Numbers 21:4-9 – 4th Sunday of Lent – for March 18, 2012
“…And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live…” (Numbers 21:8)
I’ve never been snake bit.
I’ve seen snakes. And I’m not counting the zoo sightings. I’m talking about while riding a bike along a path, hiking a trail through a jumble of rocks and a few times around the neighborhood. Yep . . . seen ‘em, nearly walked on ‘em and have gladly avoided snakes short and long, still and slithering.
I’m not afraid of the creepy, crawlies like (in a fictional way) Indiana Jones was. No ophidiophobia for me.
The wandering Israelites were justifiably ophidiophobic since, so said the Bible, God unleashed a mess of “serpents among the people” (Numbers 21:6). Why did the Lord God Almighty do this dastardly divine deed? Simple…the get-out-of-Egypt-for-free sojourners complained, whined and grumbled! (Ha! And people wonder why there are atheists when they read about God as the original “snake handler?!”)
Here, we could engage in a dialogical tussle about God as a mean-spirited punisher vs. a compassionate creator. Hey, I don’t want to believe in a God who unleashes snakes! I don’t want to believe in selective punishment for certain sinners. I don’t want to believe in a God who initiates pain and misery and death. I’m less than lukewarm about a God who—so said the Bible—had his favorite human chum Moses concoct a snake-bite cure based on an odd symbolic serpent wrapped around a bronze pole.
Look at the serpent of bronze and live, the writer of Numbers exhorted. Blech! No thanks!
And yet I do have wounds. I don’t think a vengeful God punished me, but some scars were certainly caused by my foolishness.
There’s the faded line under an eye where a swing struck my face . . . I shouldn’t have been chasing my sister around the playground. Bam, the swing clunked me!
There’s the odd wrinkle on my left middle finger because a doctor repaired my crushed digit with stitches . . . I shouldn’t have been so lackadaisical with the equipment at a job during a college summer. Bam, an iron bar sucker-punched me!
My left leg sports pairs of weird “dimples,” wounds if you will, where metal pins once held broken bones together . . . I shouldn’t have slid down that snowy mountain slope without noticing the rock outcroppings. Bam, I careened into an unforgiving slab of granite!
I’ll bet you have scars with stories you’re proud to share or ashamed to ever mention. Though I’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s Jaws numerous times, I always enjoy one particular scene. Sure, I’ll jump when the shark first appears. And lines like You’re gonna need a bigger boat and That’s some bad hat, Harry merit repeating. For me, though, the scar “contest” between Robert Shaw’s Sam Quint and Richard Drefuss’ Matt Hooper is best of all. Back and forth they banter, exposing old scars, one-upping the other guy with tragic tales. Scars are memories. Scars are missing bits of flesh that flesh out the worst and best of life. If you can show your scar, you’re still alive. You survived. If you’re no longer whole, at least you’re not in a hole in the ground.
You can’t see my worst scars. Most are healed. But a few I pick at, never allowing them to properly mend.
I can’t show you the wound from my long-ago divorce. But it’s there.
I can’t show you the bruises my father left on me when he ordered me to leave his house. Sure, I now know Dad’s yelling, his paranoia, was influenced by a dementia my family hadn’t yet identified. But those bruises linger because of how hurtful he sounded and how much anger I held within.
I can’t show you the gash in my soul when a fellow pastor lied about me. He deceived others and knifed away part of my future. I don’t doubt my cynicism about the institutional church was borne from his actions. But, no blood, no foul, right?
I won’t (or can’t) write about several of my invisible scars. I am snake bit! If not God, then the world has unleashed serpents on me, and I’m ashamed of what I’ve done . . . or not done. If not God, then my arrogance has unleashed serpents on me, and I’m a petty man/boy because of what I’ve said . . . or not said.
In the unnerving imagery of John’s Gospel, all the wounds I won’t share are reminders of me loving “darkness rather than light.” This I believe: living in God’s good world means we’ll never avoid the fresh wounds and old scars. But how will we treat them once our souls are marked, once our hearts are broken?
Currently I’m co-leading a grief support group at a hospice. All participants suffered losses that left crater-sized wounds on their souls. Several commented how grateful they are just to have a place to share grief with those who also grieve.
Who among us is not wounded?
As one feeble example, I shared one of the most courageous things I ever did with the grief group. During the worst of my long-ago divorce, I gave “permission” to several close friends to ask me how I was doing and promised to honestly answer. I craved support while anger, self-hatred and fear battered my heart like bulldozers. Thanks be to God, a few friends became my “light,” my bronze serpents. I could gaze upon (and be seen by) the love of God-blessed friends who tended my wounds.
Maybe in this Lenten week, you’ll be Moses’ bronze serpent for another. Or you’ll courageously turn from a “poisonous serpent”—an unhealthy situation or relationship—and seek supportive “lights” in your life.
Who among us is not wounded?