Read the signs

March 10th, 2021

Numbers 21:4-9

On a recent road trip, my three-year-old niece Maya was driving her parents crazy. She needed juice, followed by a cookie, and then she needed to go to the bathroom. After the first hour of the trip the actual whining began. She wanted to know how much longer the trip would take; she wanted to know when she would go back to her friends at school. Maya needed to go to the bathroom yet again, and then she simply had to have the toys she dropped on the floor of the car. At her wits’ end, her mother looked out the window and exclaimed, “Look Maya! Do you see what that sign says?” Maya excitedly looked at a sign that probably said something like “McDonalds Drive Thru, Exit 45,” and demanded, “Tell me what it says! What does it say?” Her creative mother said, “It says ‘No Whining!’ ” Maya believed her mother and immediately ceased nagging her parents. For the remainder of the trip, and for many trips thereafter, Maya would point to signs on the side of the road and say, “That sign says ‘No Whining!’”

In our text for this week, the Israelites are acting like impatient children who have been on a road trip for far too long. Hunger and exhaustion have taken a toll on them. They are whining. In their wilderness wanderings, they have lost their bearings in reality. Despite the many ways God has delivered them time after time on their journey to the Promised Land, they yet again think they are going to die. Although God has never let them starve to death, they complain and whine about what they are lacking. They have forgotten that they have been delivered from slavery. They have lost sight of the fact that with each step they are closer and closer to the Promised Land. They have taken their eyes off God as their provider and Moses their leader. They focus only on their own earthly needs. They are whining.

It may sound like a familiar path in our current Lenten journey. This week we mark the fourth Sunday in Lent. We have been focusing on our shortcomings and frailties for several weeks now. We are continuing to strengthen our efforts to be more like Christ. Easter Sunday is on the horizon, but we cannot flower the cross just yet. It is easy at this point to look at the spiritual journey ahead and ask, “Are we there yet?”

The Lenten journey is not an easy one. While we may not be starving or going without water, or worse, wandering in a wilderness, we are supposed to be focusing our energy on what it means to be more like Jesus. It is more important now than at any other time in Lent to stay centered on Christ and to remain vigilant in maintaining our spiritual journey. With Holy Week quickly approaching, it becomes seductively tempting to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday with little attention given to the significance of the actions of Christ throughout Holy Week. Now is a time for preparation for what is to come and also for living in the moment and not jumping to the celebrations that lie ahead. Rather than wondering if we are “there yet,” we should spend this week paying attention to the road that is preparing us for Holy Week.

Similarly, the Israelites needed something to look upon to help them focus on their journey. They needed something out of the ordinary to help them regroup, reorganize, and refocus. Sure, a bronze snake mounted on a pole sounds like a great solution. It is noticeable, different, and most importantly, relational to the Israelites’ needs. In an effort to help them center their efforts and thoughts, God enables them to turn their eyes back to their deliverer.

It may appear odd to think of a bronze snake as the symbol that refocused the Israelites at this point on their journey. But consider the image that helps us focus our hearts and souls in our Lenten experience. We focus on a cross, an instrument of torture and death that has been reinterpreted through Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In the same way, the bronze snake represents yet another source of the Israelites’ whining but is also a reminder of God’s love and mercy for the people because of the snake’s healing power to those who are sick.

Moses could not have had a more effective sign than a bronze snake to say, “No Whining!” to the Israelites. The snake caught their attention, met their needs, and quieted their complaining. In the same way, the cross reminds us of what Christ has done for us in sacrificing himself for our sinful nature. Yet the cross is reinterpreted and in a sense, remade to be the symbol toward which we journey in this Lenten season because we know how the story ends.

We know the Israelites eventually make it to the Promised Land because we serve a God who keeps promises. We know that we will celebrate a risen Christ on Easter Sunday after the remembrance of the Crucifixion on Maundy Thursday. We know this Lenten journey will come to a close in a matter of days. In the meantime, we may need reminders that no, “we are not there yet,” but we are close. The signs are all around us. Hold steady. Stay on the course. Keep the faith. And read the signs. Amen.

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