This sermon was preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church OKC, OK on March18, 2012
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 Yahweh 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 Yahweh and against you; pray to Yahweh to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And Yahweh 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.
I do not like snakes. I cannot remember a moment where I thought to myself, “what I need is more snakes in my life.” One time while serving a few Native churches in Seminole County as a student minister, I had an intimate encounter with a snake.
I used to smoke. While I was a student minister I would sit on the porch at night reading books, talking to my then fiancé, and smoke cigarettes. It was all this city kid could do to keep occupied out there in the country.
I was out on the porch one night having a cigarette and talking to Meredith, my now wife. We got to planning our wedding and out of the corner of my eye I saw this wiggling, swarming blackish mass fall from the ceiling and as it withered downward it struck me on my shoulder.
I was stunned. I looked to the ground and realized it was a snake! I made sounds that a 10-year-old girl might make if frightened and ran through the screen door. I tore through that screen with little effort; all the while Meredith was on the phone imagining that I was in mortal danger. I stood in the house terrified looking at the dazed snake on the front porch gather itself and slither away.
I did not sleep that night and had trouble adjusting to the wilds of rural Oklahoma all summer. I rearranged my patterns as to not be outside after nightfall. I wanted nothing to do with those snakes that shared my yard.
You talk about snakes to most people and they cringe. Snakes evoke a negative feeling for most of us. When we talk about snakes what does it bring up in you?
If you were one of the weary Israelites wandering around the desert as this scene full of snakes unfolds I bet you would not like snakes either. Why would God, the same God that just delivered you out of bondage in the land of Egypt, punish you for asking, “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.”
It sounds like a reasonable request. God has fielded questions from angry or frustrated Israelites before. This is not the first or last time folks in the Israelite camp complained. I am sure there was all kinds of bemoaning. Anyone that has taken a group of people out to eat or a group of children to the museum can completely understand this. When you get a bunch of people together and march them off in to the desert, you are going to get complaints.
People start to wonder out loud if they were not better off back in Egypt in bondage. You know, being there in Egypt was not all that bad. At least we had plenty of food to eat and we knew what to expect in Egypt.
Where in our life have we stayed in a place, a job, a relationship because if was familiar or seemed better? If you stay away from trouble long enough, it will begin to feel nostalgic.
I don’t think it was the complaining that got God all riled up. God is big enough to take all of our bickering. It was the fear in the complaining that moved God to act. God could have met the Israelites with all kinds of things. Why snakes? God could have stopped the pillar of fire, removed the cloud of witness, the showers of manna, or the miraculous springs of water. God chose to send snakes. Why?
Snakes in the Bible hold a certain mystique. The most famous snake in the Bible is the one in the garden, at the beginning of creation. Y’all remember that story? God tells Adam and Eve they can eat from anything in the garden but that one tree. They are tempted by a snake and eat from the forbidden tree. God kicks them out of the garden and rewards them with burdens.
This is how labor is explained, labor for men and women. There was a burden for the snake as well. Do you recall what it is? Genesis 3:14 says, “So Yahweh said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.”
This is the reason why God used snakes to witness to the Israelites. The snakes used in the desert are symbols of the snake in the garden and the burden set upon that snake. The burden of “eating dust all the days of your life.”
You see the burden of the snake is a matter of abundance. The snake will eat dust. Dust is everywhere. The snake will not lack for food. The snake will not need to ask their neighbor for a cup of sugar. The snake will not have to reach outside of its home to make ends meet. The snake will never have to pay a visit to the local food bank or stand nervously and awkwardly in line at the grocery store as the clerk counts out WIC script. The snake really is an island unto itself. In its abundance it remains isolated, away from a shared community of hardship and longing that bridges the individual and forges a people.
Abundance is a curse that prevents one from being in community as Christ calls us to be in community. The Israelites were wandering in the desert looking for The Promised Land. They left in a hurry and took what they could carry. God provided food, water, shelter, and guidance to this promised place. The land of milk and honey. The struggle with abundance fashions a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
As Dr. King spoke to the nation with Lincoln to his back, “We [must] refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We [must] refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. [We must] come and cash our checks for “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Sisters and brothers, if abundance is the burden of the snake than we have adopted the lies of that snake and traded in our burden of labor for that lie of abundance.
When will abundance cease? When will it ever be enough? Abundance clouds the prosperity God offers to us. Abundance distracts us from the call to justice that Dr. King called us to almost 49 years ago.
That call is a place where freedom is held by all. A place where equality exists in practice. A place where jubilee is celebrated. A place of peace and prosperity. How does that sound? Would you like to live in that place.
The abundance of God was not enough for the people of God. They began to look backwards. They looked to “better” days back in Egypt. So, God delivered a reminder of what those “better” days offered. That abundance only makes you ill. That abundance prevents you from reaching The Promised Land.
There is only one path to The Promised Land and that is together. As a community we can get there. You…me…we…us gets to The Promised Land. There is no place for I in The Promised Land of God.
What are the snakes in your life?
Nearly 67% of Oklahoma adults and 34% of Oklahoma’s youth are either overweight or obese. Being overweight and obese are associated with many health risks, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, Type 2 Diabetes, and depression.
Do any of these sound familiar? I know I read that list and check off 2 or 3 with the hope that I will not have to check off the others.
There was a study done by a couple of newspapers here in Oklahoma, on a single day chosen at random, six out of 10 arrests were linked to drugs or alcohol in Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties. That was 38 out of 62 felony cases involved addiction to drugs or alcohol or the sale and distribution of drugs and alcohol.
This is not specific to Oklahoma. The war on drugs has delivered violence across our boarders and continues to threaten the future of large segments of our youth. Addiction and the surrounding trade burdens communities across the nation. In some communities young men and women have a better chance at being incarcerated than they do at going to college.
Abundance is the national crime. Some have too much so others do not have enough. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The world has enough for human needs, but not enough for human greed.”
What once was a pioneering spirit of community and togetherness has become a possession of individualism and fear of not having enough. We have forgotten what preceded the burden of the snake. Prior to the Fall we had all that we needed. We were without want.
The Kingdom of God is a marketer’s worst nightmare. There is no money to be made of the Kingdom of God. There is no way it will run out. There is not sale, no discounts for the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is one size fits all. There is plenty for everyone.
It is political season once again. Here we go with attack ads and slandertics used to pit the worst qualities of humanity in a way that is supposed to offer us a candidate that will undoubtedly do the right thing when in office. I wonder what Jesus thinks of the “taking back” language being evoked in Gods name.
The snakes that surround us in Oklahoma, in the US, all over tell us that we must horde, be careful of others getting one over on us. These snakes call us to share in their burden of abundance. Did Jesus not say to travel lightly when speaking the Gospel? I do not think Jesus was joking about reconciliation unto him costing us something other than “everything.”
The Promised Land awaits us. Abundance will do its part in preventing us from getting there. Abundance will dress up in lies of justice and promise you all that your eye can see just like it did with Jesus upon the Temple Mount. Abundance is wise, old, and set upon your destruction.
Do you want to live? Let the evil of abundance speak its lies to another. Let the dust settle for the victory is ours. “So Moses prayed for the people. And Yahweh 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.” Moses prayed for the people then took the idol of abundance and put it on a stick so we may remember that we got to get there together.