This story from Numbers 21 from this week’s scripture readings should be scary. I don’t think it is a coincidence that God uses the animal that scares us most to scare us straight. Well for we New Zealanders being bought up in a country with no snakes, we tend to be scared by them. And it seems the scare nature works for the Hebrew people. They repent and beg Moses, asking him to intercede on their behalf to their God, against whom they had sinned. So, the killer serpents as it were, lead the people to repentance.
But God does not just get rid of the snakes. The dangers of the world are still there with them. We are left with an image of our God taking a symbol of fear and death and turning it into a symbol of life. Once the people have repented of their sin (understood as turning away from God) and turned again to trust in God, the thing that had been killing them becomes the thing that saves them. And it works very well, by all accounts, for years and years.
I find it interesting because it shows that Moses not only made this serpent but also that it worked, because people were still praying to it centuries later (2 Kings 18:4). Sadly, the people came to believe that the bronze serpent, and not God, was the agent of their healing, so in the time of Hezekiah, Hezekiah rightly destroyed it. Whenever we mistake the signs and symbols for God, and we begin to worship the signs and symbols instead of God, then we have made idols that need to be crushed.
I also note from this passage in Numbers 21 the fact that it seems that which causes suffering can also be the vehicle for healing, both internal and external. The snakes came upon the Hebrews in the wilderness as consequence of their turning away from God. The people suffered from them. Yet God used this same source of suffering to heal them. Every time they looked at the instrument of their suffering, they remembered the cause of their suffering. Their memories caused them to turn back to God. And because they turned back to God, they were healed.
There are times on our life’s journey and especially for those on a Christian journey when we become aware of the ways we have turned away from God. Often, I look back on events in my life and see there what seems to have been a times of suffering and at those time I have experienced the consequences of self-absorbed choices. At these times, it seems that disobedience, that is to say, the ways we have turned away from or ignored God, are ever before us. Overcome by these imperfections, we often become ready to call out to God. God knows our tragic human flaws and loves us anyway. When I reflect on those difficult and challenging events in my life I see that the very mistakes we’ve made, harm we have caused, and the harm done to us can become symbols of our healing.
Every time we look at them, we remember the suffering resulting from our choices or of those we love; and we remember we can make a different choice this or next time and find healing. God’s nature, which is love, cannot resist expressing itself; God pours out abounding mercy and grace on us. During this season of Lent which is a season of introspection and reflection, it is good to both acknowledge and if able confess the ways in which we have turned away from God and to let go. In this way, we can receive the lavish grace and love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and we make choices that make us and others whole.