Standing Between Life and Death

Numbers 21: 5-6

This past week I heard a minister recount the story of how she starts each day at the office. After hanging up her coat, she grabs a cup of coffee, logs in on her computer and immediately goes onto the Wall Street Journal website. There she clicks on the heading “Markets” to check on how Wall Street is doing. Throughout the day she continues to check on what is happening in the markets. Over the past few months, as the Dow has gone lower and lower she has become fixated on the numbers she finds on the “Markets” page. She admits this is not a good habit for anyone not in the money business, but it is a practice she has found hard to break.

Worry about the economy is written large on all our lives these days. Bad news has followed bad news leaving us feeling somewhat desperate and hopeless. People are losing their jobs, their homes, and their financial security for retirement. You can’t go anywhere without hearing people talking about it. People are suffering in ways that they can no longer hide. Depression, financial and emotional, is spreading out over the country.

Sometimes you just have to laugh at the breadth and depth of the fiasco. I suggested to my sister that if things really get bad we could move in together. She said she had always thought that buying a two flat together would be great fun. However, I told her that what I had in mind was moving into her second bedroom.

At other times anger can be overwhelming as we have seen in people’s response to the AIG bonuses revealed this week. Blame is also one of the weapons we use to fight back. If we could just find a consensus on who to blame we might feel a whole lot better. Joel Stein in an article in the Chicago Tribune this week said that he would, “leave the petty details of fixing this economic crisis to others. I shall focus on a far more important task:” he said, “assigning blame. Sure, bankers should suffer for their excessive risks. But it’s just not satisfying to blame the people who are getting stiffed on the loans they made. Which leaves the people who amassed more debt than they could handle. Which means, I blame you.” But why accept the blame when it is so much fun to blame somebody else. As one boy explained to his teacher: “It all started when he hit me back.”

Mumbling and grumbling, whining and crying, angry and frustrated, feeling hopeless and discouraged and blaming somebody or something is just the way we human beings often seem to deal with life when it disappoints us. When you work with a family that lives on a garbage dump in Nicaragua or in the midst of poverty in an isolated African village you find people filled with gratitude for the smallest little gifts of life. But when people who have lived with the expendable income and all that allows them to accumulate, lose the security of that life, we often lose, along with it, our footing and our grounding. We have forgotten, if we ever knew how to live any other way.

Mumbling and grumbling, whining and crying, angry and frustrated, feeling hopeless and discouraged and blaming God and Moses, the Israelites traveled through the desert at the end of their trek to the Promised Land. We are worried that this economic debacle will last for 2 or three years into the future. The Israelites, after nearly 40 years, had begun to fear they would never find a home, never find security, never stop living in tents, being always on the move, and existing on manna and water. On their detour around the land of Edom their impatience came to a head. In the past they had expressed their anger to Moses and blamed him for their unsettled lives. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they had complained to him over and over again. Egypt remained for the Israelites a byword for the life of relative comfort and security they sacrificed for freedom.

Now for the first time they also expressed their anger and impatience with God. Forty years had made their memories of their life as slaves in Egypt fade into the background. All they could think about was the lousy food and the scarcity of water since they left Egypt. It wasn’t enough that God had taken the Israelites out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea for them, drowned the pursuing Egyptians in the sea through which the Hebrews had just passed, sent a pillar of fire and a cloud to guide them through the desert, delivered the gift of quails for them to eat, gave them water from a rock and manna from heaven, had the earth swallow up the people of Korah and made Aaron’s staff bud leaves. Even with all those signs these stiff-necked and forgetful people, as the Bible calls them, still complained about how God wasn’t taking care of them. God had been providing the people with life even though they were in the desert, a place of death. But now they reject God’s grace, reject his life-giving bread, and again long to return to what had truly been an awful place of death: Egypt.

God finally had enough. No matter what he did for these people they complained and wanted more. Since the people seemed to be embracing death anyway, God obliges them and sends them the most feared agent of death: snakes; poisonous snakes to remind these people of the covenant God had made with them and of the proper attitude of gratitude. And there were snakes everywhere – snakes in the tents, snakes in the breadbaskets and the cooking pans, snakes in the bedrolls and snakes in the cribs. It didn’t take long for the Israelites to get the message. They quickly saw the connection between their actions and the consequences. They didn’t wonder why this was happening, they didn’t complain or whine or mumble or grumble. They were fearful for their lives. They were scared to death. The bite of the snake brought them back to their senses. It shocked them. Now instead of lamenting their hardships they bewail their sins and turn to Moses for help as they always did. “Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us,” they asked him. And as he always did, Moses prayed for the people. Then God answered his prayer, not in the way we would assume, by taking the serpents away, but with strange instructions. God ordered Moses to make a serpent and put it on top of his staff and said that when someone who had been bitten looked up at the snake on the pole they would live.

Wandering on the desert the Israelites were tired, discouraged and impatient literally “short of soul” in Hebrew. God had given them countless examples of his faithfulness in the midst of a bleak situation. But they somehow couldn’t grasp it. Now again they desperately seek God’s help as they stand between life and death. “Yet even in the wilderness God is responsive to the needs of his complaining people,” writes Terrance Freitheim. “[God] provides what the context could not. The protests are answered; the cries are heard, quite undeservedly. There is a gift of healing where the pain experienced is the sharpest. Deliverance comes, not in being removed from the wilderness, but in the very presence of the enemy. The movement from death to life occurs within the very experience of godforsakenness. The death-dealing forces of chaos are nailed to the pole.” “The bible says that those who believed Moses” writes Phyllis Tickle, “those who stopped looking down at the snakes and who stopped trying to pull them off of themselves and their children, but looked up instead at the bronze snake…those men and women did not die, but they were saved. This does not mean that they were not bitten, but simply that those who looked up and not down did not die of their wounds. Eighteen months later, it was these men and women who saw the Jordan part before them and who walked across its dry bed to claim the land of milk and honey promised them by God” to enter the promised land.

What a great story. It has all the ingredients you find in any story of classic literature: life and death, finding courage in the midst of tragedy, good versus evil, love conquering all. It carries within it the story a tension that every great story has…how will the characters respond to the choices they are given. The problem is presented, the resolution is revealed but will the hero or heroine rise to the occasion and overcome the problem or will they choose to be overcome by it.

This is a story we probably wouldn’t pay much attention to if we didn’t read in John that Jesus used the story as an example of God’s saving grace. Just as God provided the means of life to the Israelites, God has provided Jesus to show us the way to life – that new life comes through death. Jesus on the cross is the pivotal point in his story as the snakes are the pivotal point in this story of the Israelites in the dessert. These are wonderful powerful stories that “recognize that all of us are going to be bitten in this life,” continues Tittle. “Most of us learn that truth fairly quickly just from experience. But, according to the story, it is not the being bitten that we in this imperfect world can do anything about; it is only the how we respond to being bitten that we can control. When we look up, usually we are saved by that very act of faith. For it is when we look down and struggle with what is tormenting us that we most often empower it by the very attention we are going to give it.”

Of course it would have been much easier for God to have the snakes disappear just as he had had them appear. Why did the Israelites have to look at an image of the very thing that had threatened them in order to be healed? “The story tells us that God provides a way of life for the people of Israel that is totally dependent on faith.

In this past issue of the Christian Century, poet Christian Wiman writes that, “Faith is forged not by the mind alone but by the mind’s risky, messy encounter with the world at large. Faith is not something you have; it is something you do.

Today we are living in the midst of a great and overwhelming story. We have all been bitten by a snake of very large proportions and our faith in ourselves, our institutions and even our faith in God is being tested. Friends, neighbors and family members are losing their jobs and even their homes. Some of us here are or will be in that same boat. What are the chances that the bite of this crisis could catch our attention and turn us toward God and heal us of a lifestyle that looks to the material world for meaning and fulfillment? What will our personal response be as people of faith? And if faith isn’t something we just have but something we do, what might that look like?

This story of the Israelites wanderings and struggles gives us a good guide. Wandering in the desert God didn’t give them everything they wanted but provided all that they needed. It took a crisis in order to remember that it was God who gave their life meaning and security. In the midst of death they found new meaning for their lives. We Christians in the western world are more than somewhat addicted to the notion that imbues our whole society that security and happiness comes from what we have rather than from being grounded in a relationship with a God who loves us and sustains us through good times and bad. The gift of this time is that it challenges this notion for us and gives us the opportunity to change our focus, as it did for the Israelites – from dependence on Wall Street to dependence on God, from what we have to who God has made us, from what we can get, to what we can give, from the need to look like we have life all buttoned up to the willingness to be real and share our true selves with one another. The last few months have burst our bubble of a life that is predictable, organized and on a steady upward course. Our challenge as Christians is to let those bubbles release into the air hope not fear, love not anger, faith not doubt, peace and not anxiety.

May the Lord of peace himself give you peace constantly in every way. Amen.