Warning: Formulas May Be Hazardous to Your Salvation

A Sermon for Lent

by Peter Sandstrom

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient along the way. And the people spoke against God and Moses. "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and water, and we loathe this worthless food." Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said,"We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9)

This text from Numbers 21 presents us with a very strange story. It starts out normally enough for a tale of the people of Israel in the wilderness. Now, as they have before, the people again have become impatient and they speak against God and against Moses. Their previous complaint was that they would die of hunger — that they had no food and no water. However, it soon turns out that they do in fact have something to eat, the daily manna, but they don't attach much value to the stuff. "We loathe this worthless food." It may have seemed pretty bland fare indeed.

From this point on, the story becomes increasingly curious. The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, which bit them, and some people died.

It isn't clear what is happening. There is no direct statement that God is punishing them. It is not clear what a fiery serpent is: a poisonous red snake, a scorpion, some unknown scarlet reptile? Docs the term "fiery" describe an inflamed bite from one of these? There is no mention, either, that these serpents ever left the encampment! It is interesting, though, that it is the people of Israel themselves who view the serpents as God's response to their sin and recognize that their sin was speaking against God and Moses.

Remember their complaint? They didn't like the food. But, doesn't sending out poisonous snakes to kill off people for complaining about the menu seem a bit severe?! Isn't grumbling about the food or the cooking a common activity? Isn't the cafeteria or food service menu the first thing we complain about — right after the weather? Imagine using this particular tactic in YOUR house. "Dear, this chicken was really worthless tonight," "Oh, so you don't like my chicken, huh? Well, let's just see how you like my poisonous snakes! Sic 'em, boys!" I think there may be some subtle Hebrew humor at work in this text.

The story gives us a picture of life in the wilderness. The life the Israelites faced daily was bland at best and downright dangerous and life-threatening at worst. Examination of the text does not support the common interpretation that sin is the main concern of the story. Following the City-Gates method of finding emphasis and clues by noticing the repetition of words, we note in this text that "people" occurs five times, "God" five times, "serpents" five times, "sin" one time, and the words "spoken against" two times.

Sin, then, though important, is not a central character or theme in this text. If the serpents are taken to mean danger, death, and trouble, then the four main characters we have in the story are the people, Moses, God, and trouble. How the people, Moses, and God deal with this life-threatening trouble constitutes the conclusion of this story, and here the narrative becomes stranger still.

God directs Moses to cast a model of the serpents in bronze. Moses then lifts up this bronze serpent statue on a pike. God has ordered Moses to make a graven image! This causes eyelids to lift — isn't there a command against this? Then God provides healing to those who look at this graven image. The lookers LIVE. They survive the poisonous snake bite. This is a very unusual, seemingly magical kind of healing and life-saving event. It strikes me as a bit much. Further, there is no commentary about it whatsoever in the Numbers text — no words of explanation! Merely the words: "So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live." With this, the story is over. The next verse begins, "And the people of Israel set out and encamped at Oboth." That's it. No further comment on what has happened. We are left trying to make of it what we can.

In today's gospel lesson, however, Jesus seems to take this final scene as it is — simply stated and unexplained. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14, 15).

The gospel writer credits Jesus with making a direct comparison between the bronze serpent on the pole and himself on the cross. Both seeing the bronze serpent and believing in the power of Jesus on the cross serve to grant life in the face of death. Here, however, is the beginning of the tension among today's assigned texts.

The comparison made in the gospel lesson seems to make believing in Jesus appear as simple and as easy as looking at a bronze serpent. Putting these two texts together so quickly can make salvation look like a formula. If there ever was a verse that has been used as a salvation formula, it is the very next verse in today's gospel text: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

When we speak of God's salvation for people, I feel we must be careful not to fall into the seductive trap of proclaiming and trusting in formulas. By formula, I mean something prescription-like that offers control, either magical or rational. Take this medicine and you'll feel better. Look at this bronze serpent and you'll be saved. Both formulas prescribe something people should do and both promise absolute results!

Formulas and prescriptions are very popular. Working in bookstores for a few years, I discovered that formula books sell incredibly well. Formulas for success include success in business, selling, losing weight, quitting smoking, making love, and making a million dollars. There are whole shelves of - formula books for religious success — success in getting bigger churches, more money-giving on Sundays, more spirituality (in thirty days or your money back), better Christian marriages, and raising better Christian kids. And NOT ONE of these books has a warning — "Buyer beware: success and salvation formulas may be hazardous to your salvation!"

These books do not include that warning, but today's four assigned texts do. The warning label is in each of them, but some are in small print and hard to see. The clearest is in today's Psalm 27 text. It warns against treating the act of facing God as a formula, and leads us, I believe, to be warned against treating the facing of Moses and his bronze serpent or the facing of Jesus on his cross as a formula for success and salvation.

In our Psalm, King David is worshipping alone, facing God at the altar, giving God much praise throughout most of the psalm. "The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?" This goes on for six verses, but in the seventh verse we get to the heart of the matter. David is in trouble, in danger, possibly under the threat of death, and it seems that God hasn't come through for him yet. "Hear, 0 Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! Thou hast said, 'Seek ye my face.' My heart says to thee 'Thy face, Lord, do I seek,' Hide not thy face from me." David turns his face to God as the salvation formula says he should, but God has not yet saved him. It is David's experience in this instance that God has turned away from his face. David is alone, threatened, and deeply, deeply troubled. The salvation formula doesn't always work when the laboratory is life. Experience can often conflict with formulas, just as in the primary drama being acted-out in today's four texts. At the end of Psalm 27 we see David, a person of faith, who is still without a saving word or saving act from God.

In today's epistle lesson in Ephesians, the Apostle Paul is even more explicit in warning against trusting in formulas for salvation. Whereas David used personal prayer, Paul uses theological language to express this danger. His phrasing is so theological that it, too, can sound like a formula, but it is not. Listen closely: "For by grace have you been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of your own works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9). Paul says that one's belief in Christ and one' s faith in the cross is not one's own doing. It is a gift from God; it is grace. It is not one's own work, lest anyone should boast — or lest anyone should write a "how to succeed" book that provides a prescription, a surefire salvation formula for how to save oneself and let everyone know HOW YOU did it, and maybe make a few bucks while one is at it.

Lest anyone should boast is exactly the commentary that the book of Deuteronomy gives on the episode of the fiery serpents, "Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth' " (Dt. 8:17). Lest anyone should boast. When Paul writes "By grace you have been saved," he is not writing a prescription but a description. He is not prescribing what to do to save yourself but rather describing what God has already done in saving people.

We find a final word of caution about the matter of reducing salvation to a results-guaranteeing formula in the very chapter that gives us the much formulized John 3:16. Verse 16 comes near the end of the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. In the middle of that conversation — verse 8 — Jesus tells Nicodemus something that I read as the context for verse 16: "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes, or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." I wish everytime someone quotes John 3:16, they would also quote John 3:8. For, surely, Jesus means that as we face God, whether in a time of worship, danger, or of great sickness or, as in the time of Lent, we face Jesus on the Cross, WHENEVER we face God, we don't know what's going to happen next! We don't know what God might do or not do. We don't know what the people or individuals facing God might do next. God is Spirit and the Spirit is free. Spirit is not formula or prescription.

This does not mean that we should start quoting John 3:8 without quoting John 3:16. We must continue to bear witness to what we have experienced. We must encourage people to believe, to come to faith in Christ. That is part of the Good News that we share. But during this time of Lent, we should invite one another, and others who do not believe, to come and watch with us for a while — and we should not offer any formulaic guarantees in our invitation to watch together the face of Jesus on the cross that God's Spirit is going to act in a special way for us or others who have joined us. For, while God may indeed act, we may also find our neighbor or ourselves standing before God empty-handed like King David, with no word from a silent God and no saving act from our Protector.

What we CAN do, what we can include in our invitation to worship and face God together during this Lenten season, is to describe, as Paul did, what a wonderful thing it is that God has already done for us in Christ. When we stand before the cross, we witness that God has already acted to save us — in that God shared in Christ's suffering and death on the cross. This is the great message of Lent. Like King David, we can believe and be faithful, while we continue waiting for the sight of our Lord and for our salvation in the land of the living.