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What Have We to Fear?

San Williams

March 18, 2012
Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-17

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I have a fear.  I’m afraid that in the congregation sits an un-churched, or at least long absent, person who woke up this morning and decided to give God and church another try.  But instead of hearing some pleasant, easily digested scripture, this seeker hears a totally weird passage about God sending poisonous serpents to bite the people. When the people repent, God tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole so that everyone who is bitten can look at the serpent and live. What is that about?  To make matters worse, in today’s Gospel reading, John has the audacity to remind us of this puzzling passage:  “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”  On their weekly lectionary podcast, a group of Lutheran seminary professors advised:  “Don’t preach about the serpents in the wilderness episode—it raises too many questions.”  But let’s dare to tread on dangerous ground.  After all, God’s grace and healing are often found where we wouldn’t expect them to be—even in the things we most fear, the very things we are reluctant to face.

Let’s start by naming some of our own fears.  What are we afraid of? In a recent Christian Century article, Katherine Willis Pershey writes about what she calls the terror of the dark unknown.  Pershey is a pastor and author, and she is a self-described highly anxious person.  She writes that she was an anxious child who became an anxious adult.  When she married, she became an anxious wife.  Then she had a child, and her anxiety went viral.  She confesses to leaving no potential tragedy unanticipated, no catastrophe unexplored.  When the baby slept, she feared he wouldn’t wake up.  When he ate, she was afraid he’d choke.  Every time she put him in the car, she worried that they’d crash.  On trips to the mall, she kept her eye out for possible kidnappers.

Thankfully, few of us live with such high anxiety, but we all live with a certain amount of fear. After all, as the famous hymn declares, our world is full of dangers, toils and snares. Articles abound on the subject of our most common fears:  flying, public speaking, heights, death, failure, rejection and so on.  Yet according to a recent Harris Poll on “What We Are Afraid Of,” the number one fear of those surveyed is ophiophobia—fear of snakes.  36% of all adults said that their number one fear was those slithering, sometimes poisonous creatures we call snakes.

Well, our widespread fear of snakes may be one reason this Old Testament episode about the poisonous serpents in the wilderness is so disturbing.  This incident is one of the so-called “murmuring stories.”  Recall how almost from the beginning of their liberation from slavery in Egypt, the people began to murmur and complain.  They griped because the water in the desert tasted bitter.  They complained about the lack of food. They fussed about being thirsty.  They whined because they didn’t have meat. But in today’s reading, they aren’t content with complaining about their condition—lack of water and food. Now they actually turn against God and his servant Moses.

In their defense, the people in the wilderness had plenty of reasons to be afraid, and to complain about their plight. After all, they had been in the wilderness for 40 years without making much progress toward the land that God had promised.  The exodus generation was dying out without having arrived in the new land. No wonder they were becoming impatient.  To put it bluntly:  they had lost their trust in God.

And that’s the point at which the snakes began to slither onto the scene.  When they bit people, those people died, which brought the living abruptly to their senses. They repent of their impatience, and pled with Moses to intercede on their behalf.

Now in what is admittedly a very odd episode, God’s response to their prayer is oddest of all.  God tells Moses to make a fiery serpent of bronze and set it on a pole.  Anyone who had been bitten by a serpent could look at the serpent on a pole and live. Immediately we scratch our heads in dismay.  This sounds a lot like magic, idolatry, or superstition—all the things God had commanded his people to avoid. Weird though it is, let’s push through our questions and ponder the peculiar and wondrous way God heals and saves. You see, God doesn’t exterminate the poisonous snakes. He doesn’t remove the danger, but God does offer life and healing in the presence of danger. When the people in the wilderness gazed upon an image of the very thing they feared—in this case, snakes—they found an offer of grace and healing, and they found the power to go on.  God took that which they most feared, raised it before them so that they could see it in the light of God’s grace.

Now, fast forward about 1200 years, to first-century Palestine.  What were first-century Jews most afraid of?  They were no longer facing snakes and the other deprivations found in the wilderness, but they were living under the heavy hand of oppression from Rome. Rome’s primary method of striking fear and terror in the hearts of Palestinian Jews was to place crosses along well-traveled roadways. These cruel instruments of death were a vivid reminder that anyone who dared defy the rule of Rome would meet the most painful death imaginable–death on a cross.

Yet once again God took that which was most feared and transformed it into a sign of God’s grace. That must be why John declared “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Through the image of Jesus being lifted up, John has in mind not only his being lifted up on the cross, but also his being lifted up to God in resurrection and ascension.  Thus everyone who looks at the cross with the eyes of faith can see through it to God’s gift of eternal life.

Friends, we all live with fears. But today’s passages encourage us to look at our fears through the eyes of faith. With that in mind, let’s go back to the fear I confessed at the beginning of my sermon.  If there is a visitor this morning who wonders how in the world God could be active in something as fearful as snakes in the wilderness or as terrifying as a Roman cross, you’re in good company.  Yet you’re visiting a congregation that is learning to expect to find God in the oddest places and mostly unlikely circumstances. And we’re learning to trust that, however strong our fears, God’s healing grace is stronger still.  After all, God is love, perfect love, and perfect love casts out fear.