Numbers 21: 4-9 John 3: 14-21
We don’t have snakes in New Zealand, except in zoos and the occasional one that is found
at one of our ports among imported goods. We don’t want them in our environment and
there are stringent measures in place to deal with them if they are ever found. But it is not
only in New Zealand and in the 21 st century that snakes are unpopular. Right from the very
early chapters of Genesis, snakes have had a bad reputation. It was the snake that
tempted Eve and led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Aaron’s
rod became a snake in the presence of Pharaoh when Moses was trying to get the
Israelites out of Egypt and now out in the wilderness, God has sent snakes to torment the
people yet again. At least that’s how it appeared to the writer of the Book of Numbers.
This is not the first, and it won’t be the last time, that the Israelites have got impatient and
fed up with the whole exodus experience. When they were slaves to the Egyptians they
were unhappy and very willingly followed Moses when he led them out of Egypt. Now that
the going has got a bit difficult and the excitement of escaping the Egyptians has died away
there is a longing to go back to security and regular meals. As we all know, nostalgia
always paints a very rosy picture as we look back to the good old days.
Now there is a plague of poisonous serpents biting them and some of people have died.
God is punishing them yet again! It is confession time and time to ask Moses to pray to the
Lord to take away the serpents. Acting under God’s instructions, Moses constructs the
bronze serpent and raises it up on a pole and sure enough, whenever a person is bitten by
a serpent, they look up at the serpent of bronze and they live.
People have generally always had a fear of snakes or serpents. There is something about
their silent, slithery movement that spooks us, and the sinister rattle of the rattlesnake or the
hiss of other snakes has the power to terrify us. And if it happens to be a poisonous snake
then the terror is even more real. But in this story, the people are forced to face their fear.
If they are bitten they are to look at the bronze serpent and they will not die.
I suspect that this is the same with many of the things we fear. If we can face our fears,
they can often be reduced from something that is terrifying into something that is
manageable. Most of us will have some fears, but if we let the fear dominate our lives we
can be prevented from doing so much. When we confront our fears, it can be surprising
how much they can diminish and how much we can be freed from them to live much fuller
lives. It is normal to feel fear but to let the fear overwhelm us limits us and prevents us from
being the people we could be.
Fear is very contagious. It takes just one person to panic and a whole crowd can turn into a
panic-stricken mob in a matter of seconds. It is perfectly normal to feel fear in a fearful
situation, but when fear controls our lives then we are in trouble.
The poison from snakes is also something that we fear, and again poison can spread
through a community very quickly. One of the most destructive poisons I’m aware of is
negativity. As you know I am a cricket and netball fan and if I can I watch some of the
games on TV. What really gets me mad is the constant stream of negative comments
about the players, the umpires and almost everything else. The constant questioning of the
umpires’ decisions is something else that really annoys me. Yes, umpires do get it wrong
sometimes, but they are having to make a split second decision without the benefits of slow
motion replays and computer graphics. And more often than not they get it right!
Being negative can become a habit and it something we need to guard against. We need
to be realistic, but we also need to be positive. Negativity and constant criticism are
destructive and they are becoming endemic to our society. I have a feeling it is an
extension of the tall poppy syndrome. If it wasn’t my idea, or if I might have to change the
ways I do things, then this new thing must be bad and I will look for as many ways as I can

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to undermine it. When we are able to confront our negativity we can begin to bring it under
control. There are times when a negative response is appropriate, but so often it is the
negative that is spoken first and then maybe something positive. Sadly, the positive is often
too late. The negativity has done its damage.
Moses, under God’s instructions, dealt with the poison in the community by raising up the
image of the snake and instructing the people to look at it. When they did so, they found
new life.
It is this new life that John is referring to when he quotes this story in the gospel reading we
heard earlier in the service. There is one major problem with this particular reading from
John. John 3: 16 – ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever
believes in him may not perish but have eternal life‘ – is the best known verse in the Bible.
For some people it is probably the only verse from the Bible that they know! But they know
it out of context. It is really important that we have the next few verses because they dispel
some of the myths that surround the way God acts. The reading goes on: ‘God did not
send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that they world might be
saved through him.’
Through Jesus, the world was and is given a different, clearer view of what it is to be fully
human and what our God-created world could be like – a world of justice and peace where
we can all live as those whom God loves and values. By the time Jesus was born, belief in
God had almost become negative. If we don’t sacrifice and keep all the rules then God will
punish us. But the rules had gone far beyond what God had given to Moses and life under
what was supposedly God’s rule was fraught with difficulties. Through Jesus, the world
began to see what was really important and while some welcomed this vision, others were
threatened by it. In Jesus we have someone to look to – look up to – when we are
struggling or for inspiration. Through the cross we have the good news that terrible though
that death was, it is not the end. And through the cross we also know that there will be
times of despair and darkness in our lives, but that there is always more.
Fear is a normal and appropriate reaction in a fearful situation. It is how we handle this fear
that is important. If we can confront it and control it we are able to move forward. If we
allow it to overwhelm us, we are able to do nothing. In the same way being able to be
critical is important in our lives. In any situation we need to look at both the positives and
the negatives, but what we do have to guard against is focussing only on the negatives.
Let’s try and make a habit of looking for what is good first and then perhaps looking for
changes that have to be made to make the good better.
We also need to focus on the second part of John 3:16 – “God did not send his son into the
world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Threats and
condemnation are not always the best way to change behaviour. I was talking to a friend
last week who had been a heavy smoker. Some years ago she gave up smoking. I asked
her what motivated her – was it the gruesome ads showing lungs full of tar or something
else. She told me that the gruesome ads only made her feel as if it was a waste of time
because she was doomed anyway. What prompted her was a poster of a lung that was
grey but gradually turning pink again and the slogan “Stop smoking, your lungs will forgive
you.” It was the positive message that it was not too late – that our lungs can recover – that
was the impetus for her. Maybe there’s a message here for us all about persuasion being
better than condemnation; about being life-giving not life-denying.
When we confront our fears, we put them into some sort of perspective which can often
make them more manageable. When we become like the ostrich and bury our heads in the
sand our fears can overwhelm us.

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Jesus had moments of doubt and fear, but he stayed true to his calling and faced into the
fear. And on his journey through life he socialized with tax collectors, prostitutes, and
lepers – the outcasts of society who were feared and who were condemned by the
respectable religious. Jesus looked beyond the outward appearance and saw the person.
He met the person where they were and developed a relationship of trust and confidence
and then helped them to move on into a fuller life. May we in our dealings with those
around us be life-givers.