Leaving the Wilderness/Accepting Grace

Leaving the Wilderness/Accepting Grace

September 11, 2022 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

Numbers 21:4-9

When is a worse time to go grocery shopping, when you’re full or when you’re hungry? Let’s try this out. I want you to imagine you’re hungry right now and I will show you a series of two pictures at a time. You tell me which you’d probably buy when hungry….3 pictures – Rob will call out one at a time.

When you’re hungry you tend to buy the things that appear to give immediate benefit to hunger. In other words, high calorie foods that are probably not good for you.

Cornell University did a lab study with shoppers who didn’t eat 5 hours prior and others who shopped right after a meal. As expected the hungry shoppers not only bought more, they bought items they normally wouldn’t. These shoppers said things like, “I know I shouldn’t get this stuff, but…” The study was enlightening not only for everyday shoppers but particularly food insecure people who live hungry most of the time. It also analyzed the way many stores present more high calorie items for easy choosing.

I found this conclusion of the study very interesting: “The body is always trying to defend its state and it makes very logical sense that if you’re going for a period without food…you’re more likely to go for the food that’s high-calorie. If we’re needing energy, we’re not going to go out for lettuce.” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-shop-hungry/no-really-dont-shop-when-youre-hungry-study-idUSBRE9450TF20130506)

The body is always trying to defend its state.

If what’s true of the body is true of the soul, then what’s the state of your soul today? Are you happy? Sad? Joyful? Depressed? Confident? Fearful? If your soul tried to defend it’s state, then what is it seeking?

We conclude today a series on Transitions. We’ve been looking at stories about the Israelites in the wilderness following the Exodus. They are in transition. They are going to the Promised Land but getting there is long and hard and we’ve thought about the lessons the Israelites teach us about transitions. We’ve understood that transitions are not easy, especially when we didn’t have a choice. And even when we had a choice, we sometimes second guess ourselves. No matter what, transitions are hard, and hard is like hungry. It leaves us vulnerable. When we are in transition, it is easy to operate out of our hunger and react in ways we normally wouldn’t; make decisions we know are not best.

So what do we do when we don’t handle transition well? Even when we choose the transition, and are all on board with where we are going, what happens when we get tired, and things fall apart, and we react in ways that is just not who we are. What do we all need in order to find out our way out of the wilderness?

As we’ve observed in this series, every time the Israelites got tired they said, “Let’s go back to Egypt.” We started this series with the first time the Israelites said these words when they were penned against the Red Sea. Today, we consider the last time they said these words. I want to walk through the story we heard a moment ago and consider some important points as we do so. The story begins, “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom.” They are on a road toward the Red Sea. Now what was the body of water they had to cross to enter the wilderness and escape Pharaoh’s army? The Red Sea! They have been in the wilderness a lot of years and now it seems they are back where they started. I’m sure they felt like they were going in circles. So the next line says, “But the people grew impatient on the way…”

Carver McGriff preached this passage many years ago here at St. Luke’s. He started his sermon that morning telling about a friend who told Carver why he and his wife decided to leave church. His wife became ill. They had only been occasional church goers, so they decided to pray for healing and increase their involvement in church. They began attending every Sunday, got active in other ways, doubled their pledge, and basically made church a central part of their lives. But as time went on the wife became sicker. There was no healing, so they finally concluded that the Christian faith had been misrepresented to them and they quit going altogether. They grew impatient along the way.

It can happen. Maybe you’ve experienced it before. Maybe you are experiencing it now. Perhaps you’re here this morning giving God one last chance to come through for you. You can relate to the Israelites who grew impatient. It can be a dangerous time. It’s like shopping when you’re hungry. Its easy to let your hunger rule your decisions.

That’s what the Israelites did. Once more they sang their old hymn to Moses, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Same song, second verse, a little louder, a little worse. But they allow their complaining to go too far this time. They say, “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

This is actually comical. Like listening to a child when he or she gets too tired. Its past their bedtime and they start whining. If you listen to what’s said, pretty soon it stops making sense. The Israelites complain there’s no bread or water. But then they say, “And we detest this miserable food!” Well which is it? You have nothing to eat or you don’t like what you have?

What’s happening, of course, is the people are tired, but they are letting their tiredness cause them to say things they don’t really mean. They are detesting their blessings. The manna God gave them to eat every morning was at one point an answer to prayer. But now, Something that was once an answer to prayer is a source of complaint. Have you ever been tempted to do that? Maybe in your marriage? You once stood at an altar thanking God for giving you someone in your life who was a blessing only later to say, “I don’t know why I ever married you?”

 Ever said something similar about a job or house? When you first got it, you felt like it was an answer to prayer, but then staying there got hard and one day you said, “I hate this place.”

Just because something is a blessing doesn’t mean keeping it isn’t hard. And hard is like hunger. When we act out of our hunger it can cause us to say and do things that not only prolong our wilderness but make our wilderness even less inhabitable. That’s what happened to the Israelites. Look at this next verse, “Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.”

Now there are a couple ways to interpret this verse. One is to question the character of God. Is God really so pitiful as to send snakes to bite people because they act like tired children at bedtime? If you read it that way, then you have good reason to add to your frustration. Not only is the world is against you, now God’s against you.

But the Israelites didn’t interpret the snakes this way. They responded by looking at themselves and considering how their actions and attitude have caused this. They realized that their bitterness had attracted sources of poison into their lives. It can, you know. When you become bitter and resentful you can look around and find plenty of reasons to justify your feelings. You can even find reason to blame God. But that doesn’t get you out of the wilderness. It just attracts poison and makes the wilderness worse.

You see, We can get out of a wilderness but never leave it. We can get away from whatever bad place we were in, and go onto new places, but carry that wilderness with us so that it defines everywhere we go.

I was in a wilderness 20 years ago. I described that briefly back in a sermon in July. The church I was serving was experiencing a lot of conflict. It was wearing me down and taking a toll. I took a two month sabbatical and started with a week long retreat with a spiritual director in Colorado. We began our first session one morning. The director, a United Methodist pastor, asked me, “So where are you with God?”

So I teed it up and began talking about what the last couple years of life had been like. The endless meetings, the pastoral care demand, divisions of long time members vs new ones, a building campaign, the person finally stopped me. She said, “We’ve been going for two hours. Lets take a short break.”

When we sat back down she said, “Now, where are you with God?” I said, “I thought that’s what I’ve been talking about.” She said, “No, I haven’t heard God mentioned yet. I’ve just heard about your wilderness. Where is God in it all?” Those few days were critical for helping me understand what I was allowing my wilderness to do to me. Notice I didn’t say what my wilderness was doing to me. But what I allowed it to do. We always have a choice. And if we don’t choose to carry our wilderness around, we may get out of it, we may arrive at new places, but it doesn’t mean we left the wilderness behind.

This why William Bridges wrote the books he did on Transitions. He says that, “When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just rearranging the deck chairs.” We can make changes without things ever changing.

And this is where we have to give credit to the Israelites, they must have gotten tired of not just being in the wilderness but the wilderness being in them. For the first time in their history they uttered the words, “We sinned.” They said, “The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”

And this is where the story seems to get weird. “The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” This is where Haitian voodoo and the Twilight Zone meet isn’t it? Who has ever heard of a snake on a pole symbolizing healing?

Ahhh, wait a minute. Ever thought about our symbol for modern medicine? What is it? (pic) Two snakes on a pole! This is the ancient symbol of Caduceus. It is the form of a cross with two snakes coiled around it. The Caduceus was the symbol of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. This has been used for the symbol of medicine in America since the early 1900’s, but that was actually a mistake. The real symbol for medicine predates the caduceus. It is the sign of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing (pic). It is the one to the right, a single snake coiled on a pole. This is what is used for the modern symbol of the EMT (pic). The root of all these symbols goes back to Moses in the wilderness.

Maybe its not as strange to us as we thought. The symbol of the poison can be the source of the healing. We know this to be true today. Bacteria that can cause sickness and diseases is also the source of penicillin that fights the infection. The source of sickness is also the source of salvation.

But understand, it’s not the snake on the pole that saves, as if the symbol alone has healing power. The fact that God would tell Moses to create this symbol is astonishing given God’s abhorrence for idols. But as Old Testament professor Elizabeth Achtemeier says, “It is not the presence of the bronze figure that leads to the healing of the people…their cure comes from their faith in God and from their faithful obedience to his instructions.” (Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament, p46)

What was their instruction? To look! Look upon the bronze serpent. Remember that it was because of their bitterness and complaining and despising of their blessings that worsened their condition. Look! Confess. Declare, “We sinned.” Admit that your wilderness caused you to do things that created a deeper wilderness. And in your looking, in your confession, there is forgiveness. There is grace. And grace is the way out of the wilderness. Never again would the Israelites say, “Go back to Egypt.” They were finally ready to enter the Promised Land.

Perhaps this is why Jesus referenced this story.

What would you say is the most popular verse in the Bible? John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son.” Over two-thirds of all Americans know what John 3:16 is. But have you ever paid attention to the preceding sentence? John 3:14-15, Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Jesus came to liberate people from the wilderness of sin. All we need do is but look upon Him and realize, yes, I need grace. I have allowed my transition to cause me to act in ways that have only made life worse. I can blame my action on everything that has happened to me, the things I didn’t choose, the challenges my transition created, but my responses are all mine. How I react is up to me and I can’t point a finger at anyone or anything else.

Sometimes our wildernesses are of our own making entirely, but no matter how or why we got there, we all find ourselves in need of grace to get to the life we want. We need forgiveness. We need but look, as the children of Israel did and say, “I sinned. I fell short. I need help.” And then we can receive the mercy of God.

Charles Spurgeon was generally considered one of the greatest preachers in history. He served what was perhaps the largest church in the world at the time, New Park Street Chapel in London. It is estimated that Spurgeon preached to more than 10 million people in his life. Can you imagine what that would have been like today with the internet.

The way Spurgeon became a pastor is an interesting story. It was because of a Methodist preacher. During that time many Methodist preachers were not educated, but they were passionate about people knowing Jesus. In Spurgeon’s autobiography he tells about the events leading up to his conversion. For a long time he was burdened by a sense of his own sin, that he had messed up his life, and he didn’t know how he could ever be accepted by God and have a promising future. He had been going to a church in search of hope, but one Sunday there was a snowstorm and services were canceled. So he found a church that was open, but the pastor didn’t show up, so one of the lay speakers rose to preach. He tried really hard to preach from the text in Isaiah 45:22, “Look to me to be saved.” Spurgeon described the sermon as really awful, but then the preacher stopped. Listen to what happened in Spurgeon’s own words:

Fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, "Young man, you look very miserable." Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, "and you always will be miserable - miserable in life, and miserable in death - if you don’t obey (this) text.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted as only a Primitive Methodist could do, "Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live. "I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said - I did not take much notice of it - I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the bronze serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, "Look!" what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun…”


…But I trust Lord that you care about me, that you love me and forgive me, and by your help I will get out of the wilderness. I can find and have a life of joy and meaning and purpose. So I turn from my complaining today. I turn from my blaming. I accept my part in the wilderness of my life and look to you to lead me. In Jesus name…