The Long, Steady Journey

Numbers 21:4-9, 2 Kings 18:1-4 October 9, 2011
There is a vast and empty wilderness between slavery and the promised land.  There was no direct flight from one to the other at the time of Moses.  There were no bullet trains and no Hummers.
The only way to get from Slavery to Freedom at the time of Moses was to walk there, to make the long, steady journey through 40 years of wilderness.
We try to make it quicker.  In our fast paced, efficient world we know there’s got to be a shortcut or an ‘app’ to make it easier somehow.
But the truth is we still have to walk through the wilderness in a long, steady way to move from bondage into freedom.  Just like the Israelites in the story from Numbers that we heard this morning.  They were on a very long journey through a very hard place that was full of danger and hardship.
It was a no-man’s land; a place of uncertainty and fear…and they were there for a very long time.
The wilderness is a place I love to talk about, because it’s a place where I spend a lot of my time; at least mentally.
Physically I’ve arrived, just like almost everybody else here.
I’ve got the house, the two cars, the beautiful wife; I’ve got the big yard and the garden and the cat and dog to take care of…indeed, if Holmes County isn’t the physical Promised Land that flows with milk and honey, it’s pretty close.
But Mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually, I spend a lot of my time in this wilderness place between slavery and freedom.
Maybe you do, too.
We; all of us; are on this long, steady journey.
It’s a path that’s full of danger and full of grace.
It’s a place where our memories of the past compete with our hopes for the future.
Now, the Israelites had lost sight of God working in their midst, in that wilderness.
The story says they were impatient.
It also says they began to grumble.
Things haven’t changed all that much since then!
And so God sends these ‘fiery snakes’ to bite the people.
Some of them die.
And I think often that makes us avoid this story and what we can take from it, because we don’t like it.
We don’t like what it says about God, that he would send snakes to bite the people who were grumbling against Him.  I don’t know what to do with that.  I’m not going to try to explain God’s actions in this story, because I can’t!
But it helps when I remind myself that this story isn’t really about God sending snakes to bite the people.
It’s about the people; their attitudes towards life and the words they chose to utter.
The point of this story is that in some important ways, the words of God’s people have consequences!
Our words and our attitudes set our course.
Grumbling, complaining, and impatience; these are the things that produce something like snakebites and death in a community; any community.
The Israelites may have had every reason to complain.  They were completely justified to grumble.  Their journey was taking a long time.
Wilderness is a difficult place to be.
It’s hard to have patience when your memories of the past are fighting with your hopes for the future…and all around you are trackless wastes with stars to steer by.
So God’s people remembered Egypt.
Not the slavery; but the food, and the stability, and the routine of that country.
And I’ll ask you the question; where is your Egypt?  Who was your task-master before Jesus led you out?
Maybe you’re still in your Egypt, and it’s an easy question to answer.
Or maybe you’ve been in the desert for such a long time, walking towards your freedom, that it seems like you’ll never get there.
Either way, your in good company here, in this place.
Our Words are the engines and the steering wheels that drive our lives.
And this impatient grumbling in the wilderness was turning the people back to Egypt; back to the land of slavery.
Compared to that, the snakes almost seem gracious.
At least they woke the people up.
This story makes me think about how my parents used to say “I’ll give you something to complain about!”
So the snakes come and bite the people.
And God tells Moses to create this bronze snake and lift it up for a cure.  The people could look at this snake for their healing.
* There are times in the wilderness when God asks us to do something, and it’s good.
It brings healing.  It restores balance to the life of the community, and it serves us well for a time.
But as good and as necessary and as healing as those things might be, once we get to where God is leading us, they become irrelevant!
The Israelites eventually made it to the Promised land, in part because of this bronze snake that Moses built.
They settled down, they put down roots and they established a life in the land of plenty.  And that life included this bronze snake that was such a symbol of their healing and hope in the desert.
It would be like Grandma’s bible that she brought with her from the “Old Country”.  It was an artifact that pointed to God’s actions in history; his provision in that desert place.
But this short passage from 2 Kings tells us a kind of cryptic ending to the story that began in Numbers.
It says Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” (2 Kings 18:1-4)
So did God command Moses to build an idol?
I don’t think so.
I can imagine, entering the promised land after so much time in the wilderness, I can imagine that in the months and years to follow, that the people would tell a lot of stories.
They would remember how God split the red sea, and how He fed them every morning.
They would remember the quail, and the water from the rock and all the hardships and the times they wanted to go back to Egypt.
And then they would remember the snakes.
They would remember the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up.
They could even go look at it and touch it and remember how God brought them safely through all the dangers to bring them to the land of milk and honey.
That bronze serpent probably served a good purpose during those first settled years.
I can imagine children looking at the bronze snake, and remembering the story that Grandpa told about the time he was sick, and how he looked at the snake and was healed!
But time kept marching on, and all the people who walked through the wilderness eventually passed away.
Their children remembered the significance of this snake, and they remembered the story.
But before too long, the story started taking new twists and turns.
Soon, it wasn’t God who was doing the healing at all; it was the magical power of the serpent.
From there, it’s easy to understand why the people soon felt the need to offer this serpent sacrifices, to stay on its good side.
* In other words, nobody wakes up in the morning and decides to become idolatrous.
It’s not an overnight choice we make.
Rather, idolatry is something that you grow into, bit by bit.
It’s nothing but faithful obedience to God that brings this snake into existence, and it’s obedience to God that makes the people look to it for their healing.
But between the day that Moses holds it up and the day that King Hezekiah chops it into pieces, something had gone terribly wrong.
…The best, most godly actions in life, the things that are born of God’s spirit for a time, the things that are most clearly rooted in honest obedience to God and God alone; these are the things we have a tendency to lift up like snakes in the desert; sometimes to the point of idolatry.
Testimonies are a good example of this.
We lift up the past; a time when God really spoke to us, or a time when our lives were really changed; and we rightly remember that as a high point in our faithwalk.
We might remember a Sunday school teacher we had who was really important to us, or a speaker with a “really powerful” testimony; someone who was saved from a life of addiction and crime, who now travels the globe telling people about Jesus.
Whatever it is, we lift it up and for good reason.
But I’d like to just say this morning, that to emphasize the past; whether your own past or anyone else’s; to emphasize it to the point where you deny the fullness of God’s grace in the present moment; that’s idolatry!
To only speak of God’s actions in the past is to avoid the fullness of His future!
God gave each of us exactly what we needed in our wilderness; and He’s also given us exactly what we need for the present time!
I think that’s what Paul meant when he wrote to Timothy (?), saying God did not give us a spirit of fear or timidity; but a spirit of power, and love, and self-discipline.
Jesus gives us a spirit of courage to face the future, not a spirit of fear that is chained to the past.
The point of this story is that we need to identify our idols.
And then destroy them.
Hezekiah showed no mercy to this bronze snake.
It’s true that it served an important role in the life of God’s people at one time.
People probably were reminded of some really powerful things when they looked at this snake and remembered the story.   I’m sure they were connected to it in some deep ways; after all, they went so far as to name it!
Even so, Hezekiah chopped it to pieces.
God has given you what you need.  The past can be a powerful reminder of God’s action in our lives, but cling to it lightly; for we are not a people of the past or a people of the future.
We are a people of hope, called to such a time as this.
May God be our help and our guide.

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