Sermon March 10 – Snake on a Stick (Numbers 21:4-9)             Rev. Betsy Hogan

So what do you think -- is this spring?

Hard to feel really firm about that Nova Scotia… I did look back at last year and this was also the week last year when we began seeing the crocus shoots and the daffodil shoots coming up – and even blooming, close to foundations and in sheltered spots.

So it might be spring… but I suspect that none of us are really operating under any illusions about that. We were speaking this past week to the United Church facilitator we have coming from the Okanagan Valley out in BC to do our Downtown Churches event next weekend – and they asked us “So what kind of weather should I be packing for, to come out there?”

And all we could really fairly respond was “All of it! Pack every piece of clothing you own. Assume that anything is possible and will probably happen. Tank-tops at midday, parkas at night, rain gear, rubber boots, flipflops, warm gloves – just bring it all. The only thing we can promise if you ask us about the weather is that there will be weather.”

But the good news? At least it’s not snakes.   

It’s a very weird story, that passage from the book of Numbers that Anne read for us earlier. It’s weird, it seems to come out of nowhere, and it includes some really strange elements of magic and superstition that seem bizarre and out-of-place in the usually very down-to-earth – miraculous yes, but usually somehow reasonable – stories of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness.

Because yes, they’re still in the desert. In the wilderness. They’ve been there for ages. Doing the wandering. And it is not going well. 

Oh, they DID get up close to the Promised Land. But when they sent some spies over to do a little recon before making the big crossover, most of the spies reported back that the land was already inhabited. By really tall people. Who looked rather fierce. And so against all the advice of Moses, and against what they’d all agreed (and with God’s blessing) that the plan would be, they decided to hold off for a bit.

It seemed like a smart decision at the time, but all it did was cast them back into the desert and back into the wandering, and now with even more limited patience. The manna is getting on their nerves – the same food every single day – the thirst is getting on their nerves, the heat is getting on their nerves, EVERYTHING is getting on their nerves. 

In short, tempers are fraying. They’re not at their best. And as usual when they’re not at their best, they start wondering why they ever trusted Moses and God in the first place. Because it’s been nothing but trouble, it’s been nothing but misery – thanks for delivering us from slavery in Egypt, but for what. Manna every day for forty years? They’ve had enough. 

It’s not a new refrain from God’s people Israel. They’ve complained before. They’ve complained a LOT before! But THIS time, it appears, God’s ALSO had enough. And so in one of those moves that really makes we cringe if we prefer our Bible stories NOT to include God being petulant, God sends snakes. A whole lot of snakes. And not just ordinary snakes, but poisonous ones. And the people start getting bitten, and they start getting sick, and some of them even die.

It’s a terrible story. And unfortunately, not much redeemed by its denouement.

Because the people of Israel instantly recognize – perhaps they’re recalling the plagues that God unleashed on Egypt – they instantly recognize that the reason for the snakes is that they complained about God. So they go to Moses to plead with him, we’re sorry sorry sorry, that they’ll never do it again and please get God to call off the snakes.

And Moses does. Well, he sort of does. He does the best he can. Because at least the one good thing that we CAN extract out of this whole episode is that Moses really doesn’t seem to enjoy how things unfold either – it’s not like he’s sitting in his tent revelling in his vindication: “see what happens when you cross me…” 

So that at least is comforting. Moses is not terrible. Because he does pray most fervently, as the Israelites are getting bitten by the snakes that they ‘brought upon themselves’… and in the end he is conceded by God a way to end all of it.

But what an intriguing way to end all of it. Not at all what we might expect, and probably not what Moses expected either. None of the usual something miracle-y like a sudden rainfall that drives the snakes away, or a whirlwind into which all the snakes are whooshed up into the sky, or even just Moses lifting up that marvelous staff that parted the Red Sea and all the snakes retreat, leaving a nice clear path in their wake.

No indeed – this time God changes it up. God doesn’t get rid of the snakes at all.

Because the snakes, it appears, never go away. Instead, God just tells Moses to fashion a snake out of bronze and stick it high on a stick where everyone can see it. So that if they’re bitten, they just have to look at that bronze snake up on that stick, and they’ll live. 

No mention of a timeline, an ending point for this process.... Presumably it just becomes part of what they carry along as they continue. Just in case someone gets bit, a day or two days or two years later. So everyone can yell, “Look at the snake on the stick!” and all will be well. 

The snakes, it appears, never go away. That’s the really interesting bit of this story, in fact. As far as we know, the snakes stick around. Presumably ready to bite at any time. There’s a solution now – but it’s a solution for the bite. It’s not a solution for the poisonous snake problem. Because the snakes never go away. Nor can their besetting presence be forgotten, since now, everywhere the people go, that snake on a stick is held high up, visible from every direction, in their midst. 

Remember what happened when we spoke against God and Moses? Yep, the Israelites sure do. There it is, cast in bronze -- for their healing, yes, in case they get bit again -- but also for their constant "edification".

The snake on a stick as a talisman, yes, and an instrument of healing -- but also and always a hovering reminder of that moment when their worst impulses took over. When their tempers frayed and they’d had enough and they were relentlessly inescapably human. 

God’s people might perhaps have wished they could forget it had ever happened, but not so much. Look ye, my people, upon this snake on a stick, God says to the people, God says to us, and remember – you’re human.

You’re not always going to be at your best. Sometimes you’re going to be at your worst. And sure, God says to the people, God says to us, I’m always going to be in favour of your being at your best –

But look ye, my people, upon this snake on a stick, God says, and remember. Sometimes you’re going to be at your worst. It happens. And I get it.

It’s easy to imagine that the snake on a stick was supposed to be taken by the people as a now forever-present looming and hovering WARNING that complaining against God is not on – like, never forget that God can make snakes happen.

The thing is, though, snakes ALWAYS happened. There were poisonous snakes before this episode, there are still poisonous snakes after this episode. The only thing that actually changed here is that now God’s people are walking around with a great big symbolic reminder that ultimately they’re relentlessly inescapably human and not always at their best – and God gets that.

Look at the snake on a stick, and be healed, God says. I don’t expect you to be at your best all the time. 

But in return, you need to realize – snakes are going to happen. Weariness, enoughness, anger, grief, suffering, these are going to happen. They’re not punishment – they’re just life. What I liberated you from, says God, was slavery. Not the wayward complexity of creation and the effect of free will. 

Humanness means you’re not always at your best. And life means it’s not always great. 

So look at the snake on a stick, says God, because this is the covenant we’re in with each other. Humanness means you’re not always at your best… and snakes happen.

Both these things are as relentlessly inescapable as having all the weather happen in the course of one weekend, in Nova Scotia in March.

It’s no mistake that the weirdness of Moses and the snake on a stick turns up afresh in John’s gospel, in relation to what’s probably the most quoted verse in the Christian Bible. 

Because it really is just the same promise grounded in the very same covenant. Humanness means we’re not always at our best, but God gets that. And snakes happen, but that’s life inside the wayward complexity of creation and the effect of free will.

So no God sent not God’s son into the world to condemn the world. Because that’s not what God is like. Look at the snake on the stick and be healed – you don’t need to earn my love, God says. You’ve got it. Just don’t forget when snakes happen, when life happens, lean into it and let me hold you a while. Amen.