Snakebite and Love of Jesus

Transcribed from the sermon preached March 15, 2015

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

A woman named Alice tells the story of her 10 year old nephew who comes to visit on a hot day. “I found a kite. Could we go outside and fly it?” Glancing out a nearby window, I noticed there was not a breeze stirring. “I’m sorry, Tripper,” I said, sad to see his disappointed eyes, but thankful for the respite from more activity. “The wind is not blowing today. The kite won’t fly.”
The determined 10 year old replied. “I think it’s windy enough. I can get it to fly,” he answered, as he hurried out the back door.

Up and down the yard he ran, pulling the kite attached to a small length of string. The plastic kite, proudly displaying a picture of Batman, remained about shoulder level. He ran back and forth, as hard as his ten year old legs would carry him, looking back hopefully at the kite trailing behind. After about ten minutes of unsuccessful determination, he came back in.

I asked, “How did it go?”
“Fine,” he said, not wanting to admit defeat. “I got it to fly some.”
As he walked past me to return the kite to the closet shelf, I heard him say under his breath, “I guess I’ll have to wait for the wind.”

At that moment I heard another voice speak to my heart. “Alice. Sometimes you are just like that. You want to do it your way instead of waiting for the Wind.”

How easy it is to use our own efforts to accomplish what we want to do. We wait for the Wind only after we have done all we can and have exhausted our own strength. We must learn how to rely on wind of the Spirit in the first place!

Monte McClain on “Blogging Towards Sunday” comments on the Numbers 21:4-9 passage. “The Israelites are in the wilderness between slavery in Egypt and freedom in the Promised Land. As Moses leads them they become unhappy. They romanticize the past, quarrel amongst themselves, accuse God of being unfaithful to them and then attack Moses for his seemingly failed leadership. In the unavoidable hardness of life’s journeys, stuck in the present between the remembered past and anticipated future, it’s the place in which we all turn on each other, our leaders, and even God for not delivering what we think we’re due.

“Throughout the wilderness journeys God has been merciful and forgiving, when they longed for the food of Egypt, when they wanted a leader, when they were afraid of the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh’s army of chariots at their backs. But here Yahweh is harsh and uncooperative. God responds to their complaints with punishment. Yet something happens between verse 6 and 7. The narrative does an about-face. The people, who were complaining and belligerent, are now submissive and repentant. Commensurate with their change, God who dispatches death, now offers life and health.”

I am not sure what to make of this idea of God sending snakes to bite the grumbling Israelites. I don’t think we should hold this theology tightly. That is, even as we may want to say that God pushes and leads the trajectory of history, that God leads and directs our lives, I don’t think we want to attribute all bad things that happen to God. We should be careful about attributing human evil or natural disaster to the will or act of God. If we go out hiking tomorrow and get bitten by a snake, we wouldn’t necessarily assume God is punishing us. One of the great lessons in life is summed up in the saying, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” We may spend too much time worrying or fighting about whether someone’s accusation about us is justified. If it makes sense, own up to it and make the change. If not, stop worrying, drop that shoe and move on.

We don’t want to attribute all difficult events to God. We do reap what we sow. If we sow nothing, we reap nothing. If we cut down all the trees we will get more soil erosion and less rain. If we pump C02 into the atmosphere, the weather will change and sea levels will rise. If we sow injustice, we will reap injustice. If we eat lousy food and burn the candle at both ends, we can expect our health to decline. If we hold shame or grief, we shouldn’t be surprised if it finds a way to eat our insides. If we are grumbling and negative, we shouldn’t be surprised if we get bitten by a snake.

I think we get discouraged either by trying too little or trying too much like junior high kids at PE, we are defeated before the race so we defiantly walk. Or we sprint a long distance run and burn out. God has a plan for us in each moment. It is not too much or too little. Many times a young person has come into my office, troubled, yet with grand visions for their life. They have decided to throw off the shackles of the past and go for their dream. This is fine, but they will often imagine going from step B to step Z in one big leap. So I try to help them see step C, D and E. Join a support group, sign up for classes. Get any job that pays the bills. We don’t want the wilderness; we just want the Promised Land. A student comes to his Buddhist master and asks, “Master, what is the key to enlightenment?” The master asks, “Have you eaten breakfast?” Yes says the student. The master replies, “then wash your bowls.” The people need a vision, but we get there by attending God’s task for us in the moment.

I am not sure why we must go through the wilderness. But I do know that most human growth comes as we are forced to face a difficult situation. We tend to not want to change unless we are forced to. We push stuff down, put it off, and try to go around issues rather than grow. We grow when there is no more space inside of us to hold our junk down, no more time to put it off, and walls on both sides are preventing us from turning to avoid our issues.

We get to the end of our rope, we get depressed or burn out and we have to turn to God. We are finally humble and call for help. Step A recognizing we need a change. Step B, repentance for the laziness, or fear or lack of faith to make the change earlier. Often, if we don’t hit bottom, we fail to recognize our need for help. We plan to tough it out, keep control, grumble and blame others. Humility, confession and repentance. Then forgiveness and the power of God come to neutralize the poison of the snakes in our lives.

Thus sometimes it does feel like God places that extra obstacle in our way. We are complaining that we have it bad, “it couldn’t possibly get any worse?” And yet we are not humble and we block God out, trying to do it our way, on our own. And God reminds us that until we humble ourselves and give ourselves to God, yes it can get worse. You are in the desert hungry and thirsty, well how about snakes.

The first time I was truly challenged beyond my capability was my first day of swim practice. I was 7 years old and the best swimmer in my YMCA swim class, the fastest to finish 50 yards. I thought I was pretty great. In my first day of swim team the coach had us swim, I don’t know, maybe 30 times 50 yards. Just as I thought it couldn’t get any harder, we had to do backstroke and butterfly which I was horrible at. I started crying and called out to my mom to quit. My mom had empathetic eyes. She really wanted to come get me. I started to get out of the pool and the coach hit me on the head with a paddle board. After two weeks I stopped crying. In a month I was no longer in pain. In two months I was winning races. We are capable of a lot more than we think we are. But it takes more work than we think it does. Just because we have our ego broken today, and all we want to do is quit and cry, doesn’t mean God is done with us. In fact it might just be the beginning. We cannot see where God is taking us, or when we will get there, but we can trust that God will see us through.

The Israelites confess their lack of faith and repent. It is interesting that God doesn’t remove the snakes, he just gives the people a sign to focus on which will render the poison less deadly.

Now John uses the snake on a pole as an analogy for who Jesus is for us. God does not remove the wilderness from between slavery and the Promised Land. He doesn’t remove the snakes, in animal or human form, the evil doers, but he does so love the world that he sends his son, that whosoever would believe in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Believe in. What does that mean? Barbara Brown Taylor in Learning to Walk in the Dark uses John Fowler’s Stages of Faith to help explain: In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon,” or “to give the heart to,” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief” and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than about the furniture in one’s mind. By the nineteenth century, when knowledge about almost anything consisted chiefly of empirical facts, belief became the opposite of knowledge. A person’s belief in God was reduced to his or her belief system – the unprovable statements of faith that person judged to be true.

“When I listen to college students talk about faith, Taylor goes on, beliefs are what interest them most: Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Do you believe only Christians go to heaven? No one asks, “On what is your heart set?” “What powers do you most rely on? Those are questions of faith, not belief. The answers to them are not written down in any book, and they have a way of shifting in the dark. ..(Or the wilderness). God is an event, Peter Rollins says, “not a fact to be grasped but an incoming to be undergone.”

Jesus came into the world, full of love and truth. He would sacrifice his life before he would sacrifice the integrity of his love. His life of love lives. This is not a statement to believe, but a person to have a relationship with, to commit to, to believe in.

There are many things we might give our lives to, many things to believe in, but what is worthy of our life and dedication, our love? Perhaps the one who believes in love despite all the evidence, the one who loves us even when we fall and grumble, the one who gives us the power and faith to make it through the wilderness, despite our doubts and fears. It is not our own doing, but a gift from God. For by grace we have been saved through faith in Christ Jesus.