On venomous nostalgia.
A recording of this sermon can be found here beginning at 13:15.
Numbers 21:4-9: From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
Our story from Numbers today tells us that “the people” - a very broad, sweeping term - “spoke out against God and against Moses.” That “the people” were complaining about the food and the water and pining after Egypt. But, I got to wondering who these “people” were exactly because on the opposing page in my Bible is the subtitle “The Death of Aaron.”
Turns out we, in chapter 21, are nearing a turning point. In just five chapters, Moses and the Israelite nation will conduct the second census in their history. This will be the census of all the people who have no memory of Egypt, who have only known the wilderness and God’s attentiveness. This second census will be a counting of the Israelites who will live to see the promised land.
The story that we are digging into today sits during a time of generational turnover. The people who were slaves in Egypt, who saw God’s wonders, and walked across the Red Sea are dying. Of the three siblings that have provided leadership out of Egypt and into the wilderness, Miriam and Aaron are now dead; Moses is the only one left.
So when our story says that “the people” were complaining, was it really everyone? Given that part of their complaint was the question, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt in this wilderness?”, it seems more likely that the people who were complaining were this dwindling, elder generation, not everyone. At this late point in the narrative it’s only the elder generation that has any memory of Egypt and the other foods that they could be eating. The other places where it would be nicer to die.
I can’t help but imagine how sad and frustrated all the other Israelites must be feeling, listening to this complaining again. These younger generations, they were born and raised in the wilderness. They were nourished by the manna and the quail and the water that God had provided them. God had been an abiding presence their whole lives, as both fire and cloud. They had never known the lush waters of the Nile, only dust and the stark beauty of the wilderness. Their elders thought that the food, the land, and the God that had raised them up strong was miserable. How demeaning, to have to listen to how their life in the wilderness with God will always be lacking.
I can’t help but imagine how sad and frustrating it must be listening to this kind of complaining from one’s elders. It is the role of elder generations to pass on memories and wisdom and stories that will enliven the imagination and resilience of the generations that come after them. But here, the elders are failing. Instead of passing on the stories of how God heard their cries and clashed with Pharaoh until they had their freedom, they are passing on stories through their complaining about an Egypt that never existed for them, an Egypt that was bountiful and easy, and certainly didn’t now. Worse yet, passing on these stories about Egypt as some glorious place or time in their history, bequeathed to generations who would never live there an imagined point where they could situate tenuous grievances.
Interestingly, venomous complaints are followed up with venomous snakes.
Then, “the people” seem to remember all the times that God has taken care of them during their wilderness years because they ask Moses to pray to God to take the snakes away. So Moses does pray and the Lord does answer. God tells Moses to make a snake and set it up on a pole so that whenever someone is bitten, they may look upon the snake and live. So he did. He made a snake of bronze and set it up on a pole so that whenever someone was bitten by a snake, they could go look at it and live.
I’ve sat through a fair bit of complaining (done my fair share too), in interviews and brainstorming sessions and discernment sessions, about what the church is or isn’t nowadays, complaining about our church in the wilderness. Complaints about volunteers and confirmation and young people and worship attendance and sports leagues and covid and outreach and children’s ministry and on and on. I’ve sat and listened because the complaints are people grieving. Just as this elder generation of Israelites is grieving that they had to leave behind what they knew and they’ll never get to where they would like to be, that they have to die in some inbetween place. They saw Miriam and Aaron and so many others buried just along the way. They too will die along the way.
I can’t help but wonder what gifts we are missing out on by pining after something that may have never been, and most certainly is not now. How is God feeding us now? How is God abiding with us now? What stories might the church be missing from us because our mouths are filled with venom instead of water?
It is interesting that the healing that God provides for both the venomous complaining and the venomous serpents is one of reorientation. That the people must stop what they had been doing, change direction, and fix their eyes upon this snake upon a pole before they head back out to rejoin the community. The elders had to stop, change their direction, and fix their eyes back on God.
When I was a junior in college, I got to go on a study abroad trip to an ancient city called Pergamon in Turkey. Pergamon was a center of learning, medicine, and healing. Still among the ruins were carvings of snakes, a precursor to our modern symbol for medical doctors. Our tour guide explained that snakes were associated with healing and transformation for two main reasons: first, because they shed their skins, and second, because they could travel both over and underground, in the ancient mind from the world to the underworld and back.
God’s gifts often facilitate transformation, change, healing, and reorientation. May we be a people that embodies change, a people willing to travel wherever our roads may lead us. May we be a people willing to shed our skins from time to time with our eyes steady on God’s faithfulness.