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The bronze snake

March 25, 2012

5th Sunday in Lent

“They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 43

Gospel: John 11:47-53

When we first read this text, we may find it difficult to understand. Most of the texts of the Old Testament are a challenge for us because not only do we want a right interpretation but also a practical message for our lives today.

The people of Israel, after being liberated from slavery in Egypt had to travel, and wander for forty years and live in the steppes between Egypt and Palestine. They had to live enforced as nomads in that region for all those years, probably because they were not yet given the geopolitical conditions for entry to their former homeland, to what they called the promised land. They did not live in a desert as we imagine today, with just sand and sun, but rather in areas of steppe, desert in the sense of being devoid of people and natural resources. During that time they were cared for in every way by God; for food they even received the precious manna, a special and nutritive food which helped the people.

But in a moment of this journey through the desert, many of the people got tired and lost their faith in God. For the people of Israel, the time spent in the desert was a time of suffering and shortages. Tiring of this situation, some came to doubt the goodness of God. As such, they committed a sin; the sin of no longer trusting in Him, of turning away from Him and perhaps to look for other things or other gods that could alleviate their suffering. In the story, it is said that God punished the people and sent snakes to kill the population. The consequence of sin was punishment. But through the leader Moses, God had compassion on the people and worked out a solution: “when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” This is a story that is difficult to understand, it is very different from our lives today. As Christians, it is even more difficult to see and understand a God that punishes and has so little compassion for his people, as we come to appreciate His nature from this reading.

In our Protestant tradition, on this day we celebrate a Sunday called Judica, (“Judge, God”) where the main theme of our celebration is the ‘Lamb of God’, another Christian symbol. We all know that as the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ was sacrificed as if it were a real sacrifice involving an animal, in order to redeem for the sins of the people. Jesus Christ became the “scapegoat”.

It is a symbol that is somewhat difficult to understand today. God decided to punish his people, to make them disappear from the face of the earth for their lack of reverence and obedience. But Christ decided to take that punishment and be punished himself, to become the sacrificial lamb, to pay the price for our sins, and death would occur by means of the cross. Thus, it is as it says in the Bible, that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”(Jn 3:16) All of mankind is offered a pardon such that anyone who chooses to believe in Christ receives a debt cancellation, a pardon from judgment. The only condition for that forgiveness is to believe in Christ as the Son of God, our Lord. To do this we must humble ourselves before him and look up towards the cross in order to understand the extent of his love for us. Everyone who looks up to the cross will be safe, will have life, eternal life. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)

We see that there is some parallel between this story of the desert with the story of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. Perhaps there are still some people who cannot understand the details of the story from the desert, but we will prove that there is great similarity between the experiences of the people of the desert and of people today. And I would compare the different events of this desert life with our everyday life.

The desert, to us today, can be any desperate situation of pain that causes weakness, stress and pushes us to see God not as a God who helps us, but as a God who does not get involved, as if He did not exist. This makes many people turn from God, reject Him and to begin to look for other ways to solve their problems and to find other answers to their questions. Unfortunately they will search in vain, because God is ultimately the only answer, the only solution. Anyone could say that God would have to be a God of compassion that listens to and solves people’s problems. God truly is a merciful God. However, we often fail to recognize that God is helping us now. The people of Israel had been liberated from Egypt, had been freed from slavery, were being led through the desert, accompanied and nurtured carefully. While this may not have been what the people wanted, it was nevertheless substantial and extraordinary nourishment. The people did not appreciate this. The question of punishment is something that could be interpreted as follows: whenever we choose to refuse to acknowledge God, want to get away from him, when we deny and defame his name and, even worse, have other gods before him, we can say that we are self-punishing ourselves. The reason for our being away from the power and guidance of God is our choices and the consequences of this will be more than evident. It is also so for the people of today, that to be separated from God has terrible consequences that not only affect health and life, but also has the most tragic consequence, the loss of eternal communion with God, the eternal life. The worst that can happen as a result, which is something that some people interpret as God’s punishment, is to move away from the blessing of God for our lives. And it’s not his fault.

However, like what happened to Moses, God, in his “compassion,” sent his Son into the world to save those who chose to believe in his Son and humble themselves before him.

““We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”  “So spoke the people of Israel. Likewise, we could say that similar statements apply for many people today. We murmur against the Lord God and against His Son Jesus Christ. Not only do we stop trusting Him, but we also cast doubt on his divinity. And people today could say: take away that which kills us, what ails us, what makes our life full of conflicts, the concerns that rob us of a life of joy and prevent us from living a life with abundant blessings and the security of eternal life. What was the solution for the ancient people? – Looking up into the image of the bronze serpent to be healed. Today, we can do the same when we look up with a repentant heart and a willingness to believe in him; When we look up there to that cross and understand what it means, not only to have the opportunity to be healed but especially to be saved.

How is your life today? Are you struck down and in walking in the desert of difficult situations? Perhaps God is supporting you without your knowing. You are being given the opportunity to better feed yourself spiritually, through His Word and you’re discarding it. You may be doubting and complaining to God. How many times have you, in this past week, gone to the Bible to find strength in it? How many times this week have you joined your hands to ask God for what you need?

How many times have we, as a church, sought comfort for those who are desperate? Sought to strengthen others through our Christian witness? How many times have we invited our friends to come to church and talk about the saving cross?

Do not look for excuses. Do not believe that God is a merciless God. Most of the time, the snakes that are the terrible things in our lives happen to us because we stop trusting in God, because we turn away from him.

Do not be like the Israelites. Look to the cross, and trust him to not only strengthen and guide us through difficult situations, but also to give us the promised land of eternal life.

The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen

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