The Only Way is Through It
Part of my childhood was spent in Weatherford, Texas, and it was during those years that I think I had some of my craziest adventures. My friend, Zach, and I would walk home from school through creek beds, and we built forts in the wooded areas near our homes. There were more than a couple times that we encountered those things that would have been our parents’ worst nightmare, but somehow we always managed to live to tell about it.
That day, we were working on our fort that we were making from fallen logs, leafy twigs, and a few bricks and broken plywood that had been dumped by the road by homebuilders in our area. It was getting late, and we decided that we should head back to our homes.
As we started through the woods, Zach stopped dead in his tracks. As I looked around him, I saw what he saw. A bobcat was standing just on top of an old fallen tree, and he had spotted us. We didn’t know what to do. If we tried to run away, would it chase us? If we moved forward, would it go any better? What if we just stood still? The longer we stood there, the more I liked the idea of making a run for it.
Zach, who was caught in that world somewhere between hero and lunatic, whispered to me, “The only thing we can do is walk toward it?”
What?!? Nothing in my mind said to walk toward the animal. Zach reiterated it: “The only way is through it.” He whispered that he knew about them. We were big enough that it didn’t think we would be prey. If it had rabies, it would have already come at us. If we ran from it, it would trigger a predator response. Standing still wouldn’t likely go very well, either. The only thing we could do, according to my brave, knowledgable friend, was stay on our path and let it know that we weren’t going to be deterred. We were slowly walking through the danger zone!
In hindsight, I’m not sure I should have trusted the knowledge of another 5th grader, but I wasn’t sure that I really had a choice. So we stayed on the path that led closer and closer to the bobcat. Amazingly, the bobcat turned and scampered away from us into the woods.
The only way is through it.
In Numbers 21:4-9, we find an interesting story of the children of Israel who are journeying in the wilderness, and they began to complain. The journey was hard. Why had God brought them out of Egypt if their only fate was to die.
As they continue to complain, we are told that God sent serpents among them, and the serpents bit them and several of them died. Then the people began to realize their sin … they repented of their sin against God and Moses. God then told Moses to put a serpent at the end of a pole and lift it up in front of the people that they might live.
The complaint here is interesting. They ask Moses, “Why have you brought us out of the land of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
Is it just me, or is the last line funny? That last line I find humorous: “We have absolutely nothing to eat AND we hate what we are eating.” I’m pretty sure I said the same things to my parents when I was a kid.
Moses then fashioned a serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole. He then held it up in front of the people. They looked at it and lived.
Let me initially state that I do not believe, in any way, that the God we worship would send snakes among the people. Jesus asks of us, with our propensity toward evil, if would not know better than to give the child who asks for fish a snake instead? God certainly would not do such a thing.
What I do believe is this: when we focus on the darkness, it is really hard to see the light. I was pretty sure that 2020 was the worst possible thing that could happen to us. It was a year of pandemic … with disease, death, and the fear of the unknown. It is true that we suffered through a challenging year; there is no disputing that reality. Coming into 2021, I was busy looking back at how much had been taken from us. The routines … the people who have moved in this time … the deaths.
But just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, the opening act for 2021 was a winter storm unlike many of us have ever known. And while there is good news in our fight against Covid, the variant strains of the coronavirus are out forging their own paths of destruction. It feels like the snakes have arrived.
I have discovered that same truth in my life. When I am pretty sure that there is nothing worse that can happen to me, pretty soon I am standing amidst a sea of snakes.
And who of us has not wished we could just go back the way we came? We want to go back to our pre-pandemic routines. We have promised that we will never again take granted things like seeing our families, eating out, worshiping with our friends, strolling through our favorite stores and shopping centers and generally just being in the outside world.
We repent of our inability to see or appreciate those good things. Now can we just go back? Not sure about you, but I am hearing a resounding, “NO!” The way is not backwards … it is forwards. The only way out is to go through it.
Moses then holds up a symbol, but it is not a symbol of something warm and fuzzy that we imagine from our pre-pandemic days. It is the snake itself. We are told that the only way to get over our snakebites is to behold … embrace … the snake itself.
Maybe that is why Jesus tells Nicodemus, as we will share this week in worship, that he will be lifted up like that snake. Not that Jesus is the snake, but the symbol referred to here is the cross.
The only hope for brokenness … suffering … death is through it. By gazing on it … by embracing it … by owning it, we discover victory! Ultimately, the way to abundant life takes us through the valley of death.
Lord, you come to us in the most unusual and remarkable ways. May we see you even as we face the darkness and brokenness that surrounds us. Amen.