This morning’s sermon from Boonville Pres!
The text is Numbers 21:4-9.
As most of you already know, I’m a major science fiction geek. And for us sci-fi geeks, 1999 was a big year. Not because it was the end of the millennium, but because that was the year that the new Star Wars movie came out. We had waited sixteen long years since Return of the Jedi. Beginning with The Phantom Menace, we would finally get the full back story on Darth Vader. I remember the week it came out in theaters. I was at a conference that week in Windy Gap, NC. As it turns out, that was the very same conference where I met my wife for the first time. I didn’t get to see the movie until I got home.
When I did finally see it, I made up for lost time. I went to see The Phantom Menace in the theater no less than six times during that summer. The acting stunk, but the fight-scene choreography was amazing. Along with most Star Wars fans, I thought that Jar-Jar Binks was the worst thing to ever happen in cinema history.
In addition to all those big things that happened in The Phantom Menace, there was one little thing that stuck with me. It was a single line that Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson) said to little Anakin Skywalker: “Always remember, your focus determines your reality.”
I’ve always liked that line. It sounds like good advice. It reminds me of the Israelite people in this morning’s reading from the book of Numbers. Now, the book of Numbers is part of the Jewish Torah, which is part of what Christians call the Old Testament. The book of Numbers chronicles the journey of the Israelites as they live a nomadic life in the desert before settling in the Promised Land.
Life in the desert was never easy. They lived life on the edge, never knowing for sure that their next meal would be there. The text of the Bible says that God provided regular bread, meat, and water for the people through all kinds of unusual (some might say miraculous) circumstances. But none of it ever lasted more than a day. There was no such thing as long-term security for these desert nomads. The only thing keeping them alive on a daily basis was an interdependent web of the grace of God, the abundance of the earth, and the kindness of strangers.
As the Israelite people made their way through this desert, they did not have the best of attitudes. In fact, they were whining all the time. They said to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can hear myself in those words. I get an especially big kick out of that last part: “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” There is no food and I can’t stand this food! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paced around my kitchen, with its fully stocked fridge and cupboard, and said to myself, “There’s nothing to eat in this house!” Has anybody else here ever done that? What is the matter with us? Are we blind?
We modern-day people think we’re so advanced and evolved. We think we’re better than our ancestors with their immaturity and superstitions. But then you look at this passage and see that we’re just like them. “There is no food… and we detest this miserable food.” “There’s nothing to eat in this house!” We’re just like them. They were just like us. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This, by the way, is how I understand the Bible to function for us as God’s Word. We see ourselves in it. Some Christians take that to mean that the Bible is some kind of magic book that can never be wrong. Personally, I take it to mean that our sacred text is like a mirror through which we can get some perspective on who we are and, by extension, who God is. Another author, Brian McLaren, says that the Bible is a like a mathematics textbook in school. It’s not useful because all the answers are written in the back. It’s useful because, by working through the problems, we become wiser people. God’s Word to us in the Bible is a living word, not a dead list of dogmas and morals to be accepted without question.
This point becomes important as we look at what happens next in this story from the book of Numbers. It says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” Now, if we take this story at face value, we very quickly run into some serious problems. It would lead us to believe that our God is the kind of person who would kill someone just for complaining. It would also lead us to believe that natural events, like snake bites, happen because God wills it as a form of punishment. If we really believed all that, we wouldn’t support organizations like Church World Service and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance because we would think the victims of earthquakes and hurricanes were just wicked sinners being punished by God. But we don’t believe that. We believe that God is love. We believe that God stands with those who suffer and with those who work to alleviate suffering in this world. And our belief in that kind of God leads us to go back and read this passage in a different way.
This story may or may not have been based on actual events, but that’s beside the point. When the text says that “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people,” I take it to be a reflection of the Israelites’ state of mind. The snakes are a symbolic representation of their collective attitude and its effect on their communal life.
Have you ever been around people at work or school who just love to complain about every little thing? I’m talking about the people who always look for the worst in other people and situations. How does it feel to be around them? It’s kind of a drag, isn’t it? Being around them drains your energy. It’s like a poison that saps the life right out of you. Hanging around them kind of feels like walking through a snake pit: you’re just waiting for one to jump out and bite you. So, when I read this story about people and their attitudes, the snake analogy makes a whole lot of sense to me.
When times are hard, it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong with the world. It’s easy to get caught up in talking about the good old days or the way you wish things were. It feels cathartic to let your frustration out (which is a good thing) but when the catharsis becomes a way of life, it can be toxic. Just as much as honest venting, we also need people who can help us to see what’s right in the world. They empower us to make things better. They help us to change our focus.
That’s exactly what the Israelite people needed in today’s story and that’s just what they got. The text says that, “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” Isn’t this interesting: the people of Israel had a poisonous attitude of complaining that was sucking the life out of their community. So, what’s the cure? Look up, focus on this, and you will live. Change your focus in order to change your reality. It’s like they said in Star Wars: your focus determines your reality.
Let’s fast forward to the New Testament. We also read a story about Jesus today. In this story, Jesus is compared to Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole. It’s the same dynamic as before, except that this time, the thing we’re supposed to focus on is not a symbolic statue but a living, breathing person. Jesus is, for Christians, the primary revelation of God in the world. When we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. When we want to become the kind of people we’re meant to be, we look at Jesus. When we need to remember everything that’s good, right, beautiful, and holy in this world, we focus on Jesus. When we’re ready to be cured of the poisonous attitudes that infect our minds, our community, and our church, we look at Jesus.
We remember the principles he taught us. We reflect on his deeds of healing and forgiveness. We reflect on the love that poured through him to every corner of creation. We do our best to reorient our lives around Jesus’ vision. When we feel the snakebite and the poison’s burn, we look up to this man who died with forgiveness on his lips for his murderers and we ask ourselves that famous question: “What would Jesus do?”
Your focus determines your reality. Change your focus and you change your reality.
There is a story I heard several years ago, but I can’t trace it back to its source. It takes place in a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II. The camp had already been liberated by the allies, but the survivors were still too weak to be moved. They stayed in the camp for a little while longer to regain their strength. They were finally being fed real food and treated with medicine. For the first time, the gates were open and prisoners could come and go as they pleased. During this time, two former-prisoners were walking together in the woods around the camp. They came across a small patch of ground with little baby plant sprouts and young flowers poking up out of the earth. The first man kept walking right over them, oblivious to their presence. The second man stopped, looked, and stepped around them. His friend said, “You mean to tell me that, in spite of everything we’ve been through, you still believe in the meaning and value of life?” The second man replied, “No, I mean to tell you that, because of everything we’ve been through, I still believe in the meaning and value of life.” Two men lived through the same horror came out with very different interpretations of their experience.
Two years ago, I had the difficult honor of being both friend and pastor to a young couple who suddenly lost their newborn daughter. I can’t think of anything else in this world that does more to upset our perception of the goodness and natural order of the universe. Through that time, I watched this family struggle, question, doubt, cry, and mourn their loss. As a pastor, I had no answers for them. In spite of all the Bible and theology I had learned in seminary, nothing could prepare me for that horrible moment. I could only be there with them in that deafening silence. There’s just nothing you can say in a moment like that.
What amazed me, as time went on, is how they clung together as a family. They focused on their love for each other and, through that, found their way back to faith. In time, this turned into compassion as they reached out to support others in pain. They have been part of support groups for grieving families, they have volunteered to assist the homeless in Utica, and they’ve walked in the March of Dimes in their daughter’s name. Their compassion has become a point of focus for them. Through it, their pain has not been erased, but it is being redeemed.
Your focus determines your reality. When people think about what it means to “have faith,” they usually think about the various beliefs associated with a particular religion. Faith, they think, is about believing that Jesus walked on water or was born of a virgin. But those dogmas mainly have to do with what you think. Faith, as we’re talking about it today, is about how you think. Do you see the universe as hostile or friendly? Will you approach life as meaningless or meaningful?
May we, as Christians and people of faith, in seasons of conflict and tragedy, learn to shift our focus to the one who came to show us a vision of what life can be. May you become an agent of healing from the poisonous attitudes you encounter at home, school, work, or church. In this soul-sucking culture of toxic vision that only sees what’s wrong with the world, may you be inspired to become a life-giving beacon of faith, hope, and love to all the people around you who so desperately need to hear what you have to say.