"Where Do You Place Your Trust?"
Scripture - Numbers 21:4-9
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 15, 2015

Do your fellow workers grumble about the long hours they are expected to work? Does your teenager complain that she cannot stay out as late as her peers? Is there someone on your committee who constantly criticizes and never contributes a positive idea? Today's passage serves up the remedy: poisonous serpents! One hundred percent effective, but it does not sound much like the word of the Lord we are accustomed to hearing.

Today's passage is a snippet of the story of the exodus from Egypt and the 40 year sojourn in the wilderness. As you know, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt when God called Moses to confront Pharaoh and to deliver the message: "Let my people go!"

Pharaoh benefited greatly from his slave laborers and was not about to budge. But after Moses invoked plague after plague, Pharaoh relented. Once the people headed out, Pharaoh had second thoughts and dispatched his troops to retrieve them. However, at the Red Sea, the Egyptians were vanquished and the Hebrews escaped. But the journey was just beginning.

They would wander in the wilderness four decades before reaching the place they settled. It was a challenging time and at several points along the way, there was a serious question whether the people would perish before they made it.

Not long after escaping the clutches of the Egyptians and beginning their trek, some begin to complain. The wilderness is too difficult and we are famished. Back in Egypt they may have been slaves, but at least they had food. They moan that Moses has led them into the barren desert where they will surely starve. God sends manna so the people have something to eat and the complaining subsides. But only for a while.

When the people get tired of manna and yearn for meat, they begin grumbling again. God supplies meat; but then it's the water. The water does not taste as sweet as it did in Egypt and the carping resumes. At several points along the wilderness journey, the people complain and the bellyaching comes to a head in today's passage.

Our text says "The people complain to God and Moses, "Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? We detest this miserable food." God's patience with the complainers is exhausted, so God sends poisonous serpents to bite the people, killing a number of them.

The people realize they have taken things too far and say to Moses, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents." So God tells Moses to handcraft a serpent and set it on a pole. Moses makes a serpent of bronze and whenever one of the poisonous serpents bit someone, that person would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Really??? It seems pretty far-fetched. Should we not jettison this passage as a primitive tale from ancient times when people believed in magic, wizardry and the efficacy of incantations? Our view of the world and its processes shifted dramatically with the rise of science, reason and critical thinking. We simply no longer view reality as people did prior to the Enlightenment. So why not set this text aside as a tale that may have worked in the ancient world, but no longer makes sense today?

Yet what if this narrative is not so much a literal historical account as it is a symbolic story? What if it serves as a metanarrative that represents the journey each of us undertakes?

If we read it as an allegory, Egypt stands for whatever enslaves us. It can be a desire for material possessions or an admirable position in the eyes of others. It can be an addiction to drugs or alcohol or constant online shopping. Some are enslaved by low self-esteem; others, an inability to forgive. Egypt represents whatever prevents us from living a life of faith.

The wandering in the wilderness denotes the journey of life. Once we break free from the things that enslave us, we embark on a new path. Along the way - from where we are to where God wants us to go - we face various trials and triumphs. Sometimes we stumble, sometimes we succeed.

What about those poisonous serpents? Last Monday I was wrestling with this text, rolling the images over in my mind. That night, I had a nightmare about snakes. One came after me and I booted it with my foot. Unfortunately, Camilla now has a bruised shin!

To understand this passage, the serpents are not literally slithering reptiles. They represent the ill effects of wayward behavior. God does not send actual vipers as a judgment, but God creates the world in such a way that our actions have consequences. Addiction to drugs or alcohol will take a toll on your health and could kill you. A refusal to forgive can destroy a relationship and warp you mentally. An obsession with material objects can leave you empty. Failing to tell the truth can put you behind bars. These things can poison the image of God within us.

The bronze serpent Moses created and put on the top of a pole represents the healing power of God. Indeed, modern medicine adopted it as a symbol. We know the bronze serpent by different names depending on our affliction: comfort, strength, forgiveness, transformation, hope.

The destination of this lifelong journey of faith also has many names: the promised land, the Kingdom of God, an abundant life, genuine serenity, harmony with God.

The Book of Numbers is not an historical account of the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness after escaping Egypt and heading toward a specific piece of property. The exodus and wilderness wanderings occurred in the 13th Century BCE. The Book of Numbers comes from the 6th Century BCE. Why would the Book of Numbers write about an event 700 years earlier?

Because in the 6th Century BCE, the Hebrew people were once again slaves. This time they were in Babylon and yearning to return to their homes. Their priests wanted the people to understand that the reason they had been defeated in battle and dragged into exile was because they no longer lived as God commanded. They must trust God to know what is best for them.

Focused on preparing the people for their return home, the priests remind them that you live at cross purposes with God at your own peril. Flaunt the way of God and sooner or later something will bite you.

Understood as a symbolic story, we can enter it at different points. I suspect each of us knows habitual complainers like the ones Moses had to deal with. Regardless of the topic of conversation, they manage to interject their gripes. They may begin with poor us: grumbling about the weather or the government or the media - those things we must suffer together. But a genuine whiner will adroitly maneuver the conversation to poor me. Their shriveled ego tries to get a boost by invoking your sympathy. But rather that gaining our pity, they usually prompt our disgust because we have heard them beat this drum far too many times. They appear to believe that "No one has had to bear the burdens I've had to bear" but their constant whining wears thin.

Most complainers fail to understand why people are always slipping away from them and seem so callous to their calamities, but occasionally a grumbler gets the message and they learn to hum a more pleasing tune.

One of you sent me an email that said, "Today, when I witnessed a 27-year-old breast cancer patient laughing hysterically at the antics of her two-year-old daughter, I suddenly realized that I need to stop complaining about my life and start celebrating it."

When we fail to trust God, we are bitten by all sorts of serpents that inject us with poison. These things create a toxic soul that hampers our ability to live the rich, whole lives God intends.

Those who wandered in the wilderness focused on the meager rations, the lousy water and the shoddy accommodations. Rather than complaining and romanticizing Egypt, they should have been celebrating their freedom and leaning into the new future to which God was guiding them.

Like the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness, there are times when our fear and anxiety dominate and we do not trust God's guidance. Other times we focus so intently on securing a certain lifestyle that we block out big questions about the direction of our lives. But at some point, we experience a gnawing emptiness or we receive a dreaded diagnosis or we lose a loved one or we become aware of a general malaise and the big questions unsettle us.

That is when it is imperative to turn to God, not simply to adhere to a list of rules, but to trust God. Trust is the ability to say, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me."

Obedience to God is good, but not enough. We need to trust God to keep us from falling when the bottom drops out. We need to trust God to make us more complete than we are today. We need to trust that the way of God really leads to a grand adventure. Self-centeredness and fear lead to death; trusting the way of God - which is justice and mercy - leads to the promised land.

On the journey of life, who or what will you trust? Will you favor the comfortable slavery of Egypt or will you depend on God to liberate you? Will you be a captive of the values of our culture or will you trust God to guide you to something greater?

Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

God of grace, God of glory, God of love and life, our lives that are crammed full of obligations and activities, meetings and work, rest and play, and yet we pause this day to come together to praise your name, to connect with our family in faith, to hear your Word. Let our praise not stop when we end this service today; keep our ears open to hearing your word as we journey toward tomorrow; and keep our hearts receptive to your direction even after we leave this sanctuary. Though our money says we trust in you, O God, we know that trusting you is not always easy. Anxieties about finances, health, safety, what tomorrow will bring, fill us. The things we purchase, the success we create, the power we amass, all sees to promise us what we need; and yet, in our heart of hearts, we know that you are the Lord our God, Creator, Maker and Sustainer of our lives. Help us to be willing to trust in your guidance and love. For without you, O God, our lives have an emptiness that nothing can fill. Move us closer to you, that we may know life as you intend it, that we may discover joy and know abounding peace.

It doesn't take looking long at the world around us to realize our trust in weapons and retaliation begets violence and heartache. Our trust in the rightness of our side over against the other, leads to stalemate and inaction. Our distrust of people who look or act or believe differently leads to death and division. Inspire us again, O God, to be a living witness to the power of self-giving love, the hope we have in Jesus Christ, and the peace that is possible by your grace.

Some around us have experienced the sudden death this week of friends or loved ones. Others have struggled with physical or emotional pain. Still others know this day an exhaustion borne of caregiving, and others struggle with loss of independence, and the ending of a relationship. O God, send your rest, send your peace.

Remembering your commitment to your creation as shown in Jesus Christ, we pray the prayer he taught saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."