Tuesday of Lent IV – Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And 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 loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

“I have brought the Lord’s Supper today, Tom. Would you like to receive it?” I have spoken those words or words like it many times in hospital and nursing home rooms. This time is like many others. Tom responds with an eager, “Yes!” Tom was dying when I brought him that meal. We pray for the cancer to go away. It does not. His body is wasting away despite the best efforts of his doctors. Every treatment fails to halt the progress of the misshapen lump that grew within him. Soon, Tom dies.  

As I talk with Tom, I want God to get rid of this disease for him. I have prayed to that end. But God has not given Tom and me what we asked for. He often does not take my directions. He always has better things in mind. Instead of taking away the cancer he has given Tom to eat a meal intimately connected to another death, perhaps even more cruel and gruesome than Tom’s long slow dying has been. Certainly, it was far less justified. It looks so much like what Tom is suffering.

The people asked and Moses prayed that the serpents would go away. God had a better idea – another serpent. Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Did you notice that God’s answer to Moses’ prayer looks a great deal like the problem? Now, if the folks look up to the bronze serpent, they will not die of the snake bite. It pointedly does not say that the snakes go away or that they will not be bitten. Think about what that was like for them. If there are poisonous snakes slithering on the ground, my eyes are probably glued on the floor around my feet. Even if I have been bitten, I will have to force my eyes upward to look at that serpent on a pole. I will have to trust Moses’ words.

God asked Tom in faith to look at another dying, another time a man died a cruel and senseless death. That dying would make all the difference. Look at that one hung on a cross, high enough to see, and live. There are many things in this world which would devour us, poison our lives, and make us wretched. It is wise to keep an eye out for them, avoid them when we can. But we cannot avoid them all. Eat right, exercise, take your vitamins and die anyway. There is no escaping that eventuality. To live, to really live, one much pry your eyes upward to another dying, to a cross and the one who gave his life for the sins of the world.

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