Posted by: owizblog | March 15, 2015

Snakes on a Plain: Sermon, UCB, 15 March 2015

 [Reading: Numbers 21:4-9]

There’s a t-shirt you can buy, which has on it a statement of one of the most difficult things to take seriously about life in the real world. It says simply “Stuff Happens.”

And one of the most difficult things for faith, adult, mature faith, lived in the real world, is to believe that, and to understand at the same time how completely involved God is with our lives, and all that we experience. File that away.


One of our responsibilities as mature Christians is as simple, and as difficult, as this. We must read Scripture, and hear the stories of the Bible, as grownups.

And the starting-point for that is that we are utterly honest about what we are hearing, when we listen to the Bible being read. There’s a strangeness to the Bible – as Karl Barth said, the strangeness of a different world. We don’t do justice to that strangeness if we aren’t honest about it; if we just sit there and pretend that we didn’t hear the bits that cause us problems.

This morning’s Old Testament reading causes us problems. It certainly causes me problems!


The Israelites are in the wilderness. In the overarching story, they have come out of slavery in Egypt, and through the terrifying liberation at the Red Sea. It’s odd! They’ve come through the huge things, the big, terrifying events, where they must have felt utterly powerless, staring extinction in the face. And they understood, clearly, that it was God who brought them through.

But here they are in mundane; everyday life, what the French call the quotidien – the boring, the humdrum, the place where ordinary life is lived, and sometimes where it grinds you down. And now, they snap. And we miss the point if we think they are just grumbling, or fed up. It goes deeper than that.

They have had it!

Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’

And, as often happens in real, daily life, things get worse. And that’s what this morning’s story is about. This isn’t the enormous, earth-shaking scale of event, where everything hangs in the balance, where life or death is only part of it, where the alternatives are utter annihilation or the impossible hope of coming through. That’s what the Exodus is, that’s what the Parting of the Sea is, the way the Book of Exodus presents them.

This is just difficulty, become misery, now becoming even harder to bear. It’s bad enough.

Snakes. A plague of snakes.


Now, there’s no getting around the fact that this story is told as the tale of an angry God punishing his people with a plague of deadly snakes. And it isn’t a quarter of an hour since we were singing “God is love/His the care/ tending each, everwhere…” and saying that love bears with everything…

If, as people of faith, we insist on pressing the literal details of this story, we run straight into the difficulty that critics of faith will say, with every justification, “Well, that’s not very loving! Sending a slither of snakes (and yes, “slither” is the collective noun for snakes, unless they are rattlesnakes, in which case it’s a “rhumba”) to kill people for displeasing him!” And they are right. Press the details, and you are talking about a harsh, unloving God.

But again, the literal-mindedness of literal-minded religion and its literal-minded detractors misses the point. Several points, in fact.

Firstly, this story is very ancient, and like all ancient stories, it comes not from the mind of a single storyteller, but from the deep collective unconscious of a people. The power of ancient stories derives from these broad-spread roots, which go right down into the human experience of life and existence – and in the Scriptures, life and existence before God. It’s an interpretation of human existence, from inside lived human experience.

The second, related point is that this is a story about real life in the real world. It’s about a desert, and thirst, and life on the edge, and rotten food, and one darned thing after another, and misery – and then an epic slither of snakes.

Thirdly, it’s a story people told about God, to try to make sense of their experience of life. It’s an exploration of the idea of God from a particular perspective.

Forget about the snakes for a moment. It’s a story of a community whose faith and trust in God is severely tested, because life is hard, and they grumble, and it gets worse. And yes, they interpret that – and the story interprets that – as God’s anger with them: ‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.’


But there’s more to it than that. Their understanding is much more than that they’ve hacked God off with their grumbling. It’s that they have let something come between them and God. Life is bad, but it’s also become unbearable, and they are two different things.

They know what happened. “We sinned…” That’s the root of the problem. Something has gone wrong in their relationship with God. They are, suddenly, over against God.

And so they experience, and interpret, what happens to them –which is just what happens in this part of the desert: snakes appear – as God’s punishment.

Doesn’t that beg the question: could they have experienced the same thing in a different way? Could they have experienced this slithering plague as just what happens, sometimes, in some places, when you follow where God leads through difficult reality?

And that’s a good question, because something it’s easy to miss is that the snakes are still there, in the same numbers, at the end of the story. It isn’t reality that’s changed. It’s the relationship of the people with God that has changed. And God did it.

See, here’s an interesting thing. The people have a clear idea of what they want God to do, and what they want Moses to ask God. And it’s a very sensible idea; it’s just what you’d ask for in a situation like this: “Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”

But that’s not what God does, in the story. Instead of taking the snakes away, he provides a means for the people to live with them. On God’s command, “Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” Reality hasn’t changed. This bit of desert is still full of snakes. The difference now is that the people can live with that reality…


And that’s what the story is about.

What’s gone wrong with the relationship between the community of Israel and God is that they are fed up with the reality in which they are living. They gripe and grumble. They moan that they are worthy of much, much better. They insinuate that God promised them better: “[T]he people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses…”

But the world they have is the world they have. The reality they have is the reality they have. And it’s in this reality that they must meet God.

And that’s what they rebel against.

Faith, you see, doesn’t start with an imagined God, and try to make the world fit in with that God. Faith isn’t to do with the denial of the reality of the world, in the name of our entitlements and desserts. Because to demand an imaginary, perfect world, in which the events of real life don’t happen, and the hardships of real life are exempted us, is to demand a God other than the God who meets us here, and claims us. It’s idolatry.

And that’s what poisons our relationship with God. And that’s what God puts right.

Moses makes a bronze serpent, and displays it to the people. And it takes away the sting of the snakebite, the lethal effect. Look at it – look to it, to what God has provided – and you survive. You come through. Reality isn’t changed. This is still a snake-infested, miserable desert, but God brings you through it. Because God is there in it with you, there in reality however hard it gets. However hard life feels, God is there.


There’s nothing touchy-feely, lovey-dovey about this story. It’s a harsh tale, overlaid with ferocious, ancient ideas of divine disapproval and punishment, from harsh times, and filtered through subsequent harsh times. You can’t remove these elements from it.

But neither can you remove from it this powerful strand. You may be stuck with real life, life as it is, a daily reality that can sometimes be difficult to bear. And you may protest it, and ask why, and wrestle with its questions and find answers hard to come by. But God is in it with you.

And that’s exactly how this story is used when it’s taken up into John’s Gospel in the New Testament. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Everything else is shorn away. No mention of the grumbling, the near-rebellion, the punishment. Certainly, there’s the assumption that things have gone wrong between us and God. That we are subject to a reality that is crushing and killing us. But far beyond that is the assertion that God is with us in this reality, and God does what needs to be done to bring us through.

And that’s the point at which John’s Gospel takes off from the ancient story. As the bronze serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. And in the language of John’s Gospel, the Son of Man is the Word Made Flesh. And everybody who sees this and grasps what it means will understand what follows, but just in case, John’s Gospel fleshes it out:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Let’s hear the Gospel reading now.

[Reading: John 3:14-21]


To look to Moses’ bronze serpent is to be healed, to pull through; it isn’t to be exempted from the realities of life, but it’s to be brought through them, to be given the means of surviving the stings and bites of reality.

It’s to accept real life as it is, and to find God in it, and there to find hope, and to carry on with the journey, because this harsh reality isn’t journey’s end, just where we are now. It’s to go back to experiencing what happens in life as what happens, and to know that it isn’t God punishing or testing us. As the t-shirt says: “Stuff Happens.” To which faith says “And God’s still there…” And, says John’s Gospel, that’s what faith is like for us – for me. To look to Jesus Christ is to look to the light, to come into the light, to reject the darkness.

We tend, nowadays, to hear the word “judgment” and to think of judgmental Christians and their judgmental, condemning God, who is angry with everything, and approves of nothing. But “judgment” in John’s Gospel is very much more simple and less “judgmental” than that. Effectively, we judge ourselves: “[L]ight has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil…”

Faith is response to the light. And who are we to judge that? Who are we to judge who responds to the light? The important thing is that we are called to respond. I am. You are.

But what might that mean? What does responding to the light, responding to Christ, responding to the love of God in Jesus, mean in the harsh, inescapable reality of the world as it is? If we take our faith really seriously, if we truly seek to respond to God’s call to live as Jesus would have us, what would that look like? Well, part of it is expressed in our next hymn, which, unusually, we’ll sing seated, as a reflection at this point in the service. In a way, I’m letting you off the last couple of minutes of the sermon – because you are going to sing it!

[Hymn: CH4 537]

We do not hope to ease our mind

By simple answers, shifted blame

While Christ is hungry, homeless, poor,

And we are rich who bear his name.

As long as justice is a dream

And human dignity denied,

We stand with Christ; disturb us still

Till every need is satisfied.

We cannot ask to live at peace

In comfort and security

While Christ is tried in Pilate’s hall

And drags his cross to Calvary;

As long as hatred stifles truth

And freedom is betrayed by fear,

We stand with Christ; give us no peace

Till his peace reigns in triumph here.

We will not pray to be preserved

From any depths of agony

While Christ’s despairing cry rings out

God, why have you abandoned me?

As long as we have hope to share

Of life renewed beyond the pain,

We stand with Christ all through the night

Till Easter morning dawns again.

(Marnie Barrell)

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