“Healed Hearts”

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-17

How many of you just love snakes?  How many of you are scared to death of them?  Science tells us that about five percent of all people have what “National Geographic” calls “a strong, inhibiting fear of snakes” (and they throw spiders in there, too).  Among Americans, ophidiophobia is even more common—from 25 to more than 50% suffer from a fear of snakes, depending on what study you read.

This fear may be innate, or nearly so—the product of a long history of interaction between snakes and humans.  When six-month-old babies are shown pictures of snakes, even they react, if not with fear, then with heightened attention.  A study last year reported that the pupils of babies who are shown pictures of snakes get bigger than they do when they are shown pictures of flowers or fish. Dilated pupils are associated with stress.  So, we may be born with a wariness of snakes, even if we’re not terrified of them.

So, you have to think that God could not have picked anything more horrible than an onslaught of poisonous snakes as a response to the impatient Israelites’ carping. And, God could not have chosen a stranger agent for their healing. And yet, that is exactly what God did.

The Israelites had been wandering around for a while, and they had reached the border of the land of Edom.  Moses asked the Edomite king if the Israelites could cut through his land, but the king had turned down all of Moses’ pleas.  Moses had reminded the king that their people were related, since the Israelites traced their beginnings back to Jacob and the Edomites back to Jacob’s brother Esau.  Moses appealed to the king’s sympathy, recalling the slavery and oppression the Hebrew people had suffered. Moses even promised that his people would travel strictly on the road, that they would stay out of the Edomites’ vineyards and fields, and that they wouldn’t even drink any water from the Edomites’ wells. Even so, the king of Edom refused them.  They would have to go back the way they had come through Sinai, around rather than through Edom.

This did not make the travelers happy, and if you recall, they had not been happy campers most of the trip.  They began to complain.  Again.  Stories of their belly-aching begin back in the book of Exodus. They were afraid of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and of the people in the promised land.  They demanded drinkable water. They needed food. They wanted more variety in their food. They complained, they demanded, and they planned mutiny.

Now they are complaining again. But they have taken these most recent complaints to a whole new level.  They have disintegrated into purely unreasonable ranting, speaking against not just Moses, but against God as well. They complained that there was no food or water, and then turned around and declared that they detested the miserable food. They abhorred their food. They loathed it. And when they say the food is miserable, they are criticizing it in the most dismissive way.  They are saying it is worthless, contemptible.

But that food they detest so much?  That food they think is of no value to them?  It’s the manna.  It’s the divine food that was God’s gift to them. Complaining was one thing, but this is an outright rejection of God’s gracious care for them.  And, our passage tells us, the complaining comes about because they had become impatient.  Is it any wonder that God had had enough and sent the snakes whose bites delivered a venom that coursed through them like fire?

When I was planning this “Lent from the Heart” sermon series, it was the Israelites’ impatience that first grabbed my attention.  I thought of how we might become impatient when things don’t go our way or don’t happen fast enough to suit us. But, I couldn’t quite see how impatience could get us to the point of dismissing God’s care for us—of questioning God’s goodness.  I confess I felt pretty impatient myself toward the Israelites, who seem like a bunch of whiny babies who not only routinely forgot what God had done for them but had the nerve to complain about it.

But, as I dug deeper into the passage, I learned something that brought the Israelites’ situation much closer to home.  The Hebrew word that many Bible versions, including ours, translate as “impatient” has another meaning.  It can also mean “utterly discouraged.”  And I can imagine the Israelites feeling that way.  They had been travelling for a long time. The people who had started the journey were dying off—Moses’ brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, along with countless others, had been buried along the way.  Now they were so close, but thanks to the King of Edom, they were going to have to take a detour, which would not only take longer but take them back over the route they had already travelled.  It is easy to imagine that they had become utterly discouraged.

That makes their reaction more understandable to me.  Impatience has a tinge of selfishness to it:  I want what I want and I want it now.  But discouragement is deeper than that.  Impatience we should be able to keep in check, at least when it comes to our relationship with God.  But discouragement?  That’s harder.  It comes when difficult times in our lives just keep wearing on our spirits.

I’ve had those moments. Mine came when several unsuccessful pregnancies left us wondering if we would ever have children of our own.  When drinking took hold of some beloved family members. When my Mom’s Alzheimer’s Disease was at its most challenging with no end in sight.  I’ll bet you’ve had your moments, too.  Maybe they were like mine, or maybe you lost your job, and you pounded the pavement day after day with no luck.  Past trouble with the law dogs your efforts at a fresh start.  Addiction—your own or that of a loved one—keeps rearing its ugly head, in spite of repeated attempts at rehab.  You invest time and effort and maybe money in a project that doesn’t seem to bear fruit. Illness keeps you on a constant treadmill of tests and treatments and doctors’ appointments and worrying about what will come next. Constant caregiving takes its toll on your body and spirit. Whatever journey you’re on, when it’s long and difficult and the end is hard to see, it’s easy to become discouraged.

It’s then that we may lash out at God, questioning where God is in the midst of our trouble.  Like the Israelites, we may have trouble remembering God’s blessings in the past, and we may doubt God’s promises for the future.  We wouldn’t be alone in that.  The psalms are full of anguished, discouraged cries to God.  Even Jesus spoke the words of Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalmist continues, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.  I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”  Look up verses that have the word “tears” in them, and you’ll find numerous passages with the same sense of discouragement and despair. We are not alone when we feel that way, and we are not alone when we rail against God from the depths of our discouragement.

Looking at the Israelites’ situation from that perspective makes God’s response seem a little over the top.  But whether it was selfish impatience or a more heartfelt discouragement, the nature of their complaints revealed the same thing: a failure of their trust in and reverence for God.  They needed to be reminded of who they were and who God is.  They needed a reminder that God is both holy—a being quite apart from ourselves—and bound in covenant with us.

When they recognized their sin, the people asked Moses to ask God to remove the serpents. And God did provide them with a means of healing, although not the one they asked for.  God did not take away the snakes.  Instead, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent to be set high on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten could look at it and live.

God could have cleared the Israelite camp of snakes, and God could have healed everyone in one fell swoop.  But God knew that the people needed more than that.  Maybe they needed the serpents as a reminder of the sin in the Garden of Eden. Maybe the fiery venom was also a purifying fire, burning away their pretensions. Certainly, they needed to recognize that the danger of falling away from God was always present. And they needed to remember that their covenant with God was a two-way street; it required their participation as well.

And so, God provided a means of healing that required action by the people.  When they felt the sting of the bites, they needed to choose to act—to look at the symbol which God had instructed Moses to make.  They had to have and demonstrate their faith—not in the bronze serpent itself but in their God, who freed them, journeyed with them, nourished them, strengthened them, and now healed them.  They had only to look to the sign of God’s healing power—the sign that God’s love for them knew no boundaries, even in the midst of their most petulant complaining, or in their deepest moments of discouragement.

This is the kind of love God showed for us in Jesus.  So, it’s not too surprising that Jesus would speak of the bronze serpent when he spoke with Nicodemus.  The life God offered through the serpent lifted on a pole was a foretaste of the healing God would offer through Jesus, lifted on the cross.  Just as the Israelites were healed as they gazed upon the statue above them, so are we healed as we gaze upon Jesus the crucified.  When we feel the sting of our own sin, we look to him for forgiveness.  When we feel the pain of discouragement, we look to him for strength.  Whatever is burning in our hearts, our healing comes from turning our eyes upon Jesus.

Gazing in faith upon the healing power of God is what enabled the psalmists to conclude their laments with praise and thanksgiving.  The psalms of poured-out misery and longing all end with confidence in God’s power and justice, compassion and love. “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! …For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me but heard when I cried to him.” Gazing at Jesus is what enables us to respond in the same way—with confidence that through our faith in Christ, God hears our prayers and offers us forgiveness and healing.

During Lent, we examine our hearts to see where we need that healing, and God has given us the means to receive it. When we look at Jesus, we find forgiveness where there is repentance.  We find endurance where there was impatience, hope where there was discouragement, and life where there were pain and death.  When we turn our eyes to him, in an intentional act of faith in the healing he brings, we find what he told us we would find—God’s love for us, a love so great that “God gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  The words of our hymn reflect our faith that our hearts can be healed when we lift our eyes to Jesus: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young