Toorak Uniting Church

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Snake bite

Numbers 21: 4 – 9
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
9:00am, 26 March 2006

Last Tuesday we were fortunate enough to be part of the crowd cheering on athletes in the MCG. We were at the morning session and fascinated to see all those well prepared and well trained sports people do their thing. Hurdles, long jump, high jump and discus throwing were all equally captivating and as a crowd we cheered and clapped for whoever seemed in need of a bit of encouragement. There was a wonderful atmosphere and it was a wonderful opportunity to see some of the world top athletes perform "life".
What I found equally fascinating was the amount of detailed energy?? that had obviously gone into the organisation of the whole thing. We were an hour early, following instructions in our Commonwealth Spectators guide, and were therefore able to see the preparation of volunteers and tracks for the races that were to come. We watched the volunteers put up the hurdles for the hurdle race with clockwork precision. The way they moved around the track in absolute unison was more like a dance than just the putting out of some athletics materials. The little cars carrying the hurdles making a lovely synchronised turn on the way back.
Somebody, clearly, had thought about this and had managed to not only devise a way of putting those hurdles up as quickly and efficiently as possible but had put some thought into what it would look like for the onlookers.
Everywhere around the track we found evidence of the same precision and love for detail. It was truly amazing.

There was also this lovely, unbelievably clever remote controlled little car that had us enraptured for a while. It was there to carry the discus from the far end of the field back to where it had started and moved with precision and grace around the field. Who had thought of that I wondered? Whose brains had been creative enough to translate what had probably been a childhood hobby into such a nifty device making life easy for the volunteers responsible for returning the discus to its owner?

Tuesday afternoon, when I started to look at the readings for today, that nifty little car and the cleverly thought out way of putting down hurdles on a track came back to me.

What if we put all our creative energy and inventiveness into making the world a better place I thought, what if we abandoned all desire to make money and a name for ourselves and just focussed on feeding people and making life good for them? Would we be able to change the world?

I also thought of the other ways in which human creativity and inventiveness is used. In weaponry for instance.

In life there are a lot of things that are like that, they can good, but they can also be bad. Money for instance is another one. It can work miracles but at the same time it can be quite destructive. Alcohol can highten a sense of celebration but at the same time it can destroy lives. Water can give life, but you can also drown in it. Drugs can be good for us and help us heal, but they can also be very dangerous for our health. There are many examples.

In our story this morning it’s snakes. Snakes that bite and kill and a snake that brings healing and life. Two completely different aspects of something that has the same physical form.

In the ancient past something probably happened that brought this story into being. A miraculous rescue from a snake attack for instance, or maybe the memory of some terrible illness that had something to do with the feeling of fiery snakes biting into you, and the resolving of that illness after it had run its course. It is hard to say what the historical reality is that is at the root of this story, but perhaps it is more important what the story has to tell us here and now.

To look at the things the story tells that may be useful for us, where we try to cope with life and come to an understanding of the issues we encounter in it. About the ambiguity of life for instance. We all have the experience of things that on the surface look the same but can have a dramatically different effect. A snake can be deadly, but at the same time it is a symbol for new life and healing. If we look at it from the human perspective something may scare us out of our wits, while the same thing, when we look at it from God’s perspective, maybe just a way to find healing in new life.

Why is it the Israelites find their camp infested with deadly snakes? Well, it is after they turn away from God, start grumbling about the food and the accommodation on their trip through the desert and fill their days with dissatisfaction and disgruntlement with their situation. They find healing when they turn back to God and focus on God’s commandments once more. Could it be that some things can be deadly if we let ourselves be let by superficial desires and complaints, while the same things can become life giving if used within a life of faith and trust in the Lord?

What I got out of this story this time around is that it is important with what intention we go through life and use our energy and creativity. That it is important to focus on what God says rather then on what we feel would satisfy our desires or let ourselves be consumed by complaints about small discomforts. That it is important what we put at the centre of our lives, what we look up to because it will determine how the ambiguities in our life will, in the end work out. That when we turn our back on God and get caught up in our own fears and idle desires we’ll end up with snake bite, while when we look up to heaven to receive guidance for our life and concentrate on Christ who was lifted up like the snake on the cross, we receive healing and new life.

What do you do with your life, with your creativity and inventiveness? Do you use it with the intention to bring the Kingdom close? Or do your own desires come first and is God’s Kingdom nowhere near the top of your priority list?
I think this story tells us that if we don’t focus on God’s purposes whenever we make choices, in the long run we may suffer. While if we concentrate on the healing and the coming of God’s Kingdom new life and new hope will be the result. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2006

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