How Do We Go On?

Numbers 21:4–9, I John 3:14–21, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on March 10, 2024

The tension and drama in today’s passage from Numbers doesn’t just come out of the blue. After leaving slavery in Egypt, the people have been wandering in the desert for more than forty years. Imagine, forty years of hunger and thirst, heat and cold, diseases and exhaustion. Forty years of eating flaky white stuff. Poisonous snakes were just one more deadly threat. Many, many people had died along the way. The first generation that left Egypt was almost gone. Along the way, babies had been born and children had grown up.            

I feel kinship with the Israelites in the desert. Not their literal situation, but the way I imagine this time felt in their bodies and spirits. The frustration and helplessness of not having a timeline for resolution, not knowing when, or if, a better day would ever come. The exhaustion of living in crisis mode, coping with endless cycles of hope and despair. The feeling of being stuck and powerless. How do we go on through our desert seasons?

Desert times naturally bring up trust issues. The Israelites’ impatience and rebellion expressed a breakdown of relationship. The people had lost faith in Moses’ ability to lead them and God’s capacity to care for them. The storyteller believed that God sent the snakes. I think the snakes were just there, one of many dangers in the wilderness. The snakes triggered deep, difficult questions about God. If God is not rescuing us from this evil situation, who is God? What good is a God who doesn’t save us from danger and death?  

The word translated “poisonous serpents” also appears in the book of Isaiah, and refers to seraphs: burning, supernatural snake-like creatures that guard God’s throne.[1] In chapter 6, Isaiah describes the vision that called him to become a prophet: Seraphs were in attendance above God; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’” (Isaiah 6:1–3) In the presence of God’s holiness, Isaiah felt lost, unworthy and guilty. One of the seraphs flew to the prophet and touched his mouth with a burning coal—not to harm or punish him, but to purify his lips, and to put into his mouth the divine message.

I wonder if the ritual of raising the serpent (or seraph) on the pole fulfilled a similar function. The people looked directly at what was harming them. They gazed squarely at the threat of death. They confronted their hard questions about whether or not they could trust God and Moses and their future as a people. And they acknowledged their fear, despair, and exhaustion. In this process of this truth-telling, they experienced God’s healing. They discovered a God who loved them not by rescuing them from present and future danger, or by giving them timelines or guarantees, but by accompanying them faithfully through it all. They were touched by the seraph’s burning coal that energized and activated them, that empowered them to go on through adversity.

The Gospel writer, John, compares Jesus on the cross to the serpent lifted up in the wilderness. We Protestants tend to gravitate toward empty crosses, as opposed to the Catholic reverence of the cross with the body of Jesus on it. Perhaps that is unfortunate. What I hear the Gospel writer saying is that we must look at the pain in this world, summed up by the image of Jesus on the cross. We must tell the truth about empire’s ways of silencing, exploiting, and torturing the vulnerable—and our complicity in this abuse. Looking at this difficult reality we will also see in the open arms of Jesus, the unequivocal expression of God’s love for the whole world. This divine compassion will heal us, calling forth our voices and empowering us to resist and persist.

In a few minutes, Tim Danz will offer a reflection about our reparations work as a congregation. And after worship today, we’ll have a chance to hear more about the Indian Recovery Act. Even now some folks refuse to use the word “genocide” to describe what white ancestors did to native peoples in this country. Or to acknowledge that white people and institutions amassed wealth through the theft of enslaved Africans’ labor and lives. The consequence of our collective inability to name what is true keeps our wounds from healing. We can’t mend what we won’t look at. And so the suffering goes on. We continue to bear the deep, festering spiritual injury which is made manifest in our lack of trust in God, in each other, in our leaders, and in our future as a people. The question before us is, what sort of ancestors do we want to be?

The same dynamic is at work in events unfolding in Gaza. It is time to clearly name what the Netanyahu government is doing as genocide. And to recognize that our tax dollars are funding this genocide. This genocide is harming everyone, including the Israeli people. As long as this horror continues, hostages yet to be returned, Hamas will not be defeated, disarmed, or discredited. And peace and safety will be impossible for both sides.

Friends, Lent is a time to engage in spiritual practice that creates space within ourselves to look at hard truths rather than avoiding them. What are the snakes threatening you, eroding your trust in God and community?It’s inspiring and moving to me to get a glimpse, through the Lenten covenants and our small group gatherings and everyday conversations, of all the ways we as a congregation are confronting our wounds, seeking healing, finding our voices, and taking action to become the sort of ancestors this world needs. Together, trusting in our God of compassion and liberation, let us go on. Amen.