Year B, Lent 4; Numbers 21:4-9; Lectionary reading for March 14, 2021
I’m no biblical scholar, but even I know the Israelites did a lot of grumbling in the desert. I leafed through Exodus and Numbers for a quick count, and this particular grumble is #14. Most of the time, Moses calmed his people down, took the problem to God, and God solved the problem. This time, however, the Israelites were whining about the very food God had provided; talk about ungrateful. God punishes the people with snakes, but also provides a solution by instructing Moses to build the bronze snake.
I found several interpretations of this tricky story online, but Dr. Keith Wagner’s explanation most struck a chord with me. Dr. Wagner suggests the Israelites had a perception problem. All they could see were their problems; sore feet, repetitive food, no water, and now, snakes! When Moses raised the bronze serpent onto the pole so that it could heal anyone bitten, he helped them adjust their focus. Rather than grumble about how hard life in the wilderness was, the bronze serpent reminded them to focus on God, the source of all healing.
I think this is why Jesus compares himself to the serpent in the passage from John 3:14. We are saved by looking upon Jesus suffering on the cross, saved by keeping our focus on God, saved not through efforts of our own, but through God’s grace. When I focus on my troubles, that is all I see. When I focus on God’s grace, I am transformed.
Is there a children’s book that can make sense of this? I believe there is!
Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson’s book Last Stop on Market Street follows CJ and Nana on an after-church bus trip across town. CJ, like the Israelites, has an acute case of the grumbles. Why do we have to wait for the bus in the rain? Why can’t we drive a car? How come it’s so dirty here? At every turn, Nana helps CJ change his perspective.
“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”Nana, Last Stop on Market Street
CJ learns that a little bit of hardship, a little bit of jealousy, or a little bit of want doesn’t mean much when he focuses on the beauty of the people and places around him.
Questions before you read:
- Have you ever had to do something you really didn’t want to do?
- Did grumbling about it make it any easier?
- What do you think it means to “look on the bright side?”
Questions after you read:
- Why is CJ glad they came at the end?
- How do you feel when you help someone?
- What can you do to remind yourself to focus on God when you feel like whining?
Even if you choose a different focus this Sunday, I hope you keep Last Stop on Market Street in your back pocket. You never know when you might need the perfect story to teach gratitude and service. Enjoy!
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de la Pena, Matt. Last Stop on Market Street. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2015.