Thought for the Week: 14th March 2021
Our thought this Sunday is by Steve Langton
Snakes and crosses
Today is Mothers’ Day, but our thought is instead based on the Old Testament reading for this Sunday from Numbers 21: 4-9, which has a number of parallels with our pandemic life:
4 The Israelites left Mount Hor by the road that leads to the Gulf of Aqaba, in order to go around the territory of Edom. But on the way the people lost their patience 5 and spoke against God and Moses. They complained, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We can't stand any more of this miserable food!” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Now pray to the Lord to take these snakes away.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 Then the Lord told Moses to make a metal snake and put it on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten could look at it and be healed. 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten would look at the bronze snake and be healed.
There are various places in the Old Testament where God presents himself as the father of the Israelites, and they certainly behave like children on occasions. Those of us who have teenage children will certainly relate to the whingeing of verses 4 and 5. They have, of course, been miraculously freed by God from slavery in Egypt, they have been provided with manna to eat and water to drink, and they have been given victory over various enemies. Despite all this, rather than giving thanks for what God has done for them, they instead complain about the food.
Well there’s certainly a lot of complaining at the moment, and I wouldn’t want to minimise the real suffering of many people at this current time; those suffering physical illness, mental health problems, economic hardship or the pain of isolation. Nevertheless there is also a good deal of excessive whingeing from those who are actually benefitting from many good gifts of God.
The next connection with our present times is the plague of snakes; suddenly there was a new threat with the risk of imminent and apparently random death. Sound familiar? Interestingly the writer unequivocally ascribes the snakes to God’s actions (‘the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people’), an idea that sounds alien to the God of love presented to us in the New Testament. A topic that we don’t have time to go into today.
And the final link with today is the God-given cure for the plague, in the form of the snake on a pole. In the same way God, working through the world’s vaccine scientists, has given us a way out of the Covid pandemic. Note that the cure for the Israelites involved them taking some action – they had to look at the snake to be cured, just as we need to go and get vaccinated to gain protection.
I wouldn’t want to push this analogy too far, and we should instead dwell on the much more powerful analogy in our reading from John 3:14-21: ‘As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’ Just as the Israelites in the desert faced the poisonous snakes, we face the plague of sin and evil in our lives and in our world. Just as they had to respond to the snake on the pole to live, we must respond to Christ’s death on the cross to gain eternal life. And whilst the snake cured the Israelites, it did not rid them of the snakes completely. Whilst the vaccine will hopefully allow us to live with covid, it will not, at least in the short term, rid us of the disease. And whilst the cross frees us from our sins, it does not rid the world of all sin.
So as we prepare to go out once more into the world, let us thank God both for the vaccines which give us hope in this pandemic, and for Jesus’s life and death which gives us hope in this sinful world.