Serpent of Bronze | 4th in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9

4 They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” 6 So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died. 7 The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.”

9 Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live. (CEB)

Serpent of Bronze

Our text today deals with one of several “murmuring stories” in the book of Numbers. The story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness is full of instances where the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against God, and after each instance of murmuring it is Moses who successfully intercedes on behalf of the people.

The reason this murmuring story is so interesting is because it’s different from most of the other examples of Israel’s murmuring. In most instances, Israel’s murmuring gets results from God. The people complain about their situation—they’re hungry or thirsty—and God provides for their needs by giving them food or water. God can be influenced by their complaints, and God responds by giving good gifts. This kind of thing may work a few times but, like any parent, God eventually grows weary of the complaining.

It’s something any parent can readily understand. When our older two children were little, I would take my day off on Thursdays and stay home with the kids so Joy could go to work. Any day a parent spends at home with their children will inevitably be a day filled with complaining.

Daddy, I’m hungry.

Ok, let me get you something to eat.

Daddy, I want a drink.

Ok, let me get you a cup of water.

No, I want juice.

How about water instead?

No, I want juice.

Ok, here’s your juice.

Daddy, I want to watch Berenstein Bears.

Ok, I’ll let you watch one episode.

Daddy, can I watch two?

No. You can watch one.

But mommy lets me watch two.

Well, I’m not mommy; you can watch one.

Daddy, I’m hungry.

But I just gave you a snack.

But can I have another snack?

And it would go on and on and on. Nevertheless, when the children complained they usually get what they wanted. That is, until my patience ran out. Eventually the dialogue of complaints broke down into one little girl or little boy getting very upset because something didn’t quite go their way. Various kinds of punishment soon followed: from spending a few minutes in the Naughty Chair to being sent to a bedroom to having a certain toy taken away – or any combination of the above.

There are a couple of places where God loses patience with his beloved children, the people of Israel, and punishes them. This is one of those instances. The complaint of the people is rather incoherent ranting. They complained that they had no food and no water, yet they also said, “…and we detest this miserable food,” meaning that they did actually have food in their possession.

Maybe they had soda crackers, but they wanted something fancier like Sociables or Tomato & Basil flavored Wheat Thins, and maybe a nice fancy cheese ball to boot. The food God had given them wasn’t good enough for them. So they hearkened back to the good ol’ days when they were slaves in Egypt. At least there they had better fare for their table. Their complaint accused the Lord of infidelity toward Israel by not taking care of them. And it accused Moses of poor, failed leadership. That’s what people do when the economy tanks. In Israel’s situation in the wilderness, there was barely any economy of which to speak.

This is the point where God has had enough. God sends הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים  (ha-netashim ha-seraphim) among the people to bite them, and many Israelites died. One question about verse 6 is how to translate these Hebrew words. Some possible translations include “venomous snakes,” “poisonous serpents,” or “fiery serpents.”

The Hebrew word seraphim could be taken as an adjective or a substantive. If it is to be taken as an adjective, then it describes the serpents as being venomous, or poisonous, or fiery.

If it is to be taken as a substantive, then it tells us what type of serpents they were: Seraph Serpents.

However you take it, another question remains. What were they? Again, the word used is seraphim. The seraphim are the angelic beings surrounding God’s throne. So, were these things that were biting the people actual snakes like the kind that slither through your yard? Or were they angelic beings coming down among the people in the form of serpents to punish the people? Either way, it sounds like something straight out of a Stephen King novel!

It’s this event of divine punishment that makes the people of Israel realize that they’ve gone too far with their complaining. This time, they’ve sinned against the Lord by spurning the gift of food already given, and by spurning the gift of freedom from slavery, which the Lord enabled. They came to Moses and confessed to him that they have sinned by complaining against the Lord and against Moses. They became submissive and repentant because of what had come upon them. They asked Moses to intercede for them: to pray that the Lord would take the serpents away from them. Those who were so impatient a short while ago had suddenly recognized that they needed to come to terms with God’s sovereign rule. They also realized that protest against God’s rule is not only futile, but self-destructive.

Recognizing and responding to the change that had come over the people, the God who had allowed death to come among the people now provided a way of life. God told Moses to make a Seraph Serpent—or fiery or poisonous serpent—and set it upon a pole, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

On a side note, you’ve all seen copies of this bronze serpent on a pole. Nearly every physician’s office in the world has one posted somewhere. This is where physicians got their symbol of a snake wrapped around a pole. When you need healing, you go see your doctor.

Notice that God did not take the serpents away as the people hoped. The serpents were still among the people, and people still got bitten by them. The people still had to live with the consequences of their sin, and those consequences could very well have meant death! But God provided a way of salvation, a way of life. The very thing that brought death to so many people, the serpent, now brought life to those who looked toward it. God took a symbol of pain, suffering, and death, and transformed it into a symbol of life.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fell from original righteousness into original sin, they had to live with the consequences of their sin. From the moment they were cast forth from Eden, they were subject to suffering, pain, and death. They, and all their children after them, have lived with these consequences. I’m sure that they repented and they begged God to change God’s mind and let them back into the Garden where every need they had was perfectly met. But what’s done is done, and there are consequences for sin.

We may think this is awfully callous on God’s part, even hardhearted. But how often do we read in Scripture that God punishes those whom God loves? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that consequences are, in the long run, in our own best interest, and are a shining example of God’s ever-present love for us. After all, without consequences we would never learn. Parents know that consequences are what help children learn to avoid bad behavior and do the right thing. If I want my kids to pick up their room, then I can tell them that they can’t have electronics until everything is picked up and put away properly. Believe me, they might complain, but when I start collecting their Kindles, things start getting picked up.

In the Gospel of John there’s a very short reference to this narrative in the book of Numbers. In John 3:14, Jesus says, “And 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.” The consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was to suffer death. And Paul says that death is the result of our own sin as well. He wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God took the cross—a symbol of grotesque suffering, torture, pain, and death—and by the lifting up of God’s only Son on that cross, transformed a symbol of death into the means of life. The consequences of sin remain with us, and we must live with those consequences. But whenever we’re bitten by the consequences of our sin, we know that we can look toward the cross of Jesus Christ and live.

God has provided a way for us to live, not only in the here and now, but in the hereafter. The promise of God to humanity is that those who believe in Jesus Christ may have eternal life. God transforms everything God touches. It’s not just that the serpents of death were transformed into something that saves. And it’s not just that the cross was transformed by Christ into something that saves. It’s also that when we believe, God transforms our lives so that we become ambassadors of salvation to the world. We become God’s own people, God’s own children. And through our proclamation of the Good News we become bringers of salvation to the world.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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Foolishness | 3rd in Lent

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called– both Jews and Greeks– Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (CEB)

Foolishness

This text about the foolishness of the cross follows Paul’s appeal for unity in the church. It begins an extended meditation on the meaning of the cross, and tries to show that prideful confidence in human wisdom is antithetical to the deepest logic of the gospel. The fundamental theme in this part of First Corinthians is the opposition between human wisdom and the lo,goj, which is the Word of the cross.

Paul diagnoses the root causes of the conflicts and rivalries within the Corinthian church by showing that they glory in superficial human wisdom. People are boasting about their own possession of wisdom and rhetorical eloquence—or at least they’re infatuated with leaders who possess these qualities. In a cosmopolitan city like Corinth, strong rhetoricians were the pop-stars of the day. It hardly mattered what was said, so long as it the speaker had a convincing argument or strong emotional appeal.

Paul wasn’t necessarily an excellent speaker. He was laughed at in Athens after attempting a speech there. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 10:10, he writes that he knows what others are saying about him: “I know what some people are saying: ‘His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.’” (CEB). Paul wasn’t a gifted orator. So, he used this fact about himself as an example of the very point he was making. God’s message to human beings doesn’t necessarily come wrapped in pretty packages. God’s true nature is revealed in weakness, not in the powerful and mighty and strong, which is what most of us would expect.

God has revealed in Jesus Christ a kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of the world. God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and helpless death of the crucified Jesus. If the crucifixion is the revelation of the deepest truth about God’s character, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned up-side-down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross. Paul takes the central event of the Christian story and uses it as a lens to bring what we know and see into focus so that everything—what we see and assume to know—is viewed afresh.

Much of the controversy among the Corinthians may have stemmed from the tendency of those Christians to regard Paul, Apollos, and Cephas as competing for public approval and attention alongside other popular—and probably pagan—philosophers and rhetoricians. The wisdom that Paul refers to is both the possession of divine knowledge, and the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful, eloquent, and rhetorically polished way.

Here, Paul forcefully argues against the idea that the gospel is just another kind of human wisdom, and reframes the debate into different categories. The gospel is placed into a category apart from the wisdom of this world. The gospel, the Good News of salvation offered through Jesus Christ, is not a secretive or mysterious body of religious knowledge. It’s not a slickly packaged philosophy. It’s not a scheme for living a better life. It’s not a handy self-improvement course. Instead, it’s an announcement about God’s intervention in the world for the sake of the world.

The perspective of God’s radical intervention to bring about something new, is signaled by the way in which Paul describes the encounter between the world and the gospel in verse 18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (CEB). As the word of God—the word about the cross—breaks into the world, it divides all of humanity into two groups. The present participles that describe the two contrasting groups, those who are perishing and those who are being saved indicate, significantly, that Paul sees the judging and saving activity of God as something that’s underway right now. Paul describes the church not as those who are saved, but as those who are being saved. That distinction is important, because Paul will continue to insist throughout the letter on the not-yet-completed, still-in-process, character of salvation in Christ.

Part of the trouble with those who claim to have wisdom is that they suppose they’ve already arrived, already are in possession of the full truth. But for Paul, the power of God is presently stirring, presently occurring, presently percolating, presently on the move in the world through the gospel, bringing both destruction and deliverance: destruction to those who are willfully blind to the truth of God, and deliverance to those who believe.

Paul is saying that the books are not yet closed; God’s final verdict for our lives has not yet been rendered. Thus, as the power of God is at work in the world through the proclamation of the gospel, members of the church find themselves on a trajectory toward salvation, but they cannot unqualifiedly claim salvation at the present time. Salvation, at least in this instance, is described as something we work on throughout our lives. We can have confidence that God will achieve salvation for us in the end, but it only comes through the unmerited grace of God.

Paul’s also making another point. Simply put, Christians—those who are being saved—should see the world differently than those who are perishing. The fixation of the Christian church on a crucified Lord seems to be the height of absurdity to those who are perishing. To them, the word of the cross is not wisdom, but foolishness. The Greek word used there is μωρία (moria), and the root of that Greek word is found in our English word “moron.” The way the rest of the world sees it, we who believe in the power of the cross are a bunch of morons. But we who are being saved see the supposed foolishness of the cross from a different perspective.

The Christians of Corinth, who were celebrating their own wisdom, were celebrating something other than the gospel. It revealed that they still viewed the world from the perspective of those who are perishing. Those who are being saved, however, recognize the cross as God’s power.

This perspective changes the way we understand everything. This is Paul’s great paradox, and he sees its truth revealed in the Old Testament. He quotes from Isaiah 29:14 when he says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent” (1 Corinthians 1:19 CEB). Isaiah’s verb ἀπολῶ (apolo) I will destroy is echoed by Paul’s reference in 1:18 to those who are perishing ἀπολλυμένοις (apollumenois) which literally means those who are being destroyed. According to Isaiah, the thing that God is going to annihilate is the wisdom of the wise, precisely the thing that the Corinthians were prizing.

Therein lies the Corinthian problem. They were relying on human wisdom, which God is going to thwart and destroy. They talked about possessing Godly wisdom, but their behavior of quarreling and causing divisions revealed something else entirely. They made a show of honoring God with their lips, but their behavior toward each other revealed that their hearts were far from God.

When you read the whole of Isaiah’s oracle from which Paul quotes one line, you see that that is what Isaiah was talking about as well. The people of Judah honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God. The message is that talk about God is cheap. Honoring God with the way we live is what ultimately matters. The Corinthians stood under the sentence of divine judgment which would nullify their professed wisdom and unmask their professed piety as a sham.

Having stated his paradox about the word of the cross and supporting it by a citation from Isaiah, Paul cranks up the tension of the passage even higher by developing a series of contrasts between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the cross. The four rhetorical questions of verse 20 pose a direct challenge to the philosophers, scribes (who were experts in Jewish Law), and debaters of the world (the pagan orators). They all belong to this age. In apocalyptic thought everything of this age will be swept away, or simply made to appear ridiculous when the new age is inaugurated. The wisdom of this world will be revealed as foolishness by God’s strange way of revealing grace through the cross.

In the ancient world, rhetorical eloquence was highly prized. Powerful orators received the same sort of acclaim that today we reserve for movie stars and professional athletes. But Paul now regards all this acclaim as utterly negated by God. “Where are they now?” Paul asked rhetorically.

Philosophers, Torah scholars, and popular orators—all the most esteemed pundits of Paul’s day—failed to understand what was really going on in the world. All their wisdom had failed to grasp the truth about God. Paul notes the irony. He says it is “In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21 CEB).

Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are contrary to what our fallen minds would call common sense. In contrast to this age God has blown common sense away by revelation “through the foolishness of preaching.” That Greek word, μωρία (moria), suggests the utter craziness of the gospel message by the standards of common sense wisdom. How can the humiliating death of Jesus on a cross be the event of salvation for the world? One would have to be a fool, a moron, to believe it!

I guess that makes us fools for the Gospel.

Paul’s language throughout this part of 1 Corinthians reveals the paradoxical twists of God’s grace. But this isn’t just Paul’s version of worldly wisdom and rhetoric. The fundamental theological point is that if the cross itself is God’s saving event, all human standards of evaluation are shaken up and dumped up-side-down. The outlandish message confounded Jews and Greeks alike, who quite understandably sought evidence of a more credible sort, either “signs,” which would be empirical demonstrations of power, or “wisdom,” which would be rational and persuasive argumentation. But Paul offers neither signs nor wisdom. Instead Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:23 CEB).

The scandal of this message can be a little difficult for us Christians of later eras to imagine. In Paul’s day, to proclaim a crucified Messiah was to speak nonsense. Crucifixion was a gruesome punishment administered by the Romans to make an example out of rebels, insurrectionists, and those who would otherwise disturb the Roman peace. It was a horrible form of public torture and execution, designed to demonstrate that no one should defy the Empire. Yet, Paul’s Gospel declares that the crucifixion of Jesus is somehow the singular event through which God has triumphed over Rome and all other worldly powers. Rather than confirming what the wisest minds already knew, the cross confounded the knowledge and wisdom of the world.

Those Corinthians who had been converted to Christianity under Paul’s preaching ought to have known this, because his whole message was “Christ crucified.” This proclamation of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and absolutely nuts to the Greeks. But for those who are a part of the church—made up of Jews and Gentiles together, those who are called at Corinth and elsewhere—the mind-warping paradox is God’s power and God’s wisdom.

To enter the world of the Gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination. It’s to see all values transformed by the foolish and seemingly weak death of Jesus on the cross. God doesn’t do things the way we expect. Human wisdom is subverted by the power of God which is revealed in weakness. And the seeming defeat of death gave way to the victory of resurrection.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher