"Snakes & Wolves"

4 Lent.B.24
Numbers 21:4-9
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

The Book of Numbers is comprised of a wide assortment of stories, laws, poetry, and ancient texts, including tales of talking donkeys, a surfeit of quails and a priestly blessing. Today we are gifted with one of the oddest stories of them all—what I like to refer to as “The Snake on a Stick”.

By the time we arrive at the twenty-first chapter of Numbers, the people of Israel have been wandering around in the desert for quite a while. They have been wandering, and complaining, complaining and wandering. Here we are told: “The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”—translated, this means, we have food—we just don’t like what you have given us.” So, what does God do? Alas, Dunkin Donuts does not descend from heaven. Instead, God sends serpents—specifically, poisonous snakes. The Hebrew word is seraph, which can be translated as fiery serpents or winged serpents. Whatever they are, these are not benevolent creatures. The serpents bite the people and many of the people die.

So, the people come to Moses, full of remorse for all the complaining they have done and they beg him to pray and make the snakes go away—as if Moses might be some kind of divine snake handler. But here’s the thing—God does not make the serpents go away. Instead, God sends a marvelous and strange remedy. God tells Moses to make an image of the snake (the very thing of which the people are most afraid) and set it on a pole. And everyone who is bitten is to look at the snake and live.

The snake is worth pondering. From the very beginning of Creation this creature has been slithering around on its belly and (the Bible tells us) eating dust. What better character to rule over the people when they complain about the lack of a choice of food? When God gives the people a snake, it is a way of teaching them to look at their fears—and, consequently, to look at themselves. To come face to face with what frightens them the most. To look on it and live.

Which reminds me of wolves. When I was a little girl, I became fascinated with the story Little Red Riding Hood. I loved the story—but I read it so much (or, rather—had my parents read it to me) that I developed a fear of wolves. So much so that I found it difficult to go to sleep at night. And, so—every night, my father would pick me up and carry me to the window. There, the two of us would look out into the night and the forest and field behind our house searching for wolves. After a few minutes, my father would solemnly declare “Melanie, there are no wolves out there tonight.” And, after checking under my bed for any wolves who might be hiding in the house, I would go to sleep.

Here is what my father taught me. Wolves are real—not imaginary. And, should you come upon one unexpectedly in the woods, you probably should be afraid—that’s a reasonable thought. So, he never told me not to be afraid. We looked for the wolves, and not seeing them, I went to bed. I’ve since grown older and learned a bit more about wolves.

For example, wolves are important to the ecosystem. When wolves—which were slaughtered willy-nilly in ages past, were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, fascinating things happened. The elk and deer populations were rebalanced, allowing willow trees and aspen to return to the landscape. The end to overgrazing stabilized riverbanks and rivers recovered and flowed in new directions. Songbirds returned as did beavers, eagles, foxes and badgers. Think of it this way—in essence, neither wolves nor snakes are a problem—we are the problem when we try to manipulate, control and eliminate what God has put in place.

Which brings us back to snakes and the array of fears which threaten to consume our lives. We have a great many fears from which to choose to focus our attention. Some are legitimate, others are merely there as cover, to keep us from focusing on what it is that is really causing our pain. There are failing relationships, the safety of our families and communities, justice for the marginalized, political and social turmoil, the stock market and interest rates. And I haven’t even mentioned our health.

We are not so far from the ancient Israelites as we might imagine. We want the things that frighten us to be taken away. We pray to God to remove the pestilence—and still, like snakes and wolves, it remains.

And interestingly, mysteriously—and wondrously, God tells us to look at what it is that we are most afraid of, and live. That’s God’s promise. And, sure enough, “When anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”

Picture Jesus, lifted high upon the cross. In today’s Gospel lesson from John Jesus says: “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.”

Death is the problem—and the ultimate fear, for so many of us. As we look at Jesus upon the cross, we have to face—not only our death, but the deaths (both large and small) for which we are responsible each and every day.

Think of it this way. The solution of Christ’s death on the Cross may be one time, for all time, but its application is daily. When we look upon the cross, we are encouraged to refocus and consider—that we are looking at the very thing that put us in our agony in the first place. Here, in these beams of wood is the weight of human sin, the cruel and unjust application of power. And yet—the cross is not simply a sign of death, sorrow, sin and shame. It is a vision of glory, of victory, hope and promise. Looking upon the cross—we see death (this much is true); but we also see the hope and promise of God.

There is something both wondrous and healing about both the snake on a stick and Christ on a cross. In them God is present—making a way for us in the wilderness of sin and fear to bring us each, at last, into a land of promise, a place of peace and hope.

The truth is, wolves weren’t that frightening when I had my Father with me, holding me in his arms and looking into the darkness. He didn’t get rid of the wolves—but of the fear. God, I believe, is like that. God stands with us—looking into the darkness so that we are able to see something more in the things of which we are afraid—something which looks a lot like hope and life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.