Monday, March 16, 2015

A Serpent or An Angel

Numbers 21:4-9
March 15, 2015
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Chatfield UMC

Our text this morning leads us back out into the wilderness, where we started our Lenten journey. At the beginning of Lent we went with Jesus into the wilderness. Now we are with the nation of Israel wandering in the desert looking for the promised land.

Wilderness is a great metaphor for our life sometimes. Wilderness is that place where we are not sure exactly were we are or what we will be when we get to the end. It all seems like a wilderness, we say when we feel out of our comfort zone. Or I feel as if I am in the midst of the wilderness, when we can’t seem to touch base with who or what we are. or where we are going.

But at the same time, we will often say: I’d love to journey into the wilderness to find God. I’d just like to get away from it all into the wilderness where it is quiet and verdant and where everything is just simpler.

Wilderness can be a place of desolation and danger or a place of possibilities and growth.

It all depends on how we approach the journey.

When I was leading wilderness trips into the BWCA , I would make sure the people on my trip understood a few things. First, that I had the final say when a decision had to be made about direction, safety or plan. Not because I was the most expert but because one person had to be the final authority if things got rough. If food became an issue, if we got lost, or someone got hurt or if the weather became dangerous. Not that we wouldn’t discuss the matter and try to come up with the best solution together. But that finally in the end I was responsible for the decision and the others were responsible for following my lead.
Because the wilderness can be a dangerous place. And when it becomes dangerous somebody has to take the lead to get people out.

The other thing I would try to help people understand is that we weren’t going into the wilderness to conquer it. To overcome it. To prove to ourselves or others or the universe that we were somehow stronger, better more able than the wilderness.

There are two ways to travel through the wilderness, to fight your way through or to journey your way through. When you fight your way through the wilderness becomes your enemy. When you journey your way through the wilderness becomes your companion, even your teacher.
I always prefer to journey my way through.
Now that doesn’t mean that getting through is any easier. You still have the challenges that come with being in the wilderness. The 35 pound pack on your back. The 40 some pound canoe on your shoulders. The miles long portages and lakes that need to be crossed. The rocks on the trails, the mosquitos in your ears, the gnats in your nose, the wet socks on your feet…
But instead of feeling like all of this is against you, you approach it as if it is all part of the experience. Not always pleasant, but necessary.

Of course you could just stay home and not bother. But then, would you be liberated? Would you know how to journey the wilderness? Would you end up in the promised land?

God has promised the Israelites this land and they took God in faith that this was where they would be led. Until things got wilderness-y.

Until water became scarce, food became monotonous, they began to smell like the desert. The sand and the continuous heat, the sky, the night sky, the journey all became a burden rather than a liberation.

Here are the Israelites: saying why did you bring us into the wilderness Moses? God? Where there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food. Wait a second, which is it? No food or miserable food?
did you catch that? there is no food and we detest this miserable food.
So they weren’t starving to death. They just didn’t like the manna that God was providing. They were tired of it. It was no longer a gift. It was detestable.
So, you want to go back to Egypt…where it was what? warm and secure? The late Keith Green wrote a wonderfully sarcastic song: So you wanna go back to Egypt, where it's warm and secure.
Are you sorry you bought the one-way ticket when you thought you were sure?
You wanted to live in the Land of Promise, but now it's getting so hard.
Are you sorry you're out here in the desert, instead of your own backyard?
and in the morning it’s manna hotcakes. We snack on manna all day.
And we sure had a winner last night fore dinner, flaming manna soufflé.

Well, in the past when the Israelites complained, God gave them the water they needed, the food they desired, but this time God decided that they were going to get wilderness like they had never seen wilderness. They got poisonous snakes. The Hebrew word used here is seraph, like the angels, seraphim, fiery: fiery snakes.

Now some people would want to back away from the idea that God sent the fiery serpents. Because God doesn’t send bad things to us. or tempt us beyond what we are able to handle.
Which is true. But God also doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to us. When we make wrong choices or stupid choices. When we think our life is the worst life that ever there could be and we complain about it all the time. When our attitude pulls us down and all those around us feel as if they are wandering in the wilderness. We are going to experience the consequences of that kind of wilderness living and thinking. Poisonous, fiery snakes are going to start biting our ankles and killing us. It is how the wilderness works. In the wilderness snakes live in the dirt, leeches live in the waters, and mosquitos buzz in our ears. God doesn’t keep them at bay.

And the trick of living in the wilderness is learning to recognize the dangers, making decisions that keep us well away from them, accepting the consequences and even being prepared for the consequences of encountering them and seeking the healing that comes from God when bit by them.

You see this is where the attitude in which you approach the wilderness will mean something different. If you are into conquering life, needing to be the person on top of the mountain with your arms raised in triumph of you accomplishments, having a set back, getting bitten by snakes can mean that your whole life is a failure. Just one mistake, one bite can doom you to an attitude of failure.

But if your wilderness journey is more about embracing the journey for all it is, the beauty as well as the dangers and consequences and learning and growing from all of it, then you will find that even fiery serpants can be places of healing.

These serpents, the seraphim are angels, fiery angels that cleanse and heal. The ones who attend to the throne of God Remember in the book of Isaiah it was a seraph that was sent to place a burning coal on Isaiah’s lips to cleanse him and make him ready to do the hard work of prophecy. 

Moses sets a seraph, a fiery serpent on the stick and says look up, look your salvation is at hand. Look up; see the healing that God is providing for you in this wilderness. Look up. When you are bitten by the consequences of your actions, before they have a chance to destroy you, look up. Receive the healing of God’s cleansing power fiery though it may be.

Look up so that when you see the end of your journey in sight you will know that this is the journey God meant for you to take. This is the journey that meant the difference between life and death. This is the journey that provided you with adventure, love, joy, some sorrow, but in the end, all you needed for living in the grace and love and salvation of God’s presence every step of the way.

You may not go finish with your arms raised in triumph, but you will finish with your arms raised in praise.

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