This was initially given as part of a worship service for Clergy at their March Clergy Meeting.
In this reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent from the Book of Numbers, as the people of Israel wander in the wilderness for 40 years, the longest year is year number 40. For the first ten chapters of the book, they are in year one, still at Mt. Sinai, getting everyone and everything properly counted and arranged and lined up, with tribes and subtribes, and leaders knowing who goes where, when, and how many will there be. By the end of year one, chapter ten, they have things all planned, precisely configured, ready to go.
Years two through 39 happen as they leave Sinai and wander through chapters chapters 11 through 19. That’s 38 years in 9 chapters, or roughly 4 and 1/4 years per chapter. So after 10 chapters in 1 year, they go to 4 and 1/4 years in one chapter. You see that the pace really picks up.
Until we get to chapter 20. In chapter 20, year 40 begins, and it lasts all the way to the end of the book in chapter 36. That’s 17 chapters for one year. Year one is 10 chapters, but year 40 is 17 chapters. The longest year, by far.
Have you seen what PBS news is calling their series on the past twelve months? They’re calling it “The Longest Year.” I don’t know about you, but that resonates with me. It has been a really long, a really long year.
Beginning with the global pandemic, the churches shutting down, the online church coming forth; the racial violence and hatred escalating, sparking outrage and protests, a new wave of fear, and a rekindled focus and determination for racial equity and justice to rise up and gain momentum; also, the worst hurricane season on record ever, the worst wildfire season on record ever, the second wave of the pandemic, the election, the fallout from the election, January 6, more racial inequity and white supremacy are further exposed; the third wave of the pandemic, the vaccines, the waiting for the vaccines, and even more racial hatred spewing forth. Have we had a longer year anytime recently? I don’t think so.
I have been packing up some of my books recently, and I came across a book that I bought in 1983, almost 40 years ago. It’s by someone named Browne Barr. It’s called High Flying Geese: Unexpected Reflections on the Church and Its Ministry. And it’s all about how Browne Barr was pondering the way geese fly in these amazing V-formations and they get great momentum and alignment and can cover tremendous territory, and land with beauty and precision at their designated destination, all with teamwork, all orderly and predictable and smooth. That’s like Numbers 1-10. And that was how we operated for many of my forty years.
But what we’re going through is more like Numbers year 40, the longest year. Instead of geese, it’s more like another kind of waterfowl that I have recently learned about, a peculiar duck called the bufflehead. I want to show you a short clip of how the bufflehead operates.
You see what I mean? These are not geese, flying in perfect V-formation, coming in for an elegant landing. These buffleheads don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to their order. They’re up here and down there, and up over there, and before you know it they’re down again over there. Popping up and down. Like whack-a mole. I wonder whether the bufflehead may not be more like what it’s like to be in ministry in the longest year.
Beginning in numbers 20, there are a number of important incidents that happen, but it’s not part of any obvious orderly plan that Israel is aware of. At the beginning of chapter 20, year 40, Miriam dies. Then, in their grief, both Aaron and Moses disobey God at Meribah and God tells them that they will not enter the promised land. Then Aaron dies. Then Israel has a battle against the King of Arad, on the southern edge of the land of Canaan. And for the first time in 40 years, Israel wins a military battle, a bloody battle, which they name Hormah, Destruction. They are right there on the edge of the Promised Land. They have defeated their opponent, and nothing stands between them and the land. All they need to do is proceed north, and they would be there, in the Promised Land.
But, inexplicably, and instead, they end up in our passage today, going south, toward the Red Sea, then turning East, away from the Promised Land. It’s like, what is going on here? They are bewildered and befuddled, maybe even buffalo-ed. What next?
It says in verse 4, “the people become impatient on the way.” The Message translation says, they become “irritable and cross.” That’s what a long year of whack-a-mole will do to you. It will cut your patience short.
They complain, not only against Moses, which is not unusual. But now for the first time, they complain also against God. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” They are becoming incoherent. In one breath they say they don’t have food, and in the next breath they say that the food is miserable.
Do you see the Pop! Pop! Pop! in the way this long year’s story is told? Moses loses his sister, his trust in God, his long-held hope, his brother. The Promised Land is here and then it is gone. The food is no good. The water is dried up. Patience is gone. They want to go back to Pharaoh’s power, really? Pharaoah’s power of fear and lies, of slavery and death? Really? What next?
Serpents! That’s what. The NRSV says, “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people.” The word “sent” in an interesting word. In Hebrew, it is shalach (shaw-lakh’). It can be translated as “send.” It can also be translated as “let depart or let go.” I prefer to think that what it means here is not that God is sending snakes to kill people. I prefer to think that it means God is letting the snakes go. God stops holding the snakes back. I think that’s more how God’s judgment works. Not as an active vengeful, punishing anger, but more as, let me show you the consequences of your behavior. You don’t think you need me? You want to go back to Pharaoh? Let me show you what I’m doing for you that you don’t even realize. God stops holding the snakes back. They slither forth, swarming at their feet, striking at their heels, poisoning them, killing them, giving them an unmistakable, unavoidable sense of the grip of sin and death.
Through these so-called poisonous serpents. In Hebrew, that’s seraph serpents. The literal translation is “fiery serpents.” Seraph serpents. As in Isaiah, chapter 6, when the seraphs are gathered at the throne of God singing, Holy, holy, holy, and they take a live coal from the altar of God and touch Isaiah’s lips. Seraphs. It’s the same Hebrew word. Seraph serpents, and seraph angels.
What’s going on here? You know, the serpent is also the same Hebrew word as we find in Genesis chapter 3, tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden. And over in Revelation chapter 12, we have a fiery serpent called a dragon, chasing the messianic child in the wilderness. And there it says that this fire-breathing dragon is “that ancient serpent, the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” (Revelation 12:9) And all these seraph serpents are minions of that ancient serpent.
What is God trying to show us, by having these minion serpents come out into the open, become unavoidably real, preoccupying their waking hours, slithering at their feet?
It’s also very interesting, isn’t it, that when Jesus wants to tell Nicodemus about how much God so loves the world, that Jesus picks this passage … out of all the passages of the Hebrew Bible … Jesus picks this very package as the preface to John 3:16. Remember? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
When God tells Moses to make a serpent and put it on a pole, it is like God is saying, lift up a lifeless serpent on the end of a pole, as an antidote to these fiery serpents at your feet. A lifeless serpent. It’s a little gross, but it is like what the military victor would do with their vanquished enemy. They would put their head on the end of a spear and raise it up for everyone to see that the enemy has been defeated.
Jesus is saying that when He is lifted up on the Cross it will be a declaration that the power of sin and death, that old serpent, the Devil and Satan, is defeated. Decisively defeated. Refused, rejected, put to rout. God’s antidote is lifted up in the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lift up your heads and believe in Him. Don’t get distracted and discouraged and disoriented by those seductively powerful serpents at your feet. Instead, let them be the impetus for us to see what is really going on … who is behind all of the mayhem … and to not be deceived. But instead, to turn to God and find healing and hope, deliverance and salvation by looking up to the snake’s defeat on the Cross of Christ. Lift up your heads, lift up your hearts, the Lord is near. Behold. Believe. Be healed.
You know, to me, if it were just a global pandemic, or just a massive, multifaceted racial justice movement, or just a climate crisis on steroids, or just a politics gone haywire. If it were just one of these, or even two, I might not get it. But all of these things, and more, converging all together, on top of one another, simultaneously, snuffing out life, snuffing out hope, distorting justice, distorting truth, undermining trust, undermining faith … all of this at once … It’s like God is letting things come loose to show us something important.
Like what is really at stake in our life here together.
It’s like there is more going on here than meets the eyes of flesh and blood. This is about powers and principalities, all of this craziness in this long year. It’s about powers and principalities, and the battle is not ours. The battle belongs to the Lord. And He has won the victory. The evidence that the seraph serpents are sniping at our feet, that is the long litany of stuff, that you can add your own names and faces and incidents to from your own church and family and life. Pandemonium and mayhem, fear and destruction, rampant injustice and hatred … that is evidence of fiery serpents at work.
And where is the evidence of the Lord’s victory? Isn’t it in the people who are healed when they lift up their heads to behold and believe? Isn’t it in the lives of the believers, on the journey, through thick and thin, following the Lord? Isn’t that the evidence of the Lord’s victory? Dare I say that it is the Pentecost people, the seraph people. It’s the people who have some of that divine holiness, not fallen, but risen up to eternal life. It’s those people who are the evidence that the Lord has won. The love of God is the strongest power in all of creation. Our work, our witness, our life together is the evidence that God’s love will prevail through it all.
That’s what I am pondering through this longest year, and these forty years. The marvel of being on a journey with this seraph people, these living witnesses. It may well be that now is the time for us to be like those buffleheads, not trying to make grand plans that soar high over long distances, with perfect efficiency and predictable outcomes. Maybe now is the time for us to see the opportunities right in front of us, to take a deep dive for the precious treasures that are abundant right in these opportunities. The world needs our evidence now more than ever. And the Lord has prepared us with all we need to bless the world with the saving love of Jesus Christ. Just as much as those high-flying geese, if not more.
Because perhaps now we are in a better position to realize what is really at stake: the soul of creation, the life and death of the world’s hope and joy.
In this longest year, I have seen the church become effective in ways I would have never dreamed of forty years ago. The buildings can be closed, but the seraph people are still on the move, sharing the bread, bearing the hope, carrying the burden, enduring the hardship and the brokenness and the downtrodden-ness with heads lifted up, voices lifted up, hearts lifted up to the Lord. Getting to see that we are part of a mighty work that has significance well beyond our ability to comprehend, and power for good well beyond our capacity to conjure. Getting to be part of a seraph people who stand as evidence for the Love of Jesus as the hope and healing power available to all who will believe … whosoever will believe … getting to be part of the seraph people is the highest privilege, the most wonderful blessing, the greatest joy.
In the longest year, this is our deepest reality. Thanks be to God. So may it be. Amen.
Alexandria District Superintendent