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Numbers 21:4-9

One of the challenges of the wilderness is captured in a well-known saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.” There is nothing magical about the wilderness. There is nothing magical about the season of Lent or about a fast. Wherever we go, there we are.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent brings us to the book of Numbers for our First Reading: a story from the Wilderness. The Israelites were deep into their wilderness wanderings, just as we are deep into the season of Lent.

As had happened in other places after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites began to grumble and complain about their circumstances. “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,” they said “against God and against Moses.”

Our grumbling, our impatience, our bad attitude, our weaknesses—they come with us into Lent, into the wilderness. There is no magic spell for transformation. And in fact, the wilderness can expose some of those attitudes and habits that lurk beneath the surface in regular times.

Have you experienced this in your own life this year? As a pastor or leader? 2020 forced many of us into a wilderness not of our own choosing. What did you find in yourself? Anger, frustration, bitterness, callousness, unforgiveness?

Did you choose a fast for this Lenten season? Has that further revealed what lies beneath the surface? Maybe one place to start with this Scripture is a simple confession: “I see myself in these people who complain against Moses and against God.”

The consequences resulting from the Israelites’ complaints were deadly. Numbers 21:6 says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

A side note here: one of the significant statements of the Old Testament is the authority of the Lord over all the earth. Whether good or bad events, the source is God. This is an important statement of monotheism in a polytheistic world. Our job as modern-day readers is not to ask why God would choose to respond in this way, but rather to recognize the importance for the Israelites to understand that theirs is not a world of warring deities—some good, some bad—but, rather theirs is a world of one God who is over all of creation. It is not appropriate to extrapolate this event into a theology that describes every bad event as punishment from God for sin. The important modern-day lesson to draw from these descriptions of God’s actions is a simple and familiar one: “The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

This story is a sober warning to us. The grumbling, unforgiveness, bitterness, and anger that we harbor in our hearts always has consequences beyond what we can imagine. The Ephesians passage from today opens with a dramatic statement: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (2:1-2).

These attitudes are deadly.

Although poisonous serpents may not be a frequent sight in our world today, we do see death everywhere around us: broken relationships, broken marriages, divided churches and families, economic inequality resulting in both emotional devastation and literal physical death, the idols of white supremacy and Christian nationalism that accept the death of others as necessary casualties. The list goes on and on. Our secret attitudes and habits, when revealed (and they always are), result in death and destruction in our own lives and the world around us.

Verse seven tells us that the people came to Moses to repent and ask for him to intercede with the Lord. How long did it take for them to come to this place of repentance and humility? How many people fell dead before the Israelites sought out Moses? It seems likely that some who were bit by a serpent did not participate in the grumbling. How many innocent people died? This is a sobering question: how long will we cling to our insistence that we are right in our complaints, no matter how destructive that attitude is before we finally come to a place of repentance? I suspect that the answer is almost always, “Too long.”

The season of Lent demands that we ask these challenging questions of ourselves.

There is hope. Moses prayed for the people in response to their repentance and plea for his intercession, and, according to verse eight, the Lord responded. “’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.”

It is interesting that the Lord did not take away the serpents. The consequences of sin remained, but God offered a solution.

This week’s Gospel reading connects the death and resurrection of Jesus with this story in Numbers. Just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. It is a clever play on words that suggests both the image of Jesus lifted up on the cross and Jesus exalted at the right hand of the Father.

We are still surrounded by metaphorical serpents. We are still surrounded by the constant draw towards destructive attitudes, habits, and actions that will result in death and devastation in our lives and our world. But the Son of Man is always lifted up, always there that we might turn towards him and live.

This story from Numbers is sobering and challenging. The attitudes of our hearts matter and can have deadly consequences. And sometimes because of our stubbornness we persist in these habits of heart way longer than we need to. But this story is also hopeful. Jesus is always there waiting for us. When we