Num 21: 4-9, Ps107, John 3: 14-21 | When plans change

14 March 2021 | Ben Hall – Expectations Disappointment Hope         

Two weeks ago I was all set to go on an adventure. There had been weeks of preparation – I was going to take a few days off so I had planned my work to cope with that. And then a few days before we were to set off, Auckland went into Level 3 Lockdown.

It took the wind out my sails – I was dead in the water, totally demotivated. In speaking with others, a lot of people also experienced similar feelings. It was not just a sudden change of plans but that there were so many other plans that all fell over – Domino effect for several weeks! Perhaps in other times or circumstances I am sure I would have coped much better. I am grateful that New Zealand as a nation has fared much better than some. I am also thankful as it has made me realise just how on edge we can become living with uncertainty. It also gives me a greater empathy for those in places where there is constant war, famine and persecution.

The forced changes to my plans seem minor compared with what others had to cope with – a postponed wedding, for example – but nonetheless to say I was disappointed is an understatement. If I felt this way with a minor disruption how would I cope with a major one!

I am sure that many of you also have stories of times when your plans have been suddenly and unexpectedly changed. The disruption may have been caused by something beyond your control, or by our own inattention or even foolishness, as in the psalm. It may have been a loss of something or someone dear to you. Whatever the cause when expectations are not met, disappointment follows. A wise man observed that the difference between the expectation and reality is the measure of disappointment.

Our Old Testament reading today speaks of disappointment and loss but it also speaks of hope and healing.  God wants to heal and restore. Which is echoed in the very familiar verse – ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believe in him will have everlasting life’.

What we can learn from this story is how the people responded to their situation and where God was in it.  And how does this relate to our world situation today.

The people of Israel were travelling through the desert; the timing of this story is uncertain. But we do know they had been travelling for some time.  From Mount Hor, they could have gone directly to the Promised Land as the destination. But the King of Edom would not let them take the short cut to travel through his land so they are turned around and led back into the desert. They had to go the long way, around Edom.

The CJB translation says the people’s temper became short because of the detour – in other words we might say they just lost it! As a result the people began complaining. Now what’s wrong with complaining? In this case they were blaming Moses and ultimately God for all their troubles – when in fact Moses was following God’s orders to lead the people away from the slavery and hardships they had in Egypt.

Our words are powerful, and creative. What we say matters very much; we can create life or death with what we say. We can speak life and health into our and others’ lives.

I know of a young girl who was mercilessly teased at school; her class mates called her ugly. One day she came home from school in tears. Her brother took her to the mirror and made her look at herself. He said “God does not make ugly, there is no such thing as an ugly person”. Those words hit home and she never forgot them. That was about 50 years ago and I had all but forgotten. But just last week, my sister reminded me of how my words had been healing to her and more powerful than the words of her class mates.  

The people complained against Moses their leader and against God. If there had been an election, they would have voted them both out! Their negative attitude was harmful. Not only blaming God, but ungrateful for what they had.

‘V 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.’

Does it really say that the Lord sent the snakes! Yes it does, I have checked many translations.

How is this compatible with our nice Christian view of a loving God, a Father who loves his children and searches for them when they are lost!

Why would God do that?

Let me ask – there are a few of us here who have had to deal with and discipline stroppy teenagers.  I am sure more than one of us here has heard the retort “I have the worst parent/s in the world”. And maybe one or two of our younger people can also relate to this. 

When I was at high school there was an incident where something got broken and the culprit/s could not be found nor would they own up so the whole lot of us were put on detention. How is that fair that all are treated as guilty for the transgression of a few? Whether you agree with that style of discipline or not – there are times when a group of people (for example, the Church) do have a corporate responsibility to speak out against injustice or wrong behaviour, whatever it is. John says if we know to do the right thing and don’t do it – it is sin. And if we do not speak out – then everyone is in danger.

Here’s a question for you – how many legs does a dog have if you count its tail as a leg?
It doesn’t matter what you call it, its tail is still a tail and the dog still only has 4 legs!

If everyone says it is OK cheat on your tax, or your boss, or even your partner, it does not make it OK.

For too long the Church and its people have been silent for fear of offending – I’m sorry, but the truth is offensive to those who don’t want to hear it. We have been silent on too many things; equality, justice, the sanctity of life, marriage and more?

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 fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze[w] serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Now I am not saying that all disasters, plagues, sickness, etc are sent by God to punish us. Some things just happen. Sometimes God sends things our way for any number of reasons. Sometimes God lifts his hand of protection when we decide to go our own way. Sometimes God will put his children in a very uncomfortable place to prepare or protect. Think about what Joseph went through.

I am saying that God is sovereign, He is in control and He can and will use anything to get our attention off ourselves and being comfortable and draw his children closer to Him  

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron 7:13-14).

I am saying that God is right there with his children in the difficult times to give comfort healing and hope. All we have to do is look to Jesus. Look to the Cross.

And where is God for those who have no faith when calamity strikes? He is right there waiting for the call. In times of trouble most people are open to hear and accept the Gospel. Are we ready to share it?

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of “Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Are you lifting up Jesus in your home, work, social networks?

As the message of Psalm 107 begins…

 Oh, thank God—he’s so good!
    His love never runs out.
All of you set free by God, tell the world!
    Tell how he freed you from oppression,

Some were fools through their sinful ways,
    and because of their iniquities suffered affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food,
    and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.
20 He sent out his word and healed them,
    and delivered them from their destruction.
21 Let themthank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wondrous works to the children of man!
22 And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
    and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!