s no way that we can heal ourselves. Left to our own devices, we’re heading down the path towards destruction.
Now God could have completely eradicated sin altogether, but if God were to do so we would be completely destroyed. And so instead, God gave us a remedy, a cure, a way for us to be healed. God sent Jesus into our world to give his life for us by dying on the cross.
The snake on the pole in the wilderness was a foreshadowing of Christ’s death for us on the cross. Just as the bronze serpent on the pole was the means by which God showed mercy to the Israelite people, so too God demonstrated God’s love for us through sending Jesus into the world to give his life for us.
In Ephesians chapter 2, the Apostle Paul said it this way:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Eph. 2:4-10).
God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses (sins), has made us alive together with Christ! It is through God’s grace that we can be saved. In order to receive this great mercy and receive healing, we must look to the cross. We must acknowledge our wrongdoing, the ways we’ve been hurt and hurt others, and receive the mercy and grace and healing that Jesus offers to us.
There is no other way for us to be healed, no other way for us to be forgiven. We can try to do it on our own, but we will fail. We can turn away in pride and stubbornness, but it will only lead to more suffering and pain. So this morning, let us look to the cross! Let us pledge (again or for the first time) our allegiance and devotion to Christ. Let us receive the grace, and mercy, and healing and forgiveness that Christ offers so freely to all. And let us lift high the name of Jesus, so that others too may look up and live!