The people said to Moses, "We have sinned against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away these serpents from us." So Moses prayed and the Lord said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look up and live." - Numbers 21:7-9
Have you ever looked up through your windshield and seen a billboard that said "If you die tonight are you sure you would go to heaven?"
It's not my go-to way to introduce the good news of Jesus Christ. I recoil at the uncompromising, "turn or burn" thing. On the other hand, let's not turn and burn this message. It is, in the end, a message about grace.
At best, it reminds me that I can't earn eternal communion with a holy God simply by being a good person, which I generally am, but only on a part-time basis. If I can't stroll into the White House on my own, or even into your house uninvited, what makes me think I can do the same with the Almighty? Something that wonderful could only be an unmerited gift of grace.
That's what's going on in this curious story about a snake-bitten people. They can't cure themselves. Only looking up to God's/Moses' snake-pole can do that. Many years later, the pole returned, on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. God was wrapped around the pole, so that all those who know they are dying in the wilderness can look up and live (John 3).
Holy God, the next time I look up and see one of those "turn or burn" billboards, help me to smile and say "Thank you Jesus." And keep driving.
Matthew Laney is the Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, UCC, in Hartford, Connecticut.