What a strange story we read from Numbers 21 today.
First of all, the people have been delivered from slavery, but they’re really unhappy. Repeatedly they ask to be returned to slavery, though they stop short of that here in this particular story. But still they complain that God and Moses have led them out to the wilderness to die, even though God is feeding them miraculously every day with manna in the morning and flocks of quail every evening. And when they were thirsty, God gave them water gushing out of a rock. They’ve seen their enemies vanquished. They’ve experienced miracle after miracle, and yet they complain and Moses and God.
I’m sorry, but that’s just strange…
So, the people are complaining, and, apparently, God’s heard enough of it, and like a parent who gets fed up God acts out. Now, remember, this is the God who has saved them, repeatedly – from their enemies, from hunger, from thirst, and has established them as a people, and promised to give them a land of their own where they can settle – only, now, as the story goes, God strikes out at them. Verse 6 clearly says: God sent poisonous serpents and many died!
Now, I don’t really know what to do with that – with a God who saves, and delivers, and makes promises, and then turns around in anger and kills the very ones God has saved, and delivered, and made promises to when God doesn’t like their behavior.
To me, that’s just strange…
The first commandment is “You shall have no other Gods” and as part of that commandment we have the commandment to not make any idols or graven images of anything for the purpose of worshipping that thing as if the thing were God. And so, now that God has flipped out, and sent the snakes, and the people cry out for help, what does God tell Moses to do?
Oh, right, make a graven image! And lift it up on a pole! And anyone who has been bitten, who then looks at it, will live.
Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just strange! How can the God who gave the commandment against making graven images use the making of a graven image as a means of saving help, deliverance and healing?
It’s just strange…
And a quick sideline – not surprisingly, I guess, several hundred years later, in the time of the Kings, when the people have turned away from God and are worshipping the foreign gods of the Canaanites, guess what reappears?
That’s right. The bronze serpent that Moses had made.
And guess what the people are doing with it?
They’re making offerings to it, and burning incense in front of it as if it’s a god!
How could God not have seen that one coming?…
And, of course, as we just read, this serpent shows up one more time – not physically, because Hezekiah grinds the thing to powder in the story from Kings I just mentioned – but in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in our Gospel reading from John 3, when Jesus tells the confused old priest that 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. And Nicodemus must have been standing there thinking: I’m sorry, Jesus, but that’s just strange!
How could the Son of Man, the One we’ve been waiting for to be our deliverer, the One who is God’s Messiah – God’s chosen One – how could he be lifted up on a pole in the first place? And if that were to happen, how is that a form of deliverance? What kind of deliverer comes to die?
That’s just strange!…
And there it is.
The ultimate strangeness that’s at the heart of the theology of the cross, and at the heart of this Feast of the Holy Cross, or Holy Cross Day. God does not come as we expected! Not then and not now! God comes in unexpected ways, and does unexpected things. And if this feast day – this Holy Cross Day – is of any value at all, it has to be about that!…
Paul nails it in 1 Corinthians.
People have all sorts of expectations for how God is going to act based on who they believe God to be. Someone who holds a vision of God as a righteous judge who, by force if necessary, will conquer the world and damn to hell for all eternity any and all who stand in the way, will probably have no problem whatsoever with a story about God sending snakes to punish the people for their griping and complaining. But I’ve gotta be honest with you. I don’t like this story even a little bit. And I’m hard pressed to think of anything further away from my image of God – Who I think God is, and how I expect God to act.
And, of course, I’m not alone in this struggle – in having to deal with the fact that God doesn’t act the way I expect because, well, God’s God and I’m not! And sometimes I really have to struggle to reconcile my expectations and theology with what God chooses to do.
Paul uses two main categories in 1 Corinthians – Jews, who demand signs, and Greeks, or Gentiles, in other words, non-Jews, who desire wisdom. And I think those categories generally hold up still today, not necessarily based on whether or not one is Jewish, culturally or religiously, but just in general for people of any stripe. Some of us are more experiential, while others are more intellectual. Some of us want to see God doing things – show me signs, do something miraculous, God, and I’ll know that you’re still here. While others get stuck in theological boxes and find themselves unable, and often unwilling, to entertain possibilities that lie outside of their particular box or construct. And when they come to a day like today, and to thinking about the cross, and readings from Scripture like those we have before us today, they find the strangeness of it all to be either a stumbling block, or simple foolishness.
Looking at a bronze image of a poisonous snake can’t possibly be an antidote to a venomous snake bite.
Belief in this God who gives his only Son to die can’t possibly be the way to eternal life for those who believe, let alone for the whole world which is what John 3:16 and 17 says.
It’s all so strange – foolishness, as Paul says. But to those who are called to faith by this God it’s not foolishness at all, but the very power and wisdom of God!
You see, God does display wisdom, only, not the wisdom of this world where might makes right, and the powerful decide what counts as truth.
And God does give signs, only, not the kinds of signs we humans dream up – violence, and shock and awe, and victors bringing back the spoils of victory.
No, the power of God is hidden in the form of a human corpse hanging on a cross. And the wisdom of God is hidden in the unexpected form of an empty tomb – signs of defeat and death, changed to be the ultimate signs of God’s power to save and give life as God in Christ, by his death, conquers death once and for all, and by his rising, opens the way to eternal life for all to whom God gives the gift of the power to believe.
Look to this sign, and trust in this power, people of God, and live!