The brief Old Testament passage (Numbers 21:4-9) for the fourth Sunday of Lent tells a story of one of God’s paradoxes. It begins in the Sinai desert after the Israelites escaped from Egypt.
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.”
The complainers exaggerated their situation. When they did not like the bitter water of Marah (Exod. 15:22-25) the Lord showed Moses how to sweeten it. When they complained about lack of food (Exod. 16:2-3) the Lord gave them manna. When they whined that they were thirsty Moses struck a rock and water gushed forth (Exod. 17:3). When they grew bored of the manna and grumbled to Moses, God sent them quail (Num. 11:4-6).
God must have become fed up with the constant complaints, especially in light of his generous responses. So, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
To their credit the Israelites recognized the serpents as punishment and repented. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people. 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.” 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.
The despised symbol of death—the bronze serpent – became the symbol of life. This wasn’t the only paradox. In a broader sense, the desert place where no other humans lived became a home for the Israelites for 40 years because of God’s generosity and care. The wilderness was where they became God’s people.
Jesus refers to this serpent story in the gospel for the fourth Sunday of Lent (John 3:14-21). The context for the gospel is that Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus how a man can be born again to eternal life. “…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus was early in John’s account of Jesus’ ministry. Even then, Jesus was pointing to his death as the source of new life… for Nicodemus, being born again.
Faith is one response to seeming paradoxes. ‘Through Jesus’ death to new life” is a paradox of our Christian faith. We cannot explain it through science. Our experience tells us that each person can live only his or her own life, yet Jesus offers to share his eternal life with us. We have only the word of Jesus and the testimony of the gospels. Yet faith itself is a gift, no less than the manna in the desert. As we move through the season of Lent we face the biblical accounts of God’s work in the lives of his people. We also face the paradox that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life And we are invited to respond to these accounts.
- Do you see a parallel between the complaints of the Israelites in the desert and the experience of many Christian churches these days with their declining attendance? Society has lost faith in the protection and care of God. What assurances do you see that God is with us?
- Nicodemus had approached Jesus tentatively, yet Jesus gave him hard ‘faith in a nutshell’ instead of a parable to ponder. How do you think Nicodemus would process Jesus words? Would he have accepted them immediately? Would he have found them hard to believe, but liked many other things about Jesus so be willing to consider them? Would he have pondered them as paradoxical truth?
- What are the paradoxes of your own life? Was it hearing God call to you in silence? Was there something painful or regretful, that you wished had never happened, but from which you drew wisdom and strength? Can you look at Christ’s death through the lens of this experience?