"Fear" Bible Study on Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21
March 11, 2021, 12:47 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passages from Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21 (Common English Bible).

They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. 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!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.

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.

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

John 3:14-21 (Common English Bible)

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.

19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”

I have shared so many messages/sermons on John 3:16 that it's hard to come up with something new to share this time around.  Except for the 23rd Psalm, there is no more familiar passage in all of scripture than John 3:16.  It has been emblazoned on billboards and bumper stickers, sewn into throw pillows and baseball caps, and it has even appeared tattooed into the skin of some actors, country singers, and athletes.  But this time around I want to focus on John 3:14-15 in conjunction with the story it recalls from Number 21:4-9.

First, let's set the context.  This Sunday's Gospel portrays a nocturnal visit by a prominent Pharisee, a "ruler of the Jews" who comes to visit the "teacher of Israel."  A prominent, knowledgeable, powerful person has come to Jesus as an inquirer.  Throughout John's Gospel, many will be confused by Jesus, wondering, "Who is this?"  In this passage we move from mysterious and wonderful "signs" performed by Jesus to definite words spoken directly by Jesus.  And yet, the meaning of the words will not be self-evident: even knowledgeable Nicodemus will be befuddled by much that Jesus has to say to him.

This Sunday's Gospel begins with Jesus veering into some strange talk about the snake lifted up in the wilderness, referring to our First Scripture Reading from Number 21:4-9.  Here, we encounter the Hebrew people, having long been liberated from the Egyptians, but still wandering in the wilderness in search of the land which has been promised.  The longer they wander, the crankier they become.  They take aim at God and Moses alike, crying out in petulant frustration.

All told, Numbers depicts five of these so-called "murmuring episodes," wherein the Hebrew people grumble and complain about an assortment of perceived grievances.  They don't like the food; they want more water; they're tired; they want to go back to Egypt; they're sick of camping.  Picture a large SUV loaded up for a road trip with a bunch of disgruntled toddlers kicking the seats, throwing popcorn, and screaming, "Are we there yet?" and you won't be far off!

Each episode follows a predictable pattern: the Hebrew people complain; God gets angry; the Hebrew people realize they've made God angry and beg Moses to intercede on their behalf; Moses does, and God calms down.  Then, a few chapters later, another tantrum erupts, and the same pattern unfolds.  Wash, rinse, spin, cycle complete and then repeat.

Finally, their sniping reaches a boiling point.  “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert?" they grumbled against God and Moses,  "For there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable manna!”

If you listen carefully, you'll catch the level of absurdity underpinning their whining.  "There is no food or water," they moan in one breath, and then "we detest this miserable food," they carp in the next breath.  In response, God punishes them for their insolence and sedition by sending venomous snakes into the encampment.

But not to worry!  Even here, as the Hebrew people are hell-bent on marching back to certain death in Egypt because they feared what they did not know and couldn't predict, God is ultimately and inexorably the Source of Life.  As the Hebrew people repent from from their foolish and seditious ways, God hears their prayer and once again sets before them a wellspring of life and healing.

But the way God chooses to do it is what makes this passage even stranger: God tells Moses to craft a venomous snake out of metal and put it onto a pole so that those who were bitten could look at it and be healed.  Moses did as he was told, crafted a venomous snake from bronze, put it on the pole, and set it in the midst of the people.  Whenever a snake bit someone, they looked at the bronze snake and lived.

I think the opening verses of our Gospel Reading and the snake bite story from Numbers 21 says at least three things.

First, God is relentless and undeterred from doing whatever it takes to maintain a relationship with humankind.

Second, fear of the unknown; fear of the other; fear of cultural and societal changes; fear of failure; fear of death -- nothing causes spiritual and emotional paralysis more effectively than fear.  It corrodes faith, cuts off our pathways to giving and receiving grace and mercy, and, if it is left untreated long enough, it gives way to hatred, recalcitrance, hardness of heart and soul, and leads ultimately to death.

Thirdly, people will always find something to complain about, and patience is a hard-learned virtue.  And what better time is there to complain and be impatient as we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the pandemic?  In the words of the Rev. Thomas D. Campbell:

"A year ago, our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic was just the beginning.  The longer stay-at-home orders were in place, the more impatient citizens became to get out, to get back to work and church, to mix and mingle in society again.  Tossing aside good sense and health guidelines, many people began to go out, notwithstanding the advice of health experts to stay at home and keep safe distances.

Everybody I know believes patience is a very good thing, but when push comes to shove, one's impatience too often comes forward and pushes patience to the sidelines."

As we continue on our Lenten journey, there may be no more important time to reflect on how much God loves us, to take account of the ways in which each of us are afflicted by the venom of fear, and to practice patience.  Only when the Hebrew people brought that which they feared most into full view, were they made whole.

The same is true for us.  As we come into full view of the cross and the reality of death, it is only by walking headlong into death's dark shadow that we come to know the fullness of Christ's resurrected life.  "God didn’t send God's Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17).

Maybe all of the above will give new meaning to John 3:16.  For indeed, God so loves the world.

God of grace, teach us to practice patience, understanding, and compassion, especially in hard times.  Amen.

Prayerfully Yours,

Pastor Greg Rupright


03-12-2021 at 2:31 PM
Pat May
So well-reasoned and, therefore a powerful message to us in March 2021!!!
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