March 15, 2015 – 4th Sunday in Lent
Introduction: The book of Numbers by its Hebrew title is called “In the Wilderness.” It is the story of the people of God in the desert wilderness as they travel from Egypt and the wilderness mountain of Sinai to the promised land of Canaan.
Read Numbers 21.4-9 [We pick up with the people of God when they are at Mount Hor.]
The Hebrew people have been in the wilderness for a while now. They fled Egypt and have been making their way towards God knows what. A promised land, they have heard, but there’s little evidence of when they’ll ever get there. And out there in what seems like a god-forsaken wilderness, they complain. They grumble. The King James Version called it murmuring. Which is a demure way of saying they spoke against Moses and against God. They said, “We’d rather be enslaved in Egypt than be out here in the wilderness with you.” “We’d rather be slaves of the Pharaoh than be on our way to freedom with our God.”
This is the last of five stories in Numbers where the people complain about their leaders in the wilderness. Up until this story, the complaints have been against Moses (and sometimes, Aaron). In this final of the five stories, the complaints are also against God. And in response, poisonous snakes bite the people and some of them died because of the snake bites. (Which perhaps is why this is the last of the complaining stories.) (Taylor, 99)
In the three verses right before this story of complaining against God and Moses, the people ask God to give them victory in a battle and God does and then they turn around and complain. Which, Professor Gene March says, is “regularly the case when one considers the long history of Israel’s relationship with God.” (March, 100) Lest we are too hard on the Israelites, most of us are probably like that too. Trusting God does not come easily and we are quick to complain when things don’t go the way we want them to go.
When the snakes start biting and people start dying, the Israelites recognize they have turned away from God and they ask Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. And Moses does. And God provides a means for those who are bitten by the poisonous snakes to be healed. And the people live.
Gene March reminds us that “‘Faith’ in the Bible is regularly understood as ‘trust’ rather than ‘belief.’ Moses did not challenge the people to ‘believe’ in some doctrine about God. The aim of Moses was for the people to move forward trusting that God would keep the divine commitment [—the divine promise—] to lead [them] to a new land.” (March, 100)
What is at stake in this story (and the entirety of the people in the wilderness story) is trusting God—which they (and we too) have difficulty doing. In response to the people’s lack of trust, God gets angry. Professor Johanna Bos notes that “God’s anger…is not forever, but God’s sustaining presence is lasting in spite of their shortcomings.” (van Wijk-Bos, 176)
Which points us to Psalm 107—which is placed in the lectionary as a commentary on the Numbers story (Gambrell): O give thanks to the Holy God, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever. Let those whom God redeemed say so: God’s steadfast love endures forever.
The psalm is a recounting of a number of circumstances in which God’s people were in trouble and God delivered them from their trouble. The psalm directs the people to give thanks: for God’s steadfast love and wonderful works to human kind, let the people thank the Holy God. We hear the stanza of Psalm 107 remembering those who were sick and drew near to death. Then they cried out and God saved them. God healed them. Let them thank the Holy God. Which, of course, is used in this juxtaposition of texts to direct people to give thanks to God for bringing healing when they were dying from the poisonous snake bites. God’s steadfast love endures forever. In spite of the people’s shortcomings, in spite of our own shortcomings, in spite of their inability to trust God, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
That part about not being able to trust—or at least a tenousness about trusting—trips us all up.
What keeps us from being able to trust? To trust God and to trust one another? Gene March observes that those who are “‘untrusting’ are quite often unreliable toward one another as well as toward God.” (March, 100)
Do you remember from Intro to Psychology class a discussion of Erik Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development? The very first stage of development in our lives (according to Erickson) is trust versus mistrust. Is the world and are in the people in it basically trustworthy or is the world a fearful place with unpredictable people and events? That’s the first developmental stage we go through when we’re born. When a baby cries, does someone come to comfort her? When a baby is hungry, does someone feed him? When a child’s needs are consistently met, the child will learn that she can trust people to care for her. When a child develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. If a child’s needs are not consistently met, the child will learn that he cannot trust people to care for him and he or she will develop fear about the world and its unpredictability.
So let’s talk about fear. Because even if we were raised by people who cared for us and met our needs, there is still a lot of fear in the world. In 1999 in a Harris Poll, 36% of US adults said they were afraid of snakes. (Taylor, 99) In 2014 snakes did not make it to the most feared list. Now 71% of us fear a major terrorist attack in the US; 57% fear being killed in a mass shooting and 69% or people worry cybercriminals will steal their credit card information. At the end of 2014, 43% of people feared contracting the Ebola virus. (www.theweek.com)
No matter what it is we’re afraid of, fear makes us small and timid. It makes us suspicious and quick to judge and criticize and scorn. Fear makes it hard to love. The writer of 1st John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” (4.18) Once, in a scary time in my own life, I was trying to recount that verse to a friend and I mixed it up saying, “Perfect fear casts out love” which is also true. Often the things we fear begin to be idols in our lives—we may not see them as physical statues but we grant them power and let them control us.
How many of us live with fears that keep us from doing something we want to do? Or maybe the fear has become so strong we have forgotten that it’s keeping us from doing something we wanted at one point to do.
The fear of God’s people in Numbers kept them from trusting God, kept them hungering after their lives as slaves back in Egypt rather than being able to welcome a life of God’s freedom.
So I wonder what it is that we fear that keeps us from trusting God, keeps us from trusting ourselves to God? What are the fears that keep us stuck in the old stories we tell about ourselves instead of embracing the life of being God’s beloved? Perhaps there is an invitation in the season of Lent to let go of the fear we have so that we might welcome a life of God’s freedom—freedom not just for ourselves but for all people.
Freedom that sometimes takes us places we did not expect and through circumstances we may not ever have wished for—but a freedom that comes with knowing we belong to God and that God accompanies us through all the days and nights of our lives
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David Gambrell, personal conversation.
W. Eugene March, “Theological Perspective – Numbers 21:4-9, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective – Numbers 21:4-9, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
http://m.theweek.com/articles/441320/36-statistics-that-reveal-what-americans-like-2014, accessed 14 March 2015.