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Worship and Sermons
March 14, 2021

“The Cure for Snake Bite” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, March 14, 2021, Year B / Lent 4 –  Numbers 21:4-9  •  Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22  •  Ephesians 2:1-10  •  John 3:14-21

The big idea:  Look to the cross for new life, as the Israelites looked to the serpent on a pole, because Jesus is the antidote to sin and the way to new life.

Application:  On our year-long journey through the wilderness of COVID, continue to look to Jesus to strengthen our faith.


        Ever since I was a little boy, I have been fascinated by two kinds of animals:  sharks and snakes.  To this very day, I find it impossible to pass up a good YouTube video about an encounter with a poisonous snake in some exotic locale. 

So, you may not be surprised when I tell you that I have watched every episode of Snake City.  This is a National Geographic TV show about a couple of snake wranglers in Durban, South Africa.  Their names are Simon Keys and Siouxsie Gillett.  I sit spellbound as the two of them remove and relocate some of the world’s most venomous snakes from places where they should not be, usually in someone’s bedroom or kitchen.  

As you might imagine, the risk of being bitten by a black mamba or a cape cobra is one of the real risks of their personal and professional lives.  So, Simon and Siouxsie make sure that they are never far from a place where they can get anti-venom. 

It turns out that this is not always easy.  Anti-venom is harder to come by than you might think. 

Antivenom is made from antibodies that are produced in the blood of a host animal, say a sheep or a horse, that has a robust immune system.  In response to the presence of venom,  the antibodies in the animal’s blood recognize and then neutralize toxins, which are what makes venom deadly.  The key is to find out which kinds of antibodies best neutralize which kinds of toxins.  That process is very complicated.

It all started in 1895 when a French scientist named Albert Calmette developed the first anti-venom for cobra bites. 30 years later, an American Company began making anti-venom for the pit vipers we have here on this continent.

Today, there is a worldwide shortage of snake anti-venom.  It’s expensive to make and difficult to store.  That’s why it’s often not available where it’s needed most:  in isolated rural areas where 100,000 people / year die of snake bites.

If all this gives you the heeby-jeebies, my apologies.

But, then again, you know now how the Israelites felt when God infested their camp with vipers in this morning’s reading from Numbers.

40 years.  That is how long the Israelites have been on their epic journey from Egypt through the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  This seemingly endless trek through the never-ending desert has been anything but comfortable.  With nothing to eat but manna and preciously little water, the people cry out against both God and Moses.

And how does God respond?  By sending a plague of venomous snakes.  The people understand that they have sinned.  They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf, to ask God to remove the snakes that have afflicted them. 

So Moses prays, and God responds.  But, rather than removing the snakes, God sends a cure for snakebite. They will still get bitten.  That danger does not go away.  But God provides a means of healing, if they only look in the right direction.

This narrative of the snakes is one of a series of episodes  in Numbers that illustrates the people’s persistent complaining and rebellion.  This time, however, the people speak out not only against Moses but against God as well.  

They have forgotten how hungry they were before God provided a daily ration of this flaky food, and how relieved they were to have something to fill their stomachs.   

The people have also forgotten how they suffered back in Egypt.  Now, all they can think about is the cornucopia of food they left behind:  fresh fish, luscious cucumbers and melons, pungent leeks, even garlic.  Funny how selective our memory can be, isn’t it?

The Israelites sound like spoiled children.  But let’s not be too quick to dismiss their complaints.  Afterall, they’ve been walking through the wilderness for 40 years, and they don’t seem to have made much progress.

Now, if we are being honest, we have to admit that there are some troubling aspects of this passage.  We are tempted to skip over them and rush to the part of the story that gives us the most comfort:  the part where God provides a source of healing for the people.

But there is more to this text.  The bigger picture is that the exodus generation, whom God liberated from Egypt, is being culled.  They are being replaced by the next generation.  With few exceptions, the older generation will not reach the Promised Land.  They will not see the fulfillment of God’s promise.

The reason is clear.  They have failed to uphold God’s covenant.  Time and time again, the people have failed to trust that God will provide.  And, time and time again, when God does provide for their needs, they take his provision for granted, just as they have in this story.

“Why did you bring us out of Egypt just to die here in the wilderness?” they cry out.  “There’s no real food here and we detest this miserable manna!”

Oh, that makes God angry.  Maybe God has simply become exasperated with this people?  Has their lack of faith finally and irrevocably rendered them unfit to inhabit the Promised Land? 

We don’t know for sure what is going through God’s mind.  But we do know what he does:  he sends poisonous snakes among the people.  Many are bitten.  Many die. 

When Moses pleads on behalf of the people, God instructs him to make a serpent of bronze and hold it up on a pole.  Those who look at it will live.

We are entitled to ask what does all this say about the character of God?  What kind of God inflicts death on his people for their lack of trust?  That’s one of the most difficult questions this story raises. 

Whatever else this says about God, it’s a reminder that he is less predictable, and possibly more dangerous than our New Testament-oriented sensibilities are comfortable with.  

And yet God also provides the remedy that leads to life.  What is required is knowing where to look for it.  What is required . . . is trust.

Friends, all of us are snakebit.  Ever since Satan introduced sin as a serpent in the garden, we have all been infected with the venom that leads to death by disobedience. 

As a result, we all rebel against God.  When God provides for us, we are inclined to take it for granted.  We are amazingly quick to think we deserve better.  We ultimately fool ourselves into thinking we don’t even need God.

        But we can only keep up that charade for so long.  Sooner or later, our illusion comes crashing down, and we come crashing down with it.  When we walk away from God, God has a way of reminding us just how much we need him by letting us face the real dangers of life’s wilderness.

That’s when we realize that, left to our own devices, we are headed for disaster and certain death, spiritually and otherwise, too.  The truth is that we cannot bring ourselves out of the desert safely.  Only God can lead us to the promised land of new life.

That is the message of our John passage.  It’s probably the best-known and most reassuring verse in all of scripture. It’s the crux of the new covenant.  In Jesus Christ, God himself chose to die on the cross so that we might live with him forever. 

Like the Israelites looking up to the bronze serpent on a pole, we need to look to Jesus raised up on a different kind of  pole on Calvary.  There is life for those who trust in him. 

To put it another way, faith in Christ is the anti-venom for the snakebite of sin.  It unleashes a whole host of heavenly antibodies that get busy disarming and removing the toxins that accumulate in our minds, bodies and souls as the result of our sin.

The funny thing about antivenom is that it builds up our immune response over time.  Faith works the same way.  The more we rely on Christ to confront and remove our sin, the stronger our faith gets, and the better it protects us from the effects of sin.

One of our better comedians, Jimmy Kimmel, recently tweeted something funny, sad and poignant, all at the same time  He wrote, “The whole year has been Lent.”  Isn’t that the truth?  It was exactly one year ago this week that all our worlds  changed in ways we never imagined. 

So, we have been traveling not only through the wilderness of Lent, but through the wilderness of a year of COVID.  

Loved ones have died, others have lost jobs, cabin fever is more widespread now than the virus itself, and routines everywhere have been disrupted.  Our craving for simple things like personal, human contact – a handshake or a hug – has gone unquenched. 

Like the Israelites, we have suffered profoundly on this wilderness journey.  And, yes, we have grown weary of God’s provision, even grumbling about the blessing of electronic ways of staying in touch.

But let’s learn the lesson that God is teaching us without having to learn it the hard way, the way the Israelites did:  let’s keep our faith in God intact. 

Let’s look for reasons to praise him, not complain against him.  Let’s nurture and share our gratitude for God’s grace.  And, above all, let’s keep our eyes focused on the cross, because, as snake-bitten as we all are, the cross is our hope, and our path to the Promised Land of new life.

Friends, if we can manage this, our faith will grow. And God will provide.

Because, even in our worst failures and harshest disappointments, he always does. 

So, where are you looking for new life? 

Last Published: March 15, 2021 11:50 AM
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