‘Healing Snakes?!’

Rev. Jane Courtright

March 10, 2024

 

Last week, we heard the story of Moses

bringing the 10 Commandments down from Mount Sinai.

They were given by God to the people

to provide them with guidelines

in their relationship with God and each other.

 

Despite this gift, in today’s story,

‘They are on the road again,’

grumbling & inpatient – AS USUAL!

They are worn out, as IS their leader Moses.

Moses himself was probably wondering by now

why HE ever left the ‘flesh pots’ of Egypt

or the quiet, peaceful life of a shepherd

taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep!

 

Moses is learning that it’s a lot easier

to deal with wooly sheep than wooly people!

These people call him a bad leader

when they run out of water.

And Moses continued to get the brunt of their anger

when they began to run short of food.

 

 

Moses was truly caught between a ‘rock & a hard place!’

If Moses wasn’t spending his time convincing the people

that he WAS TOO called by God,

He was spending his energy arguing with Go

that his people were TOO worth calling!

 

Again, we (and Moses) hear the familiar whine:

“Why did you ever bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert,

where there’s no food or water?

We’re sick of this miserable food day after day?”

 

They were referring to the MANNA….

which had been so refreshing & wonderful & nutritious

when they were starving to death.

Seems to have lost its appeal after days & weeks & months

of eating nothing else!

 

Reminds me of my high school days,

when we’d complain endlessly about the boring food

that we were served in the cafeteria day after day!

No one took our complaints too seriously, however.

 

The Hebrew people weren’t so lucky.

God did hear them, took them seriously & took action.

THAT’S why we have this weird story of the snakes today!

 

“Then God sent poisonous snakes among the people

and many were bitten and died.”

This story is challenging to our modern, scientific ears.

I mean, yeah, these people were being obnoxious –

but poisonous snakes, seems rather …harsh…cruel!

 

Does God really turn poisonous snakes

loose around people?

And can someone really be healed by looking

at the image of a snake mounted on a pole?

SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF HOCUS POCUS!

 

Well…technically, even if you take this story literally,

it may have been God who sent the snakes,

but it was the people who stepped on them!

And it was God, & not the snake that caused healing.

 

Actually, snakes have an interesting,

if hazy religious history.

 

Remember, in one of the creation stories in Genesis,

the snake is cursed by God to sliiiiither in the dust forever..

because of the snake’s part in the Adam & Eve story!

 

In today’s story, a snake is raise up

on a pole for the purpose of healing.

As I told the children, that picture is still used as

a healing symbol for the medical profession.

 

And there are STILL snake cults

among some religious folk in Appalachia

who handle poisonous snakes

to show their strong faith in God!

 

Actually, there is evidence that there was

an active Hebrew snake cult.

Our Bible tells us about snake worship

in the temple during King Hezekiah’s time.

(You can read about this in 2 Kings: 18.)

It must have gotten out of hand, however,

because the king had the snake image destroyed.

 

Archeologists have also unearthed

bronze images of snakes in

an abandoned copper mine in the area.

Why they were there, however is speculation!

 

It’s a lot of tangled history

that will probably never be completely unraveled.

But there is some evidence that the appearance

of snakes in this wilderness

was something more that just coincidence.

 

OK…NOW, you’ve probably heard more

about snakes than you wanted to hear!

But down through history ‘til now,

snakes continue to be frightening to some,

and fascinating to others.

 

As you know, I happen to love snakes –

used to catch them when I was little!

Though my Mom nearly had a heart attack the time

I unknowingly trapped a water moccasin.

BUT IT DIDN’T BITE ME!

 

 

Moses also seemed to have a ‘thing’ with snakes!

He wasn’t afraid of them, either.

 

Right at the beginning of his calling, when Moses

asked the Pharoah to ‘let the Hebrew people go,’

the Pharoah’s first response was: “NO WAY!”

 

So what did Moses do to prove

that God’s power was with HIM?

He threw his staff, his cane, down on the ground

where it turned into a SNAKE!

The Pharoah wasn’t impressed.

 

Right away, HE sends for his magicians,

who do the same thing:

Throw their staffs on the ground,

where they changed into snakes!

BUT…Moses’ snake ate all the other snakes!

Then, Moses took his snake by the tail

and it turned back into a STAFF!

The Pharoah WAS impressed.

 

Anyhow….back to today’s story.

After enough people are bitten by the snakes & die,

the Hebrew people (once again)

beg Moses to ask God for mercy.

 

So, God forgives them & sets out to save them AGAIN.

God tells Moses to make a statue of a snake

and puts it on a staff to raise high.

From now on, anyone bitten by a snake

& looks at the statue, would be healed. WOULD LIVE.

 

It shouldn’t surprise us that those ancient people

believed that the healing power came from

the snake statue wrapped around Moses’ staff.

So, of course, over time, they start to worship it!

 

This was way more subtle

than worshipping foreign gods.

They really thought they were worshipping

God in this image.

Hence, as I mentioned earlier,

King Hezekiah has the image of the bronze serpent

which Moses had make-

SMASHED…to stop this idolatry.

 

Interesting, isn’t it, that of all the creatures of God

that could be lifted up… it would be a SNAKE!

A sign of healing & salvation?

Seems very strange…. more than unusual.

I mean to say, “LIFT HIGH THE SNAKE?”

It seems kind of crude, awful, maybe even GROSS

if you happen to be squeamish about snakes.

 

However, Lent IS a time when we ASK questions,

look more deeply into our faith

and face the fears

that lurk in the shadows of our consciousness.

 

Just as when Moses held up a staff

with a bronze snake on it

and those who were dying from snake bites

were healed with they looked at it with faith,

Jesus on a cross gives us such a healing faith.

YOU SEE?

 

By looking at & facing an image

of our greatest fear: DEATH,

God frees us from it by gifting US with new life!

For Christians, the death & new life of Jesus

confirms God’s promise in the Numbers passage!

 

Still, sometimes we question & STILL think

that our doubts & fears ARE the final word.

 

If we remember that the snake is a SYMBOL,

it can help us to confront the snakes

in our own lives –

snakes that take the shape of fear & anxieties.

 

By facing these fears and anxieties

and lifting them up to God,

we’ll be able to find our way through

the desolate & deserted place of our own lives..

TO A NEW PLACE.

 

By the grace of God, we can face all of our fear

with faith, with confidence..

because Jesus has gone before us

and BLAZED the way!

 

 

So, smack in the middle

of our wilderness wanderings,

our questions and our doubts….

We catch a glimpse of the HEALING & JOY

in store!

 

LET’S LIFT HIGH THE CROSS!

            THANK GOD!          AMEN?  AMEN.

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