The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/22/09
Text: Numbers 21:4-9 (John 3:14-21)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Snakes. Do you like snakes? Not many do. I can think of no other creature on the face of the planet that so universally brings forth a sense of revulsion and disgust (other than, maybe, Bernie Madoff or the AIG bonus boys). True or not, we think of snakes as icky, slimy, nasty, and as our Old Testament lesson reminds, DANGEROUS.

It seems that the children of Israel, in the midst of their wilderness wandering after the escape from slavery in Egypt, had stumbled on to a location south of the Dead Sea that is infamous for its lethal snakes. "Big deal," they no doubt thought. "Why should we expect anything different? This trip has been one big fiasco from beginning to end."

Fiasco? Perhaps. Adventure? Absolutely. You can read all about this extended hike in the book of Numbers. In fact, the Hebrew Bible entitles the book more accurately "In the Wilderness." The narrative begins about a year after the Exodus. God tells Moses to take a census of the people to determine the NUMBER (thus the name of the book in our Bible) of men available for combat should such necessity arise. Then following about ten chapters of further instruction, they set out for the Promised Land.

As we know, it did not take long for the griping and grumbling to start. Sometime back, they had begun their diet of manna - those small round grains or flakes, which appeared around the Israelites' camp each morning, which were ground and baked into cakes or boiled. (1) The name may have come from the question the Israelites asked when they first saw them: "What is it (mah nah)?" (2) But now those cakes were getting OLD. "How about some MEAT, Moses? Yeah, Egypt may not have been perfect, but at least we had some fish every so often...not to mention cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions, even garlic. Give us some meat. Meat! Meat! Meat! Meat! These were not happy campers.

That rubbed off on Moses. So Moses said to the LORD,
Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, "Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child," to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, "Give us meat to eat!" I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once--if I have found favor in your sight--and do not let me see my misery. (3)
Poor Moses. Poor baby. God says that some help would be forthcoming - 70 men should be set aside to assist. Not only that, meat was on the way. Quail. God says, "You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month--until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you..." (4) So there!

The wilderness wandering continues. They arrived at the border of Canaan and were instructed to send in a spy team for a 40-day reconnaissance run - 12 men, one representing each of the tribes of Israel. You remember the result from Sunday School: the report of a land "flowing with milk and honey" (and to prove it they had brought back a bunch of grapes that was so huge that it took two of them to carry it), BUT the populace matched the grapes - also huge. Two of the twelve spies - Joshua and Caleb - said, "So what, let's go. But the other ten said, "No way; they would turn us into dog meat."

Again, the weeping and wailing and whining starts: "Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?" (5) Then they wanted to choose a new leader to replace Moses, someone who would take them back to the Pharaoh. Joshua and Caleb try to calm the crowd with new assurances of coming victory, but folks wanted to stone them into silence.

By now, God is getting steamed. "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they." (6) Once more, Moses intercedes on the people's behalf, calms God down and extracts a promise that they will not be wiped out. But there would be a price: the wilderness wandering would continue - 40 years year for each of the 40 days the spies were in the land; AND the only men of Israel now alive and over the age of 20 who would finally live in the Promised Land would be Joshua and Caleb, because they were the only two who had enough faith to believe that their God WOULD give the victory.

As you well know, the story does not end there. There would be more grumbling and grousing. One outright mutiny against Moses' leadership ended up costing the lives of almost 15,000 people in a plague. There are complaints about not enough water, so God arranges for Moses to be able to strike a rock with his staff and bring forth enough for all.

Now, the end of the long journey is near. And they have encamped in this desert region that is infamous for the snakes. The griping and moaning resume: "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." For God, this was about the last straw. Their venomous tongues would be repaid in kind... with more venom. And people began to die.

They come to Moses. They finally admit that they have done wrong: "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you." Aha! All the twelve-step programs tell us that the only way to correct a problem is to recognize that you have it. They agree that their mouths have gotten them into this trouble. "Now Moses, please, please, please pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us."

So he does. Moses intercedes in prayer, gets this strange instruction about making a bronze image of a serpent and hanging it on a pole in the center of the camp. Then he is to inform the people that anyone who is bitten will survive if he or she will just cast their eyes toward the snake. Strange. Why not just get rid of the snakes? Was this God's way of saying that healing will not come until we recognize the disease? Perhaps. So, the prescription was given - Look and Live - and they did. And the grumbling finally stopped. At least for these folks.

Jesus recalled the story one night in a Jerusalem garden in a conversation with Nicodemus. "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." It was a wonderful word of love and grace.

One might wish that this encounter in the desert with serious venom would have marked the absolute end of venomous complaining and criticizing among God's people, but we know it did not. It goes on all the time, even to this day, despite the fact that it does no one any good. Some wag has noted Jesus could turn water into wine, but has never been able to turn whinING into anything.

Sometimes we might NEED snakes. There is a story of three men who live on a ranch out West, the father John, the sons, Jake and Joe. They never had any use for the church until one day Jake is bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor is summoned, but the prognosis is not good. Jake is going to die. The younger son is sent to bring the preacher. When he arrives, the parson is asked to offer a prayer for Jake: "O Father God, we give you thanks that you have sent this snake to bite Jake. It has brought him to seek you. We ask, Lord, that you would send another snake to bite Joe and a really big one to bite the old man, so that they, too, might come to seek you. We thank you for your providence and ask that you send among us bigger and better rattlesnakes. Amen." (7) Hmm.

Some years ago, an insightful watcher of the church by the name of Mike Yaconelli, wrote an article called "The Tyranny of Trivia." (8) Some of his observations remind me of our ancient desert wanderers as well as our own 21st century situation. Listen:
There is something wrong with the organized church. You know it. I know it. We all see that something is wrong -- drastically wrong. Just one semi-close look at the organized church - with its waning influence, its corruption, and its cultural impotence -- tells us that something has gone awry. But, the question is, what has gone awry? What IS wrong? I think I know.

The problem with the church is not corruption. It is not institutionalism. No, the problem is far more serious than something like the minister running away with the organist. The problem is pettiness. Blatant pettiness.

Visit any local church board meeting, and you will be immediately shocked by the sheer abundance of pettiness. The flower committee chairman has decided to quit because someone didn't check with her before they put flowers on the altar last Sunday. The Chairman of the Board is angry because a meeting was held without his knowledge. One of the elders is upset with the youth director because the youth director wants to take the church youth group to a secular Rock concert. The Women's Kitchen committee is up in arms because, at the last youth group meeting (which has mushroomed from 15 kids to 90 kids in six months), the kids took some sugar from the kitchen. The janitor is threatening to quit because the youth group played a game on the grass over the weekend, and now the lawn needs extra work.

I can understand each and every one of the gripes mentioned above. I also understand that the same general argument is always made for each one of these gripes: "If you don't have order, you have chaos. It sounds like a little thing, but if everyone was allowed to do '...,' think what that would mean."

Ah, yes, think what it would mean. What WOULD it mean? Probably nothing. And yet, in every church in this country, boards, ministers, and church members -- in the name of "what would this mean?" -- are running around trying to answer that very question. In other words, churches are so preoccupied with the petty, they can't spend the time required to do what does matter. So, I would like to say what people in church leadership are apparently having a difficult time saying today: there is no excuse for pettiness in the church. Pettiness should have no place at all in any church for any reason. Petty people are ugly people. They are people who have lost their vision. They are people who have turned their eyes away from what matters and focused, instead, on what doesn't matter...
Interesting way of describing that, don't you think? They "have turned their eyes away from what matters..." How easy that is to do. We forget that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!

It proved a problem for ancient Israel. Yes, they focused on the brass serpent when they were supposed to and found healing. But, as the years wore on, that brass serpent became an idol to which the people brought sacrifices. Finally, the practice became so outrageous that good king Hezekiah smashed the thing to pieces. (9) It is easy to lose focus.

Time for the church to get the focus back. To Look and Live. And to remember how contagious that sort of thing is: look up, and everyone else wants to look up with you. What a witness! "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

What is the main thing? Not only did Jesus tell you, but every preacher and Sunday School teacher and Youth leader you ever knew told you: in the language of the beautiful King James Bible that we all memorized, "For God so loved the world..." - say it with me - "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Turn your eyes upon Jesus Look full in his wonderful face; And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of his glory and grace. (10)

Look and live.


1. Exodus 16:13-36

2. Barbara Bruce, "Manna," Holman Bible Dictionary, electronic edition, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)

3. Numbers 11:11-15

4. Num. 11:19-20a

5. Num. 14:2-3

6. Num. 14:11-12

7. Robert Hutchinson, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1997 03 09, #73, 3/6/97

8. The Wittenburg Door, #82, Dec 1984/ Jan 1985 quoted by Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday, #3147, 3/3/97

9. II Kings 18:4

10. Helen H. Lemmel, 1922

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail