The passages we read today tell us about two important moments in salvation history when people have had to decide which way they ought to go. The first happens when the People of Israel are wandering in the Wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
As they have been rescued from slavery and ethnic cleansing we might expect the People to be grateful. But their memories are short. There aren’t yet enough of them in the loose federation of rootless and landless tribes which gathered under Moses’ protection to be able to challenge the ancient civilizations of Edom and Canaan with their walled cities, settled governments and citizen armies. Indeed, the Bible tells us that Edom had its own kings long before Israel, and the Edomites weren’t about to have their authority challenged by this bunch of ne’er-do-wells and Johnny-come-latelies. So the People of Israel couldn’t go through Edom, they had to go round it - wandering many miles out of their way through inhospitable desert.
That’s when the some of the People started to become impatient, and to speak out against Moses and even against God. However, in those days it was clearly not a good idea to exasperate God.
The writer Garrison Keillor sums up the dangers like this, in his book “Lake Wobegone Days”: ‘In the Bible people who did wrong tended to get smote, and that at a time when God smote hard: when he smited you stayed smitten, smiting was no slap on the wrist. Mrs Tollerud illustrated this in Sunday School with a flannelgraph: a cloth-covered board on which she placed cloth figures and moved them around. Pharaoh, though decent in some ways, didn’t obey God. She took down the figure of Pharaoh the ruler and put up the figure of Pharaoh with his hands over his face. It made us think twice about striking out in new directions!’
Well, the price the People of Israel pay for challenging the hard way that God needs them to go and striking out in new directions is to be bitten by poisonous snakes. Fortunately, though, there is an antidote. If they turn back to God and start following again the direction that Moses is urging them to take, God is prepared to relent. He tells Moses to make a bronze image of one of the poisonous snakes and stick it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the image will be healed. Problem solved.
John interprets this strange story as an allegory. The snakes or serpents represent temptation. People easily complain about following God’s way - the hard and narrow way that leads to salvation. They wander off into the undergrowth and then they get bitten by temptation.
But there is a cure, a way of getting back onto the track which leads to new life and rebirth. And that is to follow the difficult but ultimately rewarding way which signposts us to the Cross - which is easily identifiable because, like the bronze serpent nailed to the pole, the Son of Man has been lifted up and nailed to the Cross to die, as a permanent reminder of the right direction of travel and - like the bronze serpent - as a remedy for sin and disobedience.
So, in John’s interpretation of the story, being enabled to make a fresh start and strike out in the right direction is inextricably linked to dying - dying to sin and disobedience with Jesus on his cross. But it is also linked inextricably to eternal life. For God does not stay angry with us. Rather he loves the world so much that he gives his only Son so that we might not perish in the end but be enabled, instead, to find life in all its fullness.