The wilderness is a great place to go when you want to encounter God, but it’s never going to get a five-star rating from me.
I’ve been camping. I used to be a kayak guide. I’ve been in the Arctic and the desert and the woods. And yes, I’ve found peace and grace there. Yes, I’ve felt overwhelming awe, felt the presence of God there, but the food is limited, cooking it is more difficult - everything is more difficult! - lots of things are dangerous, and I would be a lot more comfortable at home, thank you very much.
I know that some of you may love camping, but my heart resonates with deep empathy for the Israelites whose story we heard this morning. They’d been freed from slavery and promised that God would bring them to a rich and fertile and secure land - but it's been decades of wilderness, now.
No wonder “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.’"
Manna from heaven may be a miracle, but even miracles can get boring and tasteless after so many years. The Israelites are suffering from real fatigue, from the effort to keep hope and trust alive when God’s promises take so very long to happen, from the ongoing instability of wandering and waiting and living in tents. Their complaints are real, and heartfelt.
And then they are surrounded by snakes.
“Fiery serpents,” the text says, venomous snakes whose bite was deadly.
There’s no concrete connection in the text between the Israelites' complaints and the appearance of the snakes.
They just happen one after the other, and it’s up to us, the readers and hearers, to interpret whether the snakes are a punishment for whining and lack of trust,
or just another vivid danger of life in the wilderness, piled on top of the misery of bland and boring food, scarce water, and the sheer unending difficulty of everyday life.
You really couldn’t blame God for getting frustrated with the Israelites leaning into the refrigerator, whining, “There’s nothing to eeeaaat, I hate this food!” and wanting to make a point.
But we also believe, on the strength of our own experience and generations of faith, that God is generous, forgiving, and pretty committed to the welfare of this odd community, saved and called by God’s own choice - even if we do get a little whiny.
So it could go either way.
But either way the snakes are scary. People are dying.
And the survivors turn to God for salvation.
“Please!” they say to Moses, “please, we’re sorry we complained about God, and about you. Just ask God to get rid of the snakes.
Please! We’re sorry!!”
I’ve prayed like that a time or two. Have you?
God answers those prayers.
Moses makes a bronze snake sculpture for the center of the camp, and just looking at that sculpture heals anyone bitten.
But the snakes stay.
God gives them healing, miracles, opportunity; the answer to prayer.
But it’s NOT what we asked for at all.
It’s one of those things that every pastor and preacher and well-meaning friend says sooner or later, one of those things that every prayerful person has to wrestle with:
God answers prayer.
God saves and heals and responds and loves,
but so often it looks nothing like what we asked for, or what we imagined.
Or, in the words of 20th century American philosophers Jagger and Richards,
but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”
I’ll admit I enjoy that truth a little more when the Rolling Stones are singing it than when I’m wrestling with it in prayer and preaching, but it’s real either way.
And it’s one of the first faith problems of our Christian gospel.
Because Jesus isn’t what anyone was praying for.
He heals, he inspires, he casts out demons, he challenges the corrupt authorities,
but he also goes around knocking down and tearing up the practices that we love and count on to keep us right with God.
He yells at Peter for not getting it.
He confuses everyone as much as he inspires anyone,
and the fundamental problems of the world don’t change no matter how many he heals.
The corrupt authorities stay firmly in power and get Jesus killed without much of a fight.
Healing, miracles, opportunity, absolutely.
But NOT what anyone had asked for.
The Messiah was supposed to really fix the world.
But the snakes are still here.
Corrupt authorities, devastating illness, pain, injustice, hunger, boredom, and fear are just as much a part of our lives now as they were before Jesus - in spite of how often and how generously God answers our prayers.
Very early on in John’s gospel story, in response to the first curious, cautious Jewish leader to ask about who he is, and what he has come to do, we heard Jesus compare himself to Moses’ bronze serpent.
He knows, even if we don’t, that we’re not going to think we got what we want,
even if God has, indeed, given us someone we deeply, desperately need.
It would be enough, I think, to learn from the Bible, or from the Rolling Stones,
that what we need may be found and given even when we don’t get what we want.
But these stories, and our own need for God, might call us to something more.
The snake-bitten Israelites are healed when they turn their faces to the thing that they fear, the thing that hurts them. They are healed when they look on the serpent given to them by God.
Jesus wraps a confused Nicodemus in the contradictory mystery of God’s gift: that when Jesus is “lifted up,” crucifixion, ascension, death, resurrection, humiliation, exaltation blend into one inseparable truth.
In Christ, with God, loss and grace, pain and wholeness, are simply part of one another,
and we are invited to embrace that gift.
To know, when we pray, that healing can’t be separated from living with our fears,
that victory can’t be separated from loss,
grace can’t be separated from our fumbling sin,
the joy of abundance is tied to the pain of hunger,
that life in the world as it should be can’t be separated from our gritty wrestling with the world as it is,
and love can’t be separated from pain.
And that’s how we’re invited to pray,
invited to embrace the dangers and discomforts of the wilderness,
and the confidence and abundance of the promised land
all at once,
knowing that they are one and the same.
And then we may just get what we want,because, God knows, we certainly will be getting what we need.