Look And Live
I've a message from the Lord, hallelujah!
More of that in a moment.
First, though - see how they come, streaming from the burning bowels of the earth, from the dark doors of the secret earth, writhing like lightning. Snakes in their hundreds, slithering into sandals, squirming into clothes, stinging with a poison so fiery that it was like burning in a blaze of flames. Many of the Israelites died as a result of this infestation of poisonous snakes, and those who survived begged Moses their leader to pray for the snakes to be taken away.
It's a horrible scene, this death in the desert, a desert we all too sadly have learned to know, for it's like the desert we see on our televisions as we watch the seemingly unending conflicts in the Middle East.
The desert through which the Hebrews trekked was, and is, a desolate place. For fifty miles you meet only shifting sands - one moment rippled like sea-side waves, the next whipped up into a frenzy by the searing sirocco wind. But then, after this terrible desolation of the sand dunes, you come to the palm-groves of Elath, where water is sweet and rest is blissful. The pleasant interlude in the oasis, however, cannot last, for the inexorable desert beckons, bleaker than a nightmare. The dunes give way to a wide and level plain, strewn with countless boulders of basalt and pebbles of flint. At night, the moonbeams gleam on intervening patches of sand or yellowish streaks of withered grass; and over all, day and night, there hangs a fearful silence, still as the grave.
For a hundred miles and more the route for Israel lies through this blistering desert. There is an easier way for their journey -through the land of Edom; but the king of Edom has refused them passage through his land, and they are forced to make a detour over this grim landscape. But they are not now so very far from the Promised Land, and this last leg of their journey will bring them to their new home at last.
The water supplies, however, begin to run out, and the manna they have been eating for some thirty-eight years is turning to ashes in their mouths. They have come to loathe it: every new mouthful seems even nastier and more repulsive than the last. They burst out into bitter complaint, and speak against God and against Moses: 'Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food'.
If it be not too irreverent a thing to do, put yourself in God's place: what would you do, faced with such a serious charge? For nearly forty years he has been trying to teach these people to trust him, but it is clear that they still have the lesson to learn. So, says the story, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among them - a 'bit over the top', you might think, and a glaring contradiction of our normal idea of a God who is just and good and kind.
We cannot imagine, for example, that Jesus would ever behave in such a way, and we would love to know what he thought about it. He did in fact, refer to it, as we heard in our Gospel lesson, but he didn't question God's excessive punishment of his wayward people. Instead, he concentrated on the healing of Israel by means of the bronze serpent raised as a standard among the people, and he applied that picture to himself.
His thinking may have gone something like this. The bronze serpent was lifted up, I will be lifted up on the cross; it was to be looked upon with the gaze of repentance, I will be looked upon with a similar repentant look as I hang on the cross; it signified the gracious intervention of God, the healer of his people's ills, I will hang on the cross as the Saviour of the world, the healer of the nations. And so, the serpent image fades out of sight; the cross stands clear on its hill at Calvary. 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.
Today, in the desert of our sin-poisoned, war-torn world, we look, not at a serpent on a standard, but at Christ on a cross. Like millions of others, I watched the Service of Commemoration from St Paul's Cathedral, to mark the end of Combat Operations in Afghanistan. There were many compelling moments, not least when the choir sang Stainer's Passion anthem, 'God so loved the world'. Listen and think of what the word gave means, 'gave his only Son'.
God gave his Son to be born of a woman, to take our nature upon him, to experience from the inside our world of grief and graves, and to die at last a felon's death on a cross, through and for our sins. Beneath that cross of Jesus, today we take our stand. Our gaze takes our hearts upward, and
'upon that cross of Jesus
That cross is both the measure and the pledge of love, a love divine all loves excelling, a love stronger than death, a 'love that wilt not let us go'. We reach out to grasp it, and we are held by it.
Look then, at that cross, look with penitence, trust, and hope.
I've a message from the Lord, hallelujah!
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