Please read Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

An old “Saturday Night Live” skit concerned a family called the Whiners. Whatever the situation or the subject, they never spoke unless they whined. If they had a dachshund, I suppose it would have been a whiner wiener.

No doubt we encounter the ancestors of the Whiners in the Old Testament reading. Fresh from a great military victory and on their way to the Promised Land, the people of Israel can still do nothing but complain. They blame Moses for bringing them out into the wilderness, as if the great leader could have forced hundreds of thousands of Israelites to follow him into the desert! Certainly it could not be their responsibility or choice to be here! And then they whine about the fooood. In one breath, they claim there isn’t any food or water; then in the next, they contradict themselves, and say that the food is terrible!

Their complaining doesn’t improve the menu one bit. Nor does it make Canaan land any closer. Instead, the people are stricken with deadly snakes that bite and kill many of them. These are not just any snakes, by the way. The same word—“seraph”—is used here as in the description of the serpent beings that Isaiah encountered in the Temple (Isaiah 6). These are the servants of God, sent to judge the people for their faithlessness and their murmuring.

This rather drastic measure taken by God grabs the attention of this ungrateful bunch. Now those that aren’t face down in the dirt come to Moses, all of a sudden their friend again, to ask that he do something, like praying, that will take away the serpents. Being the gracious guy he was, Moses agrees, and God tells him what to do. The cure is to put a bronze snake on a stick and bid the people to look on it. The afflicting agent is also relief. That’s not so surprising, is it? That’s the way we cure snake bites or manufacture vaccines.

It’s an odd story, not an easy one to hear or interpret. But let me suggest that this is a tale about the deadliness of self-indulgence. It is about what results from a loss of focus, a dearth of gratitude, a constant preoccupation with trivialities, and the attitude that success and power equal the right always to get what we want. It is a tale not about folk long ago, but about you and me, this moment.

This neglected account from Numbers may be ignored so much because it tells too much truth and hits too close to home. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing our families, our church, our work, ourselves. It reminds us how quick we are to criticize, and how slow to praise. How we rush to judge the intentions and competency of others, but delay as long as possible turning the harsh spotlight on ourselves. It wants us to realize that what we are is helpless and hurting, face down in the dirt like a snake, when we want to see ourselves as good and right and worthy. This little text won’t let us off the hook; it tells us how sinful and petty and shallow and loud-mouthed we are. It’s a story about the deadly poisons that infect and destroy us when we are intent on getting what we want when we want it, which is right now. It’s about losing sight of the goal in order to have short-term satisfaction. But mostly, it’s about forgetting the God who will get us to the Promised Land.

The whining, manipulation, complaining, and self-absorption described in Numbers shows up all over the place. We find those toxic activities and attitudes in the workplace. I once heard the following story, which leaves me shaking my head in disbelief. An anonymous memo was sent to an office manager by an employee of a large Southern corporation. In it she complained that her cubicle was six inches smaller than her neighbor’s. Did management say to this disgruntled worker “Get a life?” No. They reconfigured all the cubicles at the cost of thousands of dollars, including getting new furniture, tearing up tile, repositioning an electrical junction box, and making all affected employees waste a day of work to clean out their cubicles so the workspace could be changed. We have to wonder if energy and money could not have been spent on improving the increasingly bad position of the company in the marketplace instead of placating one selfish employee.

Self-centeredness rears its head in the family. How many spouses and kids use badgering, whining, nagging, and complaining to wear down a partner or a parent until he or she gives in to demands for this, that or the other “must have” of the moment?

Finally, shallow, superficial, self-absorbed complaining and loss of focus is no stranger to the church. In a church I was once pastor of, some people were worried over the positioning of items in the bulletin but not over restlessness, talking, and movement during the service. Others argued and complained about aesthetics, like the color of stain on the wood during a renovation of the church’s chapel, but apparently did not notice the empty pews and missing people every Sunday. A whole room that could have been devoted to Sunday school was instead dedicated to storing Christmas decorations. People were elected to lead, then hurt and offended and discouraged when they sought to make decisions. Those insecure officers were thus unwilling to take action for fear of reprisal. They were constantly second-guessing and trying to figure out what would be acceptable to those most vocal in their viewpoints.

How can we be healed of our self-indulgence in workplace, family, and church? First, we need to admit our sin. As someone in my church wrote: “Taking personal responsibility for our actions and wrongdoings is imperative. The words, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’ are sometimes all that is needed to make amends.” Part of saying “I’m sorry” is admitting we can’t make it on our own, that we need help. So next, let us redirect our faces up from the dirt of our own demands to gaze on the icon of God’s care. Use for creative and imaginative service the energy and resources we have devoted to getting our own way. That turns the source of our malaise into the key to a cure. But finally, and most of all, we look upon the One lifted on a cross like a snake on a stick, and we see in him our true humanity. We find in his dying form the demonstration of the amazing depth of God’s love and the possibilities for dedicated human service. We look up, reaching beyond ourselves, so we may be healed and live.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.