Look Up! March 14, 2021

Look Up!

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Numbers 21:4-9

March 14, 2021

Main Idea –   God helps us face our fears.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O LORD our strength and our redeemer.  Amen

Though the covenant with Noah, God proclaimed love for all of creation. Through the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God named and claimed God’s people.  Through the covenant with Moses and the Israelites, God gave a vision of life for humanity in harmonious communion with God and with each other.  Today’s Hebrew Scripture text is not like the others.  There is not a mention of covenant in it.  If it wasn’t for today’s Gospel reading, this strange story probably would not have been chosen for the lectionary.   But here it is.  And it does have things to teach us about living in covenant, especially about trusting God. Today’s text tells us that God helps us face our fears.

Think about something of which you are afraid.   Maybe it is heights, maybe water, maybe fire, maybe germs, maybe snakes.  Bring an image of it to your mind and hold it there for a few seconds. Now notice how your body feels.  Likely you feel a bit tense or jumpy.  Perhaps your pulse is going a bit faster.  Fear brings about the fight or flight response.  It causes adrenaline to surge through us and brings all of our attention to our own self-preservation.   When we are afraid, we turn inward.  We isolate ourselves.  We physically turn in on ourselves, crossing our arms in self-protection and sometimes actually freezing in place.  When we are really afraid, we cannot look up or around or take a step forward.  But God helps us face our fears.

This story takes place during the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Just prior to our text Moses had asked for the King of Edom’s permission to travel through his kingdom but the King said no and threatened to take up arms against them. So, the Israelites had to make a large detour around Edom.  This led to impatience and complaints.  40 years of wandering would lead most of us to impatience and complaints.  Complaining was not something new for the Israelites.  There were some who seemed convinced that life in Egypt was better than freedom, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Our text today is the last of 5 accounts about the people’s complaints.  The first four stories all follow the same pattern; the people complain to Moses, Moses speaks to God, and God provides relief.   “We don’t like the taste of this water!” –  God sweetens it. (Ex 15:22-25).  “We are hungry!” – God gives them manna (Ex 16:2-3). “We’re thirsty!” – God provides water from a rock (Ex 17:3 and Num 20:1-13).  “We want some meat!” – God provides quails. (Num 11:4-6).   But this time it is different; the people are just complaining for complaining’s sake.  They say, “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food!” (Num 21:5).  (Ever know someone to stand in front of a full refrigerator and wail “There is nothing to eat!”? You get the picture. Ridiculous.)  And this time the people speak out against God as well as against Moses.  It is one thing to complain about Moses’ leadership.  It is something quite different to complain about God’s providence and care.

In response to the complaining God sends something bigger to complain about!   The NRSV says “poisonous serpents” but the King James says “fiery serpents” because the Hebrew adjective used is seraphim which comes from the word saraf meaning “to burn”.  Elsewhere in the Bible and in other ancient texts, the word Seraphim describes mythical, heavenly creatures who guard the throne of God (Isaiah 6: 2, 6).  Powerful, fiery, monster snakes from God swarm around the people and very quickly the food complaints end!

The people cry to Moses; “We are sorry for complaining against God and against you.  We know that we have sinned by not appreciating all God has done for us!  Please ask God to take away the snakes!”  Moses passes on their apology and request to God.  But God does not take away the snakes.  Instead, God tells Moses to make a snake and put it high up on a pole. God instructs, “Everyone who looks at it will live.”  

This snake on a pole image seems very strange, doesn’t it?  It seems to go against the commandment about creating idols.  It seems like magic.  But when we enter into the story ourselves, we can see the snake on the pole differently.  Imagine for a moment that the ground around us is swarming with snakes; snakes that are dangerous, snakes that could hurt us.  Where would we most likely be looking?  Down at the ground, right?  We would be picking up our feet, making ourselves as small as possible, keeping our eyes on the snakes at all times.  But God tells us to look up.  The people are to look up at what they fear, and so be saved.  It takes a lot of courage to look up when your feet are surrounded by snakes!  But conquering fear requires us to look up and look around.  God does not take the snakes away, instead God gives the people a tool for healing that requires action on their part. Instead of just passively waiting to be rescued, they must face their fears in order to be saved. 

The Gospel of John takes this image of the snake lifted up to explain the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “In both stories, of the serpent and the cross, a cause of death was transformed by God into a symbol of life.” (Geoff McElroy, gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings).  In both stories we are called to look up at what we once feared and by doing so, be saved.

This is all very uncomfortable for us.  It goes against our human instinct. And yet we know that this is true in many areas of life.  We cannot navigate a journey by staring down at our feet, we must look up at the sky and the horizon.    We cannot drive a car by looking at the hood, we must look down the road.  We cannot learn to juggle by watching the balls move around, we must look up and out.  We cannot master our fears without looking at them clearly and in perspective. 

This past year has been scary in so many ways.  Many of us have dealt with anxiety, sleeplessness, and grief.   The world has contended with the pandemic, with enormous economic losses, political violence here and around the world, and natural disasters of various sorts; wildfires, snowstorms, bitter cold, extreme heat.  I suppose we should be grateful not to have had fiery, monster snakes around, although folks in the Pacific Northwest did have to deal with “murder hornets”, and swarms of locusts caused great damage in Africa.   The suffering of this year has been almost beyond bearing with millions of people sick and dying of Covid, and millions of families grieving. The strictures of the pandemic have forced us to turn inward, to close our borders, to limit our exposure to others in order to keep ourselves and others safe.  And here in Vermont, this turning in has, for the most part, kept us safe.   But this turning in has also exhausted us.  It has kept our fears and anxieties at high alert and it has paralyzed many of us, making us unable to move through our grief to imagine a post-pandemic future.

But God says Look up!  Look around!  See that you are not alone!  Face the things that you fear!  Bring them out into the light of day and do something about them. Do you fear Covid 19?  Keep following the guidelines and make a plan to get vaccinated.   Do you fear people who are different from you?  Make a point to speak with someone from a different culture or lifestyle.  Do you fear for your health in general?  Go see a doctor and change your habits.  Do you fear death?  Trust God in your very bones that, through Christ, death has been defeated and our earthly death is but a movement into a greater adventure in God.

As a church, what do we fear?  We fear having less relevance in our communities, so let’s be intentional about connecting what we say on Sundays with how we live our lives all week.  We fear losing folks so let’s find new ways to connect and to continue our online presence even after we are back in the building.   We fear having less energy to do all that once was done, so let’s prioritize and perhaps let go of some things that no longer resonant with our vision. The answer to all of these fears is to look up and out; to trust God is with us, giving guidance and sustenance.

God did not create us to be passive objects, blown about by circumstance, complaining until God swoops down and rescues us.  God creates us as active subjects with agency and ability to make choices.  God gives us the strength and perseverance and community with which to deal with adversity.  We do not need to be rescued from fear.  God helps us face our fear and be healed.

There is an account in the Second Book of Kings, chapter 18, about King Hezekiah, who “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” (2Kings 18:4). Hundreds of years after the Exodus, the people had made the bronze snake into an idol.  The snakebite cure had worked so well that the people conflated the medicine with the doctor and so tried to contain God and God’s healing power.  But God will not be contained. 

Our God is wild and surprising as this story shows.  But our God loves us with an unending love that challenges us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our fears, to see the world as God see it, a creation beloved and blessed. “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17).  As we move closer to Holy Week and Easter may we look up to our Savior who casts out all fear.

Let us pray,

Challenging God, we have many fears.  Help us to see them for what they are and then let them go.  We cannot contain you.  We cannot control you but we can trust you, for you are the Source of our very being.  Empower us to work for your vision of creation shown to us through Scripture and through Jesus our Christ who invites us into your Kingdom. Amen.