A common dialogue that you hear in my house is “Don’t whinge!” followed by “I’m not whinging!” Whinging is one of those things that really pushes my buttons and irritates me. In the numbers reading set out in the lectionary this week we read about the Israelites whinging against Moses and God. This was not the first time they whinged. Prior to this they were whinging about not having any water and this time it was the water and the food.
Now I confess that although I get really annoyed by others whinging I have been known to whinge myself. I confess that there are times when I stare into my wardrobe and despite it being full of clothes, I can complain that I have nothing to wear. Other times the staring is into the full fridge or pantry but exclaim there is nothing to eat. Maybe I’m not the only one guilty of this, maybe you have been guilty too or seen others doing just this or something similar. I think we all relate to wanting and longing for more than what we have even if we don’t really need it. I can relate to the Israelites when they say:
“For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5)
Following this we read:
“Then the Lord sent poisonousserpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6)
I have wrestled with this throughout the week. Wrestled with the idea of a vengeful punishing God and the contrast of the loving God shown through the revelation of Jesus the Christ. God who is on the side of the oppressed and marginalised, this loving, compassionate God that so loves the world… How are the two images reconciled with each other?
A couple of the things that makes us human is that we try to make meaning and we are story tellers. Putting these two things together results is myths. Myths are traditional stories that tell the early history of a people or explain a natural or social phenomenon. All cultures have these stories. The indigenous people of this land now called Australia have these stories called the dreaming or dreamtime and songlines. Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes. Rather than just speaking creation into existence in this mythology it was sung into existence.
Mythologies try to explain why things are the way they are; “how the elephant got it’s trunk”, “how the Kookaburras got their Laugh”. Could this story also be an explanation for why things happened. Could the people who had been whinging have a guilty conscious and think they deserved punishment? Could they have been looking for someone or something to blame and are making sense of the pain and death that they were experiencing. I wonder if the Israelites connected the pain and death with their speaking out against Moses and God and it made sense that it was God’s punishment.
The people after all come to Moses and say:
“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” (Numbers 21:7)
Moses prays for the people and God tells him:
“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole” (Numbers 21:8)
This symbol has become a symbol of medicine including the World Health Organisation which we have been hearing a lot from over the last year. This symbol while biblical also has origins in Greek mythology. The Greek god of healing, Asclepius and depictions of him generally show him holding a rod with a snake coiled around it. A number of Greek stories either parallel or are derived from earlier biblical sources so this image may be inspired by our biblical story of the Israelites and Moses.
I guess most of us, if not all, have had experiences with hospitals or doctors that are painful. Whether worrying about results that turned out fine or hearing the news the results were not what we had hoped. I have my share of medical worries and become much more well equated with Westmead Children’s hospital than I ever wished to be.
While being a new mum is difficult for all for me it meant spending a lot more time in hospital than I expected. It was a dark time in my life. A time of grief and fear. I asked questions of God? Why did you let this happen God? Why me God? Why her God? Is this some kind of punishment? I spent a lot of time praying for healing to take place. Prayer to God asking for healing, praying my little baby would be “normal”.
Like the Israelites I wanted the serpents taken away from me and her.
But God does not always respond in the way we would like.
God said to Moses:
“’Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 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.” (Numbers 21:8)
In time it became clear that God was not going to take away the serpent in my life either.
While I came to understand it was not a punishment and now believe our loving God does not make bad things happen to punish us, it became clear to me that God doesn’t just take these bad things away either. Instead God takes these bad things, these things that cause pain and fear and asks us to look at them. In the facing of our pain and fear we are able to find healing.
In the gospel reading John tells us:
“…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (John 3:14)
Jesus, the son of man, God has become for us our way to healing. Jesus, his life, ministry, death and resurrection has become for us our way to healing. It doesn’t always make sense to us. In a world in which we are told success is being in control, being strong, being happy, and an absence of any weakness. It leads us to run and hide from our pain and suffering. Some of us turn to food for comfort, others try to supress it through alcohol or other drugs, some try to fill the emptiness by buying a bigger house, a newer car, some keep busy and keep the pain at a distance.
I think it is fair to say that at some time in our lives we fail to comprehend how or why an all-powerful God would allow pain and suffering. But God does allow it and what’s more God enters fully into it. In the life of Jesus, God experienced first-hand human weariness, grief and the extreme pain and humiliation of being betrayed and hung on a cross to die.
The cross for us is not a magical symbol that fixes all that is wrong in our lives. It points us to Jesus, to God. The God who provided for the Israelites in the desert and who provides for us. It doesn’t mean all our problems will be magically fixed but it is an invitation to share our lives with God. With the God who has experienced pain living as Jesus. Unlike us, God does not run or hide from pain or suffering. When we journey through life with God, God can carry our burdens, can carry us when we don’t have the strength to carry ourselves. The story does not end in death but resurrection.
Always the cross comes before the resurrection. Often the road to healing and light runs straight through the darkness and pain. We need to be willing to face our pain, our fears, our brokenness. When we face Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, we face our broken humanity and find true healing, salvation, forgiveness, peace, love and grace. All this is possible when we journey with God.
Rev Tammy Hollands