Rev. Teri Peterson
Daily Bread, Again???
March 22 2009, Lent 4B
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Many of you may know that my all-time favorite TV show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure, it went off the air five years ago, but that doesn’t diminish its quality! It has witty dialogue, decent acting, funny special effects, and great plot arcs. I often get asked why I watch Buffy and its spin-off Angel. Aren’t they glorifying magic, aren’t they blurring lines between humans and monsters, aren’t they unchristian and against the Bible?
Umm…well, the short answer is “no” and the longer answer is “there’s some pretty weird stuff in the Bible!” I mean, here today we’ve heard about cosmic punishment slithering through the sand, with a magical statue as the cure. If that’s in the Bible, Buffy looks downright normal!
One of the things I really like about Buffy and Angel is the way they take the many difficulties of growing up—figuring out who we are, how we are in relationships and communities, what we’re called to do and be, how to navigate the world—and turn them into physical realities. When the characters fight demons, they often find that things are not as black and white as they might prefer. And they often find, particularly as the show progresses, that their inner processes are mirrored in the “evil” they fight. Their struggles, both psychological and spiritual, take on physical form and have to be confronted in order to be worked through.
I’m reminded of Buffy when I read this story from today. On the surface, the story seems simple enough, if very bizarre. The Israelites, after wandering in the wilderness for about 35 years—35 years in which God has provided everything they needed, from quail for dinner to bread for sandwiches to water gushing out of a rock, say to God and Moses, “daily bread again???? What about giving us some daily hummus, or daily potatoes, or daily ice cream?” The chef who worked hard at providing quality, nutritious food day in and day out for all those years is upset and sends in the snakes as punishment. Almost immediately the people change their tune from whining to groveling, “we didn’t mean it, we really like manna and we’re learning all kinds of new ways to cook it and we’d love to keep eating it forever and we really appreciate all you do for us…please please pretty please take the snakes away?” And in response God gets Moses to make them a magical statue that cures snakebites.
The trouble is, of course, that on the surface it would be easy to be led astray by the story. First and most obviously is the potential for idolatry—doesn’t God remember the golden calf incident just a few years ago? Second and less obvious is that this story seems like a bit of a simplification—more like a human being trying to explain the inexplicable using a cause-and-effect relationship than a story of a loving God’s interaction with the community of chosen people. The God we know in Christ isn’t one who simply punishes on a whim—God promised not to do that anymore just three weeks ago in the Noah story. The God we know is the One who is Love, who says “I will be your God and you will be my people,” who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who is good and merciful.
This is where I started to think about Buffy. The characters have to fight their inner demons as physical beings, they have to face up to the things that cause hurt, anxiety, and fear. Perhaps the same is true of God’s chosen people. Fear, anxiety, impatience, frustration, and grief are manifested in the people’s behavior of rumor-mongering, complaining, attempts at self-reliance, and lack of trust in God. And those are toxic behaviors, poisons that can destroy a person or a community…and when they come into the open, behold—snakes. An embodiment of all the negativity that was slithering unnoticed through the camp. Perhaps this wasn’t a punishment after all—perhaps it was God helping the people to see what was happening among them, giving them something to see, something to confront, something to work against in the pursuit of wholeness.
Notice that when the people ask God to take the snakes away, God doesn’t do that. God doesn’t just turn us from negative to positive, from toxic to healthy, from complainers to praisers. Those things are still there among us. Instead, God gives the people a new chance at wholeness. In order to be healed, the people have to look up from their own shadows, lift their eyes from their own complaints, and see, face to face, the very thing that has caused so much pain and grief. Only by confronting it head on can they move through the darkness into the light. Only when we face our fears, our brokenness, our need, can we move through them—that’s why people who are afraid of flying can take classes with pilots who show them around the cockpit, why people afraid of animals are encouraged to have controlled encounters with them, why people afraid of heights should try out indoor rock climbing. We can learn, we can look these fears and hurts in the face, and we can entrust them to a God who cares for us more than we can imagine. That statue didn’t cure anyone, but by looking up at it the Israelites could see beyond themselves to the loving, merciful God who gave them this chance at healing hurts they didn’t even know they had before.
Jesus mentions this story just before one of his most famous sayings. In John chapter three, he 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. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3.14-17).
Just as the people looked up at a snake on a stick, not because the statue had magic powers but because they had to face their fear and hurt to walk the path to healing and because God’s love and mercy could be seen there—so, Jesus says, is the cross. These stories are not about punishment, but about love so deep it’s willing to suffer pain that we might be well. When we look at the cross, we see an instrument of death used to defeat death. We see the power of love to heal the whole world, the power of mercy to set us free from hurts we didn’t know we had.
In spite of the statue and the cross, in every person and every community the snakes are still there. Darkness still hovers, and light can be hard to imagine—we still want to go our own way, still harbor negativity, still look back rather than forward, still have fear and hurt and grief. God doesn’t remove the thorn in our side, in spite of our asking for that easy way out. But God is faithful, and God’s grace is amazing and plentiful. What God does is offer a remedy—a new chance for true healing, a new chance for trust, a new chance for covenant community, and, in many ways, a new chance for daily bread, again.
Thanks be to God.