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"Look and Live"
Numbers 21:4-9
We Christians do a lot of talking, or at least a lot of thinking, about sin.  Joseph was told by an angel to name Mary's first-born child Jesus because he would save his people from their sins.  But what exactly IS the nature of SIN? 
    I suppose we could pull out one of the scripture readings of last Sunday, from the twentieth chapter of Exodus, the ten commandments, and come up with some sense of what sin is all about. 
    And we could say that killing and cheating and stealing and lying are all sins.  But what is the ROOT of all this behavior?  WHY do people DO these things?
    Maybe you've heard me preach on this before, but I've long believed that greed is at the heart of most of these problems.  Yet,  a quick look at the ten commandments would lead most of us, if not all of us, to conclude that we are not guilty of greed.  We're not murderers or thieves.
    So does this mean that WE are not sinners? Or do we need some OTHER means of determining the nature of sin?
    We might say that sin is an offense against God, disobedience to God's laws; and we might look to Adam and Eve in the Garden, where God clearly set forth the rules, and Adam and Eve very clearly broke them.
    But is sin really all this legalistic?  Is it really an either/or matter?  I have my doubts.  And the children of Israel obviously had THEIR doubts, because they created all kinds of exceptions and conditions for the following of the commandments. 
    So is there any kind of guide for REALLY figuring out sin?  Well, I'm sure there are many, and each of us must deal with it in a manner that works for us.  But this morning I want to suggest one approach that MAY help us to get to the heart of the matter.
    In the fourth verse of the twenty-first chapter of the book of Numbers, as the children of Israel are journeying in the wilderness, "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 became impatient."  So what else is new?  Don't we all become impatient from time to time?  I know I do.  And we usually just think of it as a minor irritation.  No big deal.  But what happens when impatience IS a big deal?
    We all have our wants and needs.  And when they are not met as quickly as we would like, we become impatient.  But what happens when the impatience gets out of hand?  What happens when our impatience is no longer a minor irritation?  What happens when we ACT on our impatience? 
    Now, I don't want to demonize impatience, because I don't think that our acting on it is always that bad.  For example, I don't know a lot of people who PATIENTLY save up money to pay cash to buy cars and houses.  (Maybe we should, but most of us don't.)
    No, impatience becomes a real problem for us when patience seems to be an act of futility.  (And you've all heard of folks speak of "running out of patience.")
    At  that point, the issue of faith arises.  Do we have enough FAITH to continue to be patient?  Do we have the faith to WAIT, and trust that God WILL provide?
    I suspect that many wars are fought because folks don't have the patience to avoid conflict.  And stealing is for those who don't have the patience to EARN what they want.
    Well, on more than one occasion the Israelites lost patience with Moses.  But in this particular passage we read, "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."
    And the people have moved two steps beyond impatience.  First, they lash out at Moses.  And of course, it's all Moses fault.  Not only are they impatient, but they have found a scapegoat for their predicament.
    But they have also taken a second step.  "We detest this miserable food."  They are also striking out against God.  Biting the hand that feeds them.  And in their impatience, their feelings of futility and hopelessness, they are angry about everything and grateful for nothing.
    It could have been worse.  They could have had NO food at all.  But they're in no mood to count their blessings.  They're too impatient.
    You're all familiar with the story of the prodigal son.  Impatient to leave home, he asked his father for his share of the inheritance.  Impatient to have a good time, he blew it all on fast living. 
    And after satisfying his impatience, he realized he would be better off to return home, where he found a patient father waiting.
    Impatience blinds us.  Moses’ followers didn't realize how well off they were; the prodigal son didn't realize how well off he was.
    But like I said, the followers of Moses went a step beyond the prodigal son.  Not only are they impatient and disillusioned, but they are also ungrateful for what God has given them.
    And how often are we in that situation?  Unhappy because our lives aren't moving ahead like we want them to, but ungrateful for all that God has given us.
    In the sixth chapter of Matthew, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus told folks that they should stop being anxious about tomorrow; because if God took care of the grass in the field and the birds in the air, God was certainly going to take care of them as well.
    But God was not pleased with the people's behavior in the wilderness.
    "Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died."
    Now, this verse is open to a couple of interpretations that I can't accept.  One is that God is just plain mean.  And the other is that when bad things happen to us, it is always the result of God's punishment.
    I prefer to view this story symbolically, which you may or may not wish to accept.  The Bible may say that the Lord sent poisonous serpents, but I suspect that it was the impatience and ingratitude of the people that brought calamity upon themselves.
    I've known folks who worked themselves to death at an early age.  I've known folks who drugged themselves to death.  And I don't doubt that there are folks to worry themselves to death.  Now, that's not as dramatic as poisonous serpents, but the end results can be the same.
    And our failure to wait upon the Lord, our failure to be GRATEFUL for all that God has given us,  our failure to  be continually COUNTING our BLESSINGS, can bring all manner of sin into our lives, and all manner of self-destruction.
    You see, I don't believe that God needs to actually send poisonous serpents to bite us in response to our faithlessness:  we do it to ourselves.
    There's an old saying that "Time heals all wounds."  And I believe that's true.  But there is also a half-way facetious twist on that proverb that "Time wounds all heels."  And I also believe that saying is true.  Patience can heal us; impatience can wound and even destroy us.
    But getting back to those poisonous serpents:  they do have an effect.
    "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 it is a time of repentance.  It is a time of confession.  The people ADMIT that they've been impatient ingrates.  But there is an interesting twist to this passage.  When the people ask Moses to ask God to "take away the serpents," what exactly are they asking? 
    Are they asking God to take away their punishment?  Or are they asking God to take away their sin?
    On the surface of our lives, of COURSE we would ask God, in response to our confession, to take away our pain, our suffering, our punishment.  But on a deeper level, would we REALIZE  that all of this has come about because of our SIN? 
    And would we also ask God to take that away?  What I am speaking of here is the relationship between forgiveness and repentance.  We all seek forgiveness, but are we prepared to DO anything about it?  Are we prepared to truly repent?
    The specific words spoken to Moses by the people in this passage are interesting for what they do NOT say.  They DO say, "We have sinned," but stop there.  And I can't help but think how wonderful it would be if we could also read something like the second sentence from the prayer of confession of A Service of Word and Table IV as found in our hymnal, and which has come to us through the Anglican and Roman traditions:  "We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings, the remembrance of them is grievous unto us."
    And I have to wonder:  if the people had been in the habit of talking to God directly, rather than going through Moses, would they have handled this any differently?
    "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."
    Remember that I said that I prefer to deal with this symbolically rather than actually?  Well, what is going up on that pole?  Isn't it a replica of what has been biting and killing them?  What are they looking at, anyway?  Aren't they confronting their own SIN?
    Now, let's take a giant leap forward to the first Good Friday.  And let's take a look at that person on the cross.  When we look at a crucifix, what are we looking at?  Aren't WE confronting our own SIN? 
    When Jesus told us to "love one another" he probably knew how difficult it was for us to do that.  And when we look at him on the cross, we should be reminded of how much difficulty we have in following that seemingly simple commandment.
    "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."
    At the end of my first year in seminary, after spending about half the year studying the Bible and half the year studying the history of the church, we spent about five weeks trying to integrate it all, trying to tie it all together. 
    And one of the major assignments during that brief period was to design at least the interior of a church building, verbally or however our artistic talents led us.  And at the front of the sanctuary of the church I designed was a crucifix.  A large crucifix.  A cross with the crucified Jesus hanging on it.
    Now I realize that we protestants have empty crosses in our churches, because we worship a risen Christ.  But sometimes I wonder if we haven't sanitized our religion too much. 
    And maybe what we need is to see Christ on the cross to remind us graphically of our sin.  To CONFRONT us with our sin.  So that, like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we can look upon him, and truly live.

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