Rev. George Miller
March 18, 2012
In a little bit we’ll be treated to a solo by Sheila who’ll sing “I Believe,” a song introduced by Frankie Laine in the 50’s, remade by the Bachelors in the 60’s and given a countrified twang by Dolly Parton in the 70’s.
That’s the thing about classic songs: they stand the test of time and can translate into any genre of music.
For example, “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack. It debuted nearly 40 years ago and is about a woman listening to a man sing such painfully personal songs it’s as if with each strum of the guitar he is “killing her softly with his song.”
I didn’t grow up on the original version, but the remake Perry Como did. Do ya’ll remember Perry Como and his television specials? No you don’t: you’re too young!
Anyhow, my mother loved Perry Como; she’d play his album all the time and I heard this song again and again.
Then in the 90’s a rap group called The Fugees remade it, adding a hip hop beat that shook the speakers. It became an instant R&B classic; the song was everywhere: radios, cars driving by, the nightclubs.
In fact, long after the song was released, I was in a Minneapolis nightclub with people of all ages when this song came on, and the entire place was filled with the sound of everyone singing along, a communal event I won’t soon forget.
Songs like “I Believe” and “Killing Me Softly” can bring folk together and are timeless because they speak to a universal truth.
It also doesn’t hurt if you have a title that catches the attention. What does it mean to say someone is “killing me softly”?
There are loud ways in which we are killed: gunfire, car crashes, war.
There are the more silent, but just as dangerous, ways: cancer, addiction, obesity.
Then the ways which are perhaps even more insidious: jealousy, greed, regret, loneliness.
God wants us to have life, not death, but like snakes, these silent killers have a way of sneaking up on us, biting us when we are at our most vulnerable, their poison silently doing their destructive work.
Who can save us from their deadly venom?
To find an answer, let’s look at today’s scripture and the biblical narrative in general.
The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for a long time after being freed from bondage in Egypt.
Though they were free, though God had done amazing, wonderful things for them, the Israelites had a very selective memory. Whenever things became a bit rough they went straight to whining and expressing a desire to go back.
Although Egypt had been killing them slowly, they remember it as a place where they had meat and fruit aplenty; they forget that it was also the place where they were slaves and the King killed their children.
So as they wander through the dessert, heading towards the Promised Land, they begin to complain.
Even though God has given them water from the rock, quail from the skies and bread for heaven, they call the food miserable.
They speak against God and Moses, saying “You have no clue what you’re doing and we detest the slop you’re feeding us.”
Well this really upsets God… ssso snakes are set loose amongst the people, biting and killing them if not ssssoftly, then painfully.
The people realize they have sssinned against God in a big way and ask Moses to pray on their behalf to take away the serpents.
God has Moses create a bronze snake on a pole so that people can look upon it and have life.
Odd story, isn’t it? It’s a story that demands us to wrestle with it, to ask hard questions, to think about what we actually believe.
Do we believe this story to be factually true?
Do we believe it to be metaphorically true?
Do we believe that perhaps there was a time in the wilderness when a number of people were bit by snakes and the author is trying to make sense of it all?
What do we make of this image of a clearly angry and punishing God? What do we think about snakes being turned loose and a bronze statue that can give life?
Do we focus on the punishment and consequences of the people’s actions? Or do we focus on the healing?
Is this story ultimately about sssin or sssalvation? Is it about punishment or grace?
Before even attempting to answer any of these questions, there’s a quote I’d like to share, from Heinrich Heine: “I like to sin, God likes to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged.”
So again, is this ssstory featuring sssnakes about sssin or sssalvation?
Yes, it appears as if God has punished the people, but God has also provided a source of healing for them.
If we are to take the entire biblical narrative as a whole, then as Christians we can find the answer in the Gospel of John, chapter 3.
In it, a man named Nicodemus goes to visit Jesus to find out who he is. Jesus alludes to his death by saying “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
For Jesus, Numbers 22 is then a sssstory of sssalvation, that God loves the world and does not want to see us perish, but for us to enjoy life eternal.
The ways of life are sssimple: to love God, to love our neighbor and to embrace the gift of grace.
Yet the ways of death are many; they make us lost; they make us blind and they find a way to kill us sssoftly, insssidiousssly, like sssnakes in a dessert.
Some of the snakes that lead to death are outside ourselves; what other people do to us, the actions of big business that don’t care about the environment, and governments who always seem to be at war.
Some of the snakes that lead to death stem from within. Like the Israelites, there is the impatience that resides in all of us.
Impatience that demands things to happen now, right here, in our way. Impatience that leads to accidents and rash decisions.
Impatience that leads us to believe God doesn’t care, so what’s the point?
Some of the snakes are the ssself-indulgent habits we are bitten by. Overspending, overfeeding, overdemading; things that we think brings us joy but actually poison our spirits.
Some of the snakes bite hard; their venom festering in our body, leading to wretchedness.
-holding onto memories of a past wrong;
-living with the unbearable nature of regret
-assuming that everyone should think, act and be just like us
-and punishing them when they are not.
All of these are serpents that creep up, bite us and spread their poison throughout our bodies and souls, taking away from the life that God wants for us.
And the truth is, as long as there are humans, as long as we find ourselves wandering around the wilderness of life, there will always be snakes waiting to bite us; the trick is how we will respond and how we find our healing.
One way is to be like the people of Israel. To acknowledge the snakes and to confess one’s sins and ask God to intercede; that’s an act of faith that leads to healing and eternal life.
Another way is to look towards the cross. To realize that God created us to live, not to die; that God sent his Son not to condemn the world, but to save it.
The ultimate way Jesus did that was his willingness to be lifted up on the cross where his broken body became a sign that there is nothing God would not do for us.
But, it is important to remember that we can not separate the cross from the resurrection, which is a reminder that no one is so broken that God could ignore or desert them.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent to offer the people life amidst snakes, Jesus was exalted on the cross so that we may have life in the here and now; eternal life.
In conclusion, it’s been said that the Old Testament allows us to understand the story of our lives.
Just as Israel was on a journey between redemption from slavery and entrance into the Promised Land, we are on a similar journey, traveling between our redemption by the cross and our entrance into the kingdom of God.
Yes, while on this journey there will be various snakes and serpents that will slither into our way, trying to destroy us and steal away the gifts of life with their venomous bite.
The snakes of sin may try to make us spiritually dead and blind, but in Christ’s grace we find life and sight.
Because of this, we do not need to look upon a serpent on a pole to be healed. Instead, we have the life, death and resurrection of Christ to remind us that we are already sssaved.
If we doubt, if we ever need to be reminded, all we have to do is lift our eyes up to the cross and remember God’s promise of sssalvation.
In Christ’s grace we find sight which allows us to see all that God has done for us; in grace we find life so that we can enjoy it in abundance.
Yes, there are many ways in which we can be killed sssoftly, but in Christ we are joyfully loved, and we are ultimately healed.
For that we can all say “Hallelujah” and “Amen!”