Of course the mouse spends its time hiding from the cat, and the cat is relentless in its search for the mouse. In one sense that is a precise picture of our relationship with God, who searches for us lovingly and relentlessly. This is the dynamic that the English poet. Francis Thomson, described in his famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven”, which begins:
I Fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
It is a wonderful poem, and whether you use the image of the hound of heaven or of the cat and the mouse, we spend our lives hiding from God, and God never gives up searching for us. But this anticipates our conclusion. Return to the texts with me and see how we reach this conclusion. I will focus primarily on Numbers, with brief references to Ephesians and John.
Numbers 21: 4 to 9
The Bronze Snake
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
This passage has long troubled me. Often enough God calls on his people to do things that our reason wonders at, but this one feels wrong to me for one basic reason. This journey through the desert began with the commissioning to be God’s people, a holy nation. As part of that commission the people received the Ten Words (Exodus 20), which begin with the clear statement that God alone is God, and that the people should never make an image of God. The people themselves were God’s images, God’s representatives in the world, and they dared not make or worship anything other than God himself.
Yet here God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole for everyone to gaze on. Perhaps this is not a call to worship, but the temptation to move from looking at the snake to worshipping it was inevitable. Indeed, in time the bronze image of the snake received a name and was worshipped. Hear the writer of Kings in 2 Kings 18:
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. 2 He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 3 He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. 4 He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”
Do you think God did not foresee this danger? Of course God knew what would happen, and yet God told Moses to make the bronze snake and mount it on a pole.
I can offer several possible solutions to this problem, but I don’t like them. One possibility is what a friend of mine (Eric) calls “learning to read resistantly”. By this he means that we look for themes in the text that help move us away from problematic ideas, such as the call to genocide when Samuel tells Saul to show his obedience to God by killing all of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). Genocide is such a problem that my friend argues the text cannot mean God commanded it.
Now in the case of 1 Samuel 15, Eric may be right, but it does not seem to me to explain much in this brief story. God says, “Make the snake and mount it.” Moses does so. People look at the bronze snake and are healed. I don’t see material here for “resistant reading.”
Another possibility (which Eric applies to the passages such as apparent calls to genocide) is that Moses did not really understand God properly. Whatever God said, he didn’t really mean for them to make an image of a snake, which then became a temptation to idolatry. But when people look at the snake, they are healed. It seems clear that God brought the sickness as punishment for the people’s complaining, and that God healed them of their sickness when, in obedience, they looked up at the bronze image of a snake.
One could argue that there is no problem. One could say that the bronze snake was in fact good, and only became bad later. This idea may be true, but is inadequate. The risk of idolatry was real, as the people’s later worship of Nehushtan shows. God knew the people and knew what they would do. Why would God run the risk of idolatry to cure a plague of complaining?
A Way Forward
I was talking with my colleague Cameron one day and put the question to him. He made a suggestion that I find persuasive and helpful. The people’s problem was that they complained constantly rather than living in an atmosphere of trust and dependence on God. The snakes that appeared and bit them were God’s punishment for their sin of ingratitude and complaint. These sins in fact represented a severe form of rebellion against God. The people trusted themselves rather than trusting God. They wanted a God whom they could control, not a God who called them to full obedience. Then the punishment bit them, and they found themselves facing death. In their extremity they cried out for help, and God gave them a way out.
The way out is to make an image of their sin. The image of their punishment, the bronze serpent, is in fact an image of their sin. When God said, “Look at the bronze snake, and I will save you,” he was giving them a path to healing. “Look at yourselves honestly, and I will heal you. See what you have become and acknowledge what is inside you, and I will heal you.” The image became an idol over time. The Egyptians and the Canaanites both used snakes as part of their worship, so this drift from positive healing to idolatry is understandable. But the initial step is one that we must always take to receive God’s healing. We can be healed only when we acknowledge our sin, the deadly sickness that would separate us from God.
Earlier you heard the soloist sing, “Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown.” This song is named “Wrestling Jacob”, and uses Jacob’s encounter with God to portray Charles Wesley’s own conversion. The theme of the song is that Jacob will not let go of God as they wrestle together, but the critical moment in that wrestling match occurs when God says, “Tell me your name.” Jacob replies, “Jacob. Twister. Deceiver. Cheater. I am Jacob.” Only when Jacob admits his own sinful nature can he begin to understand God’s profound unutterable nature: “Thy nature and thy name is love.”
This pattern is true in every area of life. Do you struggle with alcoholism? Until you can say, “My name is Jacob, and I’m an alcoholic,” you cannot be healed. Are in bondage to pornography? Until you admit your bondage, you cannot be set free. Are you addicted to shopping, spending so much that it threatens your marriage? You cannot break that addiction until you admit your addiction. Whatever the sin is in your life that threatens to destroy your life, God can heal it. God wants to heal it. But you have to admit it and own it and look steadily up at the bronze image of your sin and say, “That’s me.”
Ephesians 2: 1 to 10
Made alive in Christ
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Paul does not lay out the pattern that we saw in Numbers 21, but he makes clear the source of healing and forgiveness. “By grace you have been saved, through faith (not from yourselves, but God’s gift), not by works, so that we cannot boast.”
Note the progression: “When you were dead in your sins … Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ.” God came to the Children of Israel in the desert, complaining and bitter. If we could see ourselves clearly, every one of us has tried to push God out of our lives. In grace and mercy and love God refuses to leave and continues to work within us. Some might say, “I have always known that I belong to Jesus and want to follow Jesus.” At some level I know that this is what I say. But looking deeper into ourselves, we can see the desire to follow our own will and our resentment of God’s will.
C.S. Lewis described his own experience like this:
Remember, I had always wanted, above all things, not to be “interfered with.” I had wanted (mad wish) “to call my soul my own.” … Doubtless, by definition, God was Reason itself. But would He also be “reasonable” in that other, more comfortable sense? Not the slightest assurance on that score was offered me. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. …
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words … compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
John 3: 14 to 21
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
We know John 3:16 by heart. We remember that verse 17 reminds us that God desires to save the whole world. Verse 14 links back to the passage in Numbers, giving a foretaste of the crucified Christ in the bronze serpent. But note especially verses 20 and 21.
The best response to evil is to bring it in to the light of truth. This basic principle illuminates the principle I suggested from Numbers. The necessary step to healing is to see oneself clearly, to allow the truth of who I am to be brought out into the open. Only when we admit honestly what lies within can God heal our sin and our hurt. And that is precisely what God does.
This truth is one that applies at every level of life. God wants to save us as individuals and heal us as a society. Such salvation and healing requires confession and repentance. Do we want to heal the bitterness of political discourse in our world? We must look clearly at the depths of anger within ourselves. Do we want to remedy poverty in Winnipeg? We must bring the sources of poverty into the open, the way that Harry Lehotsky has helped to do in the North End and West End. Do we want to see God’s Spirit move within this congregation, and in our families, and within each one of us? We must expose our deepest fears and secrets to each other—within appropriate boundaries, not an airing of dirty laundry for shock value, but shining the light of God’s truth into every corner of our lives.
The good news is that God presents us over and over with the opportunity to do just this. The problems we struggle with are also the bronze snake lifted up in the desert. God says, “Look openly and honestly at yourself, and I will heal you.” Like Wrestling Jacob, we admit our name, and we find also that God’s name and nature is love.
This has been my own experience. I have looked inside myself, and I do not like what I see there. I have no interest in airing my dirty laundry. It is enough to say that I have seen myself clearly in the light of God’s holiness, and it is an ugly sight. Yet God reached out to me and showed me love beyond understanding, “pure, unutterable love.”
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee.
“Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea.
’Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
“I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee!
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul;
Always thou lovedst me.”
Grace Bible Church: Fourth Sunday in Lent
15 March 2015
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21