4From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The 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.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The 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. 8And 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.” 9So 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)
It felt like I'd just been given a ticket to food paradise...
My former employer was sending me out of state for two weeks to help open a new store. One of the perks was that I was given a $50 per day food allowance, to spend on whatever I wanted (except for alcoholic beverages).
This meant that I could go to just about any restaurant and order the most expensive item on the menu—and I did: prime rib, filet mignon, barbecue ribs. Even better, when the server offered me dessert, I said yes: cheesecake and triple-chocolate brownies.
It was pure bliss—for about four days. By that point, I didn't want to eat anything. The mere thought of any restaurant food was nauseating. Even a switch to soup and salad didn't help. By the time I got home, I was glad to be eating cereal and pineapple chunks out of the can. And my boss was surprised by how little of my food allowance I actually spent.
There's something about food—the taste, the texture, and the freedom to eat what you want, when you want it.
For the Israelites forty-year journey through the desert, they ate the same two things: manna and quail. Manna was a fine, flaky substance they would find on the ground every morning—and they would gather it up and bake bread with it. Quails were clumsy birds that you could literally pick up off the ground, which probably tasted like chicken. Since the Israelites would not have had sugar, salt, or spices—the food would've been bland and tasteless.
As they had done many times before, the people grew impatient—and spoke against God and Moses. They complain that they’d rather be slaves in Egypt. “We detest this miserable food,” they protest.
God then sends poisonous snakes who bite the people, and many die.
For a long time, I assumed that God sent the snakes as punishment for their complaining. They should be thanking God that that they have food in a place where food and water are deathly scarce. They should be thanking God that they aren’t slaves anymore. They should be thanking God for their miraculous deliverance.
But—the desert is a dangerous place. Death surrounds them at every moment. The Promised Land is just that: a promise. Otherwise, it’s nowhere in sight. And the food is miserable.
It’s not wrong to complain when times are tough. The people complain a lot during their 40 years in the wilderness—yet God never lets them die. God is patient. God is faithful. God always provides.
But sometimes, it takes snakes for the people to realize their complete dependence on God. The snakes, then, aren’t necessarily a punishment—but they are discipline. Without them, the Israelites would’ve perished in the wilderness at worst—or returned to slavery at best—for rejecting the faithfulness of God and going about it their own way. Ironically, it was a bronze snake wrapped around a pole that Moses lifted up in the wilderness—that the people looked upon and lived. It takes snakes for God’s people to be reminded and experience again God’s faithful deliverance.
Everyone faces a wilderness experience at one point or another in their lives; a time of trial and temptation—that can come in many ways, including illness, unemployment, grief, depression, anxiety, you name it. Our congregation is going through a time of trial—spiritually, missionally, financially.
Please understand that trials aren’t necessarily punishments, though sometimes we do bring trials upon ourselves by sinful actions and poor decisions. The real danger, though is that your heart can grow hard—and you reject God’s faithfulness by going your own way. You embrace rage. You embrace unforgiveness. You embrace despair. You push away anything or anyone God provides to help you. You want it your way.
Churches die because their members preferred death to change. They die when personal preferences take precedence to the mission. Perhaps you know someone who was plainly ill—but refused medical treatment, all the while insisting that nothing was wrong with them or that no treatments would work? Or relationships that break apart because conflict and disagreement boil over into bitterness, resentment, and raw hatred? The most miserable people you’ll ever meet are those who are most determined to get their own way and who can never admit they’re wrong.
You need God’s discipline. Our church needs God’s discipline. Sometimes, it takes snakes to keep you from perishing to your own anger, fear, and pride.
When it comes to a fallen creation and sinful humanity, it takes a crucified Savior lifted up on a cross for life and love to be victorious over death and the devil. Jesus suffered the very worst of human pain and the very worst of human evil, but triumphed. The promise for you is that there is healing when the pain is at its worst. Deliverance comes, not in being removed from the wilderness, but in the very presence of the enemy. God’s discipline keeps you where you need to be to see God’s promises fulfilled.
The grace of God’s discipline begins by owning the truth: the wilderness is deadly. Trials are painful. Sickness, grief, unemployment, depression, and anxiety are all terrible. It’s terrible that there’s so many empty pews in this church and that there are people all around us who don’t know the love of Jesus Christ. In the stress and pain of these trials, we can easily lose our way. But as soon as you own the truth, you reach a turning point—and see the savior who was there all along. Even if you lost your way, Jesus never loses you.
It’s not a sin to be miserable; it’s not a sin to complain—if you present it to God. You only sin if you insist on going your own way.
When the trials never seem to end and the snakes bite, look to Jesus and live. Embrace the cross that destroys death and evil. Be certain that God’s deliverance is happening right now.