Numbers 21: 4-9:
"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 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.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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 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.’ 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." (NRSV)
They didn't expect to linger so long in the wilderness. When the Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt, they thought that things were going to get good. Their God had delivered them from the slavery, and they had set off into the sunset with freedom in their blood and prosperity on their minds. But their journey stalled out in the wilderness, year after winnowing year.
The book of Numbers recounts how poorly the Israelites took to their long desert stay. They complained. A lot. They usually leveled their grumbles against Moses, but this time around they spoke against God as well. Their grievance is almost comical. Not only do they not have any food, the food is bad. They murmur that they might have been better off in Egypt, wistfully wishing they could trade their freedom for a more appetizing meal plan.
The Israelites aren't simply whining. Their impatience and frustration is twisted into a complete lack of trust in God. They have no sense of his providence, no faith in his care. Despite the grace they have experienced, they have lost confidence in God.
What God does seems harsh: he sends snakes to infest the Israelite camp, snakes that terrorize the whole tribe and kill everyone who is bitten. This punishment is a pun. The Israelites pine for Egypt, and God offers them a potent reminder of the idolatrous poisons of the land they had left behind. Snakes, in Egypt, were the symbol for a popular goddess. The Israelites want a little taste of Egypt, and God provides.
As soon as the Israelites repent, God's anger gives way to mercy. As a response to Moses' prayer on behalf of his people, God instructs him to make a fiery serpent.
That bronze serpent became a tool for salvation. It literally saved people from dying of their wounds. That's a powerful object. Jesus referred to the bronze serpent when he spoke with Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, saying, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in me may have eternal life." Though the story in Numbers comes across as foreign, God is doing what God has been doing ever since his beloved Creation turned away from him: making a way for people to be saved from their sin. This is a familiar story, a story we know well.
The people must have rejoiced. Despite all they had gone through, despite the fact that there were probably still snakes roving their encampment, God had heard their expression of repentance and responded with a tangible source of salvation. This installment of the Israelite saga in the wilderness is effectively over; the next verse has them setting out for another leg of their journey.
And now we're going to fast forward a couple of centuries. The descendents of the original wilderness tribe settled in the promised land, fought in many battles, established a kingdom, split into two nations, and experienced the ups and downs of life as God's chosen people. Their story is pretty fascinating; I definitely recommend reading the book. As each generation gave way to the next, the culture and context of the Israelites and Judeans changed. And what do you know—the bronze serpent Moses made in the desert stayed with them. So let's listen to our second scripture reading today, 2 Kings 18:1-6.
"In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.
He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan. Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses." (NRSV)
The plot thickens. What was once a source of salvation for their Israelite ancestors had become an object of idolatry for the Judeans. They certainly knew the origin of the bronze serpent. They knew that it had a lot to do with the survival of their tribes, back before the comfort of a stable civilization and Kingdom. And so they celebrated it as an object worthy of worship.
I would imagine that King Hezekiah's decisive action to destroy the national religious treasure was not very popular. Who was he, this young whippersnapper of a king, to crush such a holy relic? Didn't he know that God had worked through that bronze serpent to save the tribe of Israel from death?
King Hezekiah was a faithful leader; the text of 2 Kings tells us as much. He discerned that something had gone very wrong with his kingdom's relationship with the bronze serpent. He did not deny that it had helped his ancestors survive the wilderness. But he recognized that as the context of God's people changed, it no longer served a purpose. They were no longer under siege by poisonous snakes. Not only had the talisman ceased to save the people. Because it had become an idol, it actively did the opposite.
Some of you may know that I attended a conference last winter that was sponsored by Disciple Home Missions. The goal of the gathering was to give pastors and lay leaders an opportunity to learn about congregational transformation and revitalization. We had time to talk about the churches we serve, as well as hear from pastors who have helped congregations that seemed to be on the brink of closure to become vital, growing congregations. The most inspiration speaker I heard was Pablo Jimenez, who preached on these passages we're considering today. Reverend Jimenez is the former head of Disciple Hispanic Ministries, and he's currently serving on the staff of the Christian Board of Publication. He drew surprising connections between the biblical story of the snakes and the state of many contemporary congregations. He understood the bronze serpent as a metaphor for ministry. He reminded us that ministries are supposed to be "instruments for the salvation of people", conduits for the healing spirit of God to reach his children.
"Ministries," he proclaimed, "are supposed to lead people out of sin, leading them to salvation. [They are] supposed to help people change their lives for the better, providing opportunities that most people cannot reach on their own."
Just as the bronze serpent served a very real purpose in a specific time and place, responding to the life-and-death needs of the Israelites when they were in the wilderness, ministries are also bound to a particular context. The church, as Christ's hands and feet on earth, has the responsibility to pay attention to the needs of the people in our community and develop ministries that respond to the joy and pain of the here and now. The preacher sent a jolt through the room when he stated it plainly: "When ministries do not change, they become mere religious relics, just as the bronze serpent became a relic after the Children of Israel reached the promised land, leaving behind the desert and its fiery serpents."
I doubt I could have made that connection myself, which is why I'm so grateful for chances to hear prophets like Reverend Jimenez preach. I do think that many congregations suffer from the bronze serpent syndrome. And one of the most common bronze serpents in many churches is the memory of the glory days, when new buildings were constructed to accommodate the many families that joined up to participate in Christian Endeavor and Sunday School. The cultural climate that encouraged people to participate actively in communities of faith gave congregations a wonderful opportunity to be in ministry with lots of people. Like South Bay Christian Church, most Disciple congregations used to be significantly larger then than they are now. That didn't mean they were any more faithful to the gospel. The context around us has changed. The neighborhood is different, and the world is different. Yet so many Christians believe that the best way to be church is to be big.
Christian communities throughout the centuries have mostly been small. For every magnificent parish cathedral, there have been many more humble house churches. Yet somehow, so many congregations like ours have convinced themselves that just because supersized communities of faith were once engaged in ministries that led people to salvation, that's the only way to do it. Instead of looking around and realizing that they are no longer ministering in 1950s America and learning how to respond to the needs of God's children in 2006, so many congregations have all but stopped participating in life-giving ministries because they are worshipping the bronze serpent of the past.
I'll tell you some areas where I think we, as a community, have joined King Hezekiah in crushing the bronze serpent. This congregation is generous with its resources. You could have locked up the keys to the Fellowship Hall, guarding the wonderful memories of the worship that took place in that building. Instead, this congregation moved to share that space with another congregation that is ministering to Korean-speaking Christians in life-saving ways. The greatest gift that congregation gives us is not a monthly rental fee; they bless this campus with their passionate witness for the gospel. Another movement away from the bronze serpent syndrome is the Come and Be Fed outreach. I've mentioned that ministry in sermons before; it is a powerful illustration of this congregation's commitment to hands-on ministry on behalf of the poor.
But I'll tell you one thing I learned at that conference: congregations that are dying tend to close off their greater communities. They are so intent on keeping up the institution that they completely lose sight of the mission that Christ gave his Church: to serve. Come and Be Fed shows that South Bay Christian Church is paying attention to its community and actively developing ministries that obey God's commandments to love and to serve.
As a congregation, we must resist the temptation to worship the bronze serpents, whatever they are. That isn't to say we shouldn't honor the victories of the past. The oldest church in my hometown of Stow, Ohio, is a Disciple congregation. Last month they celebrated their 175th anniversary. Of course a great deal of attention was given to where the church had been. Yet in the newspaper article about their anniversary festival, the pastor of the congregation emphasized that the point was to know where they'd been so they would know where they were going. He told the press, "We have a rich history here and we want to celebrate and uplift the people who have worked to keep this church in this community. We want to relive some of the past as a way to help deepen our commitment to ministry and outreach."
We must continually evaluate our ministries to be sure that they are still tools for God to work salvation. If we recognize that our ministries have become religious relics, we need to transform them. We need to be the congregation we are now, not apologizing for our smaller size, but finding ways to grow in faithfulness and commitment to serving God's children. We are only less of a congregation if we allow yesterday's serpent to poison today's mission. There is work to do, and God is calling us to move forward on this journey with hope, courage, and trust. Amen.