Snakes on the Plain
Have you all heard the story of the man who went to the doctor with a sore arm? The man said to the doctor, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor replies, “Well, don’t do that!”
That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? We all want fast, quick and easy cures to the things that bother us. How many of us have browsed the internet looking for a cure or fix? How did we live without the internet? At least once a day, and often more, I find myself opening up my server and looking up information. It is amazing how much it knows.
How many of you recognize this symbol on the screen? If you have ever been to see a doctor chances are you have seen some variation of this picture. Now, forgive me if I mispronounce the name but usually this icon is referred to as the Caduceus. (ke-do-ous)
The Caduceus was the staff of the Roman god Mercury and that is the reason there are wings on it – remember: Mercury was noted for his speed. But what you may not know is that by the seventh century his myth had grown and he was also known for dabbling in medicine. Therefore, his staff became a symbol to heal people.
Sometimes, this familiar medical sign is also associated with Asclepius, a Greek doctor from around 1200 BC who was eventually deified into the god of medicine. His staff was a little different in that it only had one snake and no wings. In Asclepius’ case, the snake, whose skin peels off, is associated with physical renewal.
But although those legends are popular today to define the familiar medical symbol, I believe the Bible is actually the source of the image. In the story we will be looking at today we will see how God healed the people with a bronze snake on a pole. Although it is not popular to say, maybe the Romans and Greeks actually stole the story of a snake on a pole from the Hebrews? The modern image is probably a mixture of all three stories which unfortunately tends to dilute the power of the snake in our text today.
Sometimes the solutions to the problems we face are so simple yet we tend to ignore or refuse to believe the answer. Several years ago a poll was conducted concerning religion in America. The headlines screamed doom and gloom about there being less Christians now. However, those headlines misrepresented what the poll actually said. If you dig deeper into the research you will find that the poll found 78.4% of Americans claim some church in the Christian faith (and that includes everything from Catholics to Pentecostals but doesn’t distinguish if they attend or not). Only 4.7% of Americans, a surprisingly very small number, claim allegiance to other religions including the Jewish faith, Muslim, Buddhism and everything else.
But the stat that drew the headlines is that 16.1% of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion. That’s still a pretty small number but the alarm is that it is up from 8% just a few years ago. However, even in that small percentage, only 1.6% claim to be atheists (meaning they do not believe in a God at all) and 2.4% agnostic (they think there might be a God but are unsure). The important number is the 12.1% who claim to be nothing in particular. In other words they believe in God but just aren’t affiliated with any church group. Maybe they have been hurt or turned off by organized religion. Maybe they haven’t found a church that seems to be telling the truth. They want to worship but don’t know where or how.
Looked at another way, 96% of Americans believe in something. Almost everybody worships something. If it is not God or a God it may be money or power or any number of other things.
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a week before he died. As he entered the city the people had it right: they shouted Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! But within a week they took their eyes off of Jesus and were shouting, crucify him! Do we ever do that? Do we take our eyes off of Jesus? Do we ever forget who he is and what he has done?
It is easy for us to fall into the same trap the Israelites fell in to. Instead of worshipping God we worship something else like our tradition or our building or various people in church. The truth is traditions change, buildings fall apart and people disappoint – that may be why 12.1% have no religious affiliation at all. The problem is not God but what we worship. Why would we want to settle for hamburger when we could have steak? Why worship an inanimate object or physical things or flawed humans when we can worship the one who created it all? The Bible calls that idolatry and it is the one thing that irks God the most.
We are to exalt Jesus, not ourselves; we are to teach what God says, not what man thinks; we are to see God’s salvation and not worship the symbols surrounding it.
There is a strange little story in the Old Testament book of Numbers that we don’t often look at. Maybe we avoid the story because it is so strange and different. It certainly breaks all the rules of how things are supposed to be.
The story is set toward the end of the 40 years of wandering the Israelites had been doing after their escape from Egypt. You can imagine how tired they were of constantly traveling and not having a permanent home. The people were taking their eyes off of God and were focusing inward.
Follow along as I read our text, Numbers 21:4-9. 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 desert? 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, he lived.
It seems as if the Hebrew people were constantly complaining during their 40 year journey in the Wilderness. To be honest, I can identify with their impatience, can’t you? However, there is a difference between being impatient and sinning. The people crossed that line here with their ingratitude. They said they detested the miserable food they had to eat! Now it is one thing to complain about the food at school or the quality at a restaurant but here they were griping about the manna that God had provided daily for them to eat at no cost to them. They were being blest and provided for every day by God but because of their selfishness, they refused to see it. In other words, they took what they had for granted. Thinking about that, it might not be a bad idea for us to rethink what is happening in our life and do a little more thanking instead of complaining.
As punishment, God filled their camp with poisonous snakes. Most people hate snakes anyway but these snakes were killing everyone and they couldn’t get rid of them. The reason for the snakes was not just to kill the people but to get their attention and return their focus to God. According to verse 7 that happened as they understood why the snakes were there and repented. But then God does a very strange thing: instead of just getting rid of all the snakes, he told Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it on a pole. When the people looked up at the pole they were healed.
Now one of the reasons the story about putting a bronze snake on a pole is strange is because it runs contrary to God’s prohibition about worshipping images of any creature. The rest of the story actually tells us that did become a problem. Apparently, after the incident in our text, the Israelites kept the bronze snake on a pole and centuries later it became a problem. You know how it is: you do something once at church and it becomes a tradition. 2 Kings 18 tells us how Hezekiah, who had just become the king of Judah, initiated some reforms to bring the nation back to God. Verses 3 and 4 tell us: 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.)
God made all humans with the desire to worship – I believe it is a part of our DNA. Unfortunately, we don’t always worship the right thing. The Israelites took the statue Moses had made to heal them on that one occasion and they were worshipping it instead of the one who told Moses to make it.
From as far back as Genesis 3, the snake has been associated with the Evil One, or Satan. Snakes had nothing to do with healing and salvation. But since God made the rules he can also makes exceptions and he does so here to teach the Hebrew people something about how he saves. By looking at the bronze snake they were reminded of their sin and why they were in trouble. And by looking up at the snake they were to understand that their salvation came from God and only by following his directions would they be saved.
So, as we consider those snakes on the plain near Edom may I suggest we can be reminded of God’s salvation through Jesus?
Philippians 2:12 says, 12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
Notice the tense used in this verse. It is one of continual action not past tense. We are not “saved” rather we are in the process of being saved. The Israelites learned that the hard way. Since God had led them out of Egypt and since he had been providing for them they assumed their salvation was secure. They needed to be reminded that salvation is a continual process we work on every day.
For the Israelites to be saved from their snake bites, each one of them had to go to where this snake statue was and look up at it. No one could do it for them. They were not cured if their father or mother went and looked nor were they saved if they belonged to the right tribe.
That’s why it is a myth to call any country a “Christian Nation.” We are not saved because we are Americans. We are saved when we look up to Jesus. The biggest problem in that poll I cited earlier is not the 16% who claim no religion but the 78% who claim some form of Christianity. As I said, it is unclear how many in that number claims Christianity but never darken the door. The danger is when we equate going to church or belonging to a group with salvation. That becomes honoring an organization but not the one who founded it. That is using your religious heritage as a free pass to heaven while having little understanding about faith.
Christianity is a personal belief. Faith is not something anyone can do for you. Each of us is saved individually not in a group.
But even as I say that, let me hasten to add another aspect of our story by reminding us that salvation is corporate.
At first glance that might appear as if I am talking out both ends of my mouth. How can something be personal and corporate? There is actually a lot of Scripture I could use that show the corporate nature of Christianity but let me use just one, Hebrews 10:25.
25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Sometime in the 20th century, a false doctrine arose that emphasized the personal nature of our relationship with Jesus. As I said, salvation is personal. We are saved, on an individual basis, by our response to the gospel. The corruption of this concept occurred when we began to believe that worshipping God by ourselves in the beauty of nature was enough. May I suggest that an individual faith by itself is a failure? It is a failure because it runs contrary to our very nature.
We are not wired to be alone, in spite of our very individualistic society. That’s why cults have long had such a strong presence on college campuses. They target 18 year old kids who are away from home and all their support system for the first time and someone comes up to them as a friend and invites them to join their group where they find acceptance, love, and a place to fit in. It doesn’t matter what the teachings are: we all want a place, as the old TV show “Cheers” sang about, “where everybody knows your name.” And did you know that in spite of all the attention paid to the mega-churches that have attendance in the thousands every week, the small church averaging less than 100 in attendances is actually much more common and normal? We all want to belong and we all want to belong where we are known, loved and accepted.
Part of the idea of the bronze snake was that they could share that common experience. If they were healed, they would tell their neighbor; and if their neighbor was healed, they had a common bond. Individually, an outsider might be able to convince them it really wasn’t the snake that healed them but together they formed a strong cord that would never be broken.
We need the church in spite of her flaws and in spite of the corruption and less than ideal actions she sometimes takes. I’m not excusing the faults in any church rather I am condemning it because that is not what we are to be about. We are to be a place where we are welcome, where we are accepted (in spite of our sin), and where we can be encouraged, edified, and exhorted. When that happens, God’s plan of salvation will be heard loud and clear. But more than that, it will be obeyed.
Salvation is by God alone. That is probably one of the most politically incorrect things that I can say this morning, so let me say it again: salvation is by God alone.
We are all taught tolerance today and to an extent that is fine. Part of the promise of America is that we are all created equal. The freedom of religion we have in the United States is a form of tolerance. If we are free to worship as we believe than that means others are free to do the same or even to not worship at all.
However, as good as that may be in a political or nationalistic sense, Christianity is not tolerant. It is not tolerant of other religions or beliefs. The Bible clearly and plainly teaches that there is only one way to heaven and that is found in Jesus Christ.
Now don’t misunderstand or misinterpret what I just said. The intolerance of Christianity does not give anybody the right to attack, persecute, harass or in any way tear down other religions. Remember the Golden Rule: if you don’t want anybody attacking your faith, don’t attack other faiths. I am saying that at the core of what we believe is the idea that Jesus is the only way, truth and life.
That is what God was saying with the bronze snake: there is no other way for you to live. Unless you look up to the snake on the pole, you will die. It becomes an image of Christ that Jesus affirms in perhaps the most familiar piece of Scripture in the Bible. If I asked, what does John 3:16 say, what would you answer? Let me hear, what does it say?
But listen to what Jesus said just before he uttered those famous words. John 3:14-16: 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
We don’t have to hope we can be saved or do a lot of good things to prove ourselves or even be lucky. God has provided the way. Just like he saved the Israelites who were dying from the snake bites he saves us from our sins by the blood of Jesus. That’s a pretty good lesson to learn from snakes on the plain.