So I used to do this fun social experiment in college when I was walking around the campus and as I would approach people walking on the sidewalk towards me. I would just make direct eye contact with them and smile. And it would make people SO uncomfortable. They would be all shifty and look anywhere except at me.
Humans hate looking directly at things that make them uncomfortable. Like think about when you are watching TV. What parts do you look away for? These are the uncomfortable ones that we just don’t want to see or squirm through. For me, it’s when shows get a little too bloody. OR if there is that one character who is in a really awkward situation and you are embarrassed for them.
We repel things that make us uncomfortable. It’s why we avoid confrontation. It’s why many of our families have a lot of unsaid things because it would be way too uncomfortable to ever talk about it. It’s why pastors never talk about sex or divorce or politics on Sundays. It's just too uncomfortable for us to look at. So we avert our eyes, look anywhere else other than right at it.
The Bible is rich with uncomfortable parts. One of these is our numbers passage for today. Remember the Israelites are wandering around in the desert. As we talked about last week, it can get weird... The Israelites are sick of the food that God is providing for them and they get grumbly and cranky and are doing a lot of complaining. SOO God sends snakes to start killing them... Sometimes we get really uncomfortable with this side of God. The divine punishment side. The side that kills God’s own people because God is just fed up with them.
I read a lot of commentaries about this passage this week, and most pastors are either not preaching about this or will explain it away this morning. That maybe the Israelites just felt like it was God’s fault and the snakes were just there and the cranky Israelites just needed to place blame, or that it wasn’t really snakes but rather a contagious parasitic worm that you had to extract from the body by winding it around a stick.
These are all possible. Certainly, our perspective of God from the Bible is still a human perspective. And certainly, ancient medical problems and diseases are often thought to be divine punishment or the work of the Devil directly without the knowledge of science that we have today.
I think it’s important to wrestle with these parts of the Bible. To try to put on an ancient lens and ask the hard “what if” questions. I’m not going to explain it away or ignore it. I want to own it and recognize this uncomfortable part. TO LOOK DIRECTLY AT IT.
Because that is really what this story comes down to in the end. They had to look at it. They had to look up at their problems. The uncomfortableness of divine punishment, or starvation in the desert, or diseases, their betrayals to God, or their lack of faith that their God of deliverance would follow through once again.
In order to be healed, they must look upon the promise of God on that stick. No matter how uncomfortable it is.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus points us to another uncomfortable moment coming up real soon. Our Gospel lesson is a piece of a larger conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus who was a Pharisee Jewish leader in Jerusalem. See the last couple of weeks we are with Jesus in his first trip to Jerusalem for passover during his ministry… and in a couple of weeks, we will fast forward to Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem for passover.
And Jesus is having another one of those moments where he predicts his own death, in chapter three that we read this morning, he is sharing this with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is trying to figure out who he is and what he is about. Trying to figure out is this guy for real.
And what does Jesus tell him? That like the snake on a stick that God sent the Israelites wandering in the desert for their healing, Jesus must be put on a stick for the world’s healing.
And like the Israelites in the wilderness, we too, must look upon our saviour nailed to a stick.
We don’t like this part. The uncomfortable part. We like to go straight to Easter. “It’s ok everyone, he came back to life! Phew.” We don’t look up at the uncomfortable scene of a piece of God, bloodied, beaten, and dying, hanging from a stick for us.
Because it’s tragic and sad. Because it makes us feel shameful. Because when we look up at Jesus on that cross we see our own faults, our sins, our indifference to suffering, our indifference to justice, our lack of love for our neighbor, our secrets, and our own judgement. Uncomfortably put there by us.
But you have to look, or else you miss the grace. If you never look up, if you never gaze upon the cross on Good Friday, you never see the pain, but you also never see the love that is hanging there.
The love that the Gospel of John says in the most famous words from the Christian New Testament. That God so loved the world, that God sent God’s only son to save the world through this painful, gruesome death because God loves the world and wants to save each and every one of us, not condemn us.
You have to look up to see the salvific nature of the pain and uncomfortable scene in juxtaposition with love and mercy and grace. You have to look up because this is what God’s reconciliation looks like.
It’s God holding up a savior on a stick and saying, I will take your pain. I will bear the burden of sadness, pain, and anger. I will carry your dark side. I will love even the most broken of places in you. “So look up,” God says, “I hold it here.” Amen.