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Beware the Serpents

Image of silhouettes of children raising their arms in the foreground. The background is the red, orange, yellow and blue of a sunrise with birds also silhouetted.

In the wilderness, life is difficult. The space between what was and what will be is uncomfortable, and often distressing. For the Israelites who were on their way from captivity to liberation, misery met them in the desert. They came to the realization that the journey would be long and hard and there was no turning back. They complained to Moses about the lack of water and food. They blamed God for their plight. They were miserable and unexpectedly longing for those days in Egypt where they knew what to expect and there was enough food and water.

Then the encountered the poisonous serpents. They believed these were sent by God as punishment for their sins. I don’t believe God really works this way. I think they encountered the scorpions that live in the desert. Or maybe the serpents are metaphor for the way in which dwelling on our own misery lets a kind of poison in. Either way, people died. And the survivors repented.

Repentance made them look for a different way. Moses made a bronze serpent that made them look up in order to live. In effect, it made them stop looking at their misery and, instead, look to God for hope and life. And their journey continued; they did not die. Eventually, they made it through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Eventually, they accepted the challenges of the journey and began to imagine a new life for themselves.

We have much to learn from these ancient wilderness wanderers. We have been in pandemic wilderness for a year. It is uncomfortable and distressing. Grief weighs heavily on all of us. Some of us don’t have the resources they need to get through a day, much less the days ahead. It becomes too easy to focus on the hard parts, the miserable parts of pandemic. Some have even blamed God for COVID, for people dying, for all the challenges of the past year.

I don’t find this helpful or healthy. God does not cause suffering. God did not create COVID-19 and all its variants to punish us or teach us anything. We might learn something from this time of pandemic at some point, but that doesn’t mean God sent the virus to us. Perhaps, we need to do as the Israelites did and repent of our focus on our misery. Perhaps it is time that those of us who are able, look up. Look up to find hope, healing, and guidance in God.

This looking upward does not negate all the suffering and grief. It does not deny the reality of pandemic which is not over. The change in focus for the Israelites was life-giving. It can be life-giving for us as well. Focusing on God means not focusing on the limits pandemic has imposed on us. Focusing on God means taking deeper breaths and appreciating the blessings in the midst of the challenges. It means asking ourselves how we can use the resources we have to benefit another. It means recognizing that the people of God have been in similar places in the past; God knows the way through loss, through grief, through injustice… through it all.

The Israelites didn’t suddenly have more food and water on their journey. They didn’t suddenly arrive on the other side of the wilderness. However, they were able to look up, focus away from their misery, and recognize God’s presence in their midst – at least for a little while. They would forget again. They would be overwhelmed by their circumstances again. And they would find God in their midst again. We can follow their lead. Where do you find hope in these wilderness days?

No matter how much we want this journey through pandemic to be over, it is not. Yes, there are many who are acting as if COVID no longer poses a threat. These are the folx who are focused on the poisonous serpents and are unable to look up and see hope and healing. Denial of pain and suffering helps no one. Acknowledging it and searching for hope in the midst of it, will lead toward healing. Remember, the presence of God in the midst of the ancient Israelites did not change their circumstances. Instead, God led them through their hunger, their thirst, and the poisonous serpents.

We can get through this. Whatever the “new normal” will be is on the horizon. It’s still hazy and unclear, though. The only way through the remaining days of pandemic are together. Those of us who are able to look up and find hope and healing have a responsibility to help those who cannot. We don’t need a bronze serpent to remind us that God, the power of Life and Love, is in our midst; we need one another.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17  • Psalm 19  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25  • John 2:13-22

Photo: CC0image by Gerd Altmann

By rachaelkeefe

Hi. I am a pastor, an author, a painter, and a poet. Find out more about all of my work, including spiritual direction and suicide prevention, on my website (BeachTheology.com).

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