A reflection on Numbers 21 and All Saints’ Sunday
We sometimes only see one or the other such as: Light or darkness. On or off. Day or night. Life or death. And while the general culture emphasizes an array of perspectives on just about anything now, there are some things that are objectively two-sided. You can either be dead or alive. The lights are either on or off. It can be either day or night. However, as a follower of Jesus Christ, there is an interesting contrast found in the Gospel: There is life in death. (John 11:25) This morning, I was struck by another contrast in my scripture reading of Numbers 21. What I’m reflecting upon today is this: There’s death in life yet life in death.
In this chapter, the Israelites continue wandering around the wilderness because they didn’t trust the Lord in conquering the Promised Land. While they wait 40 years for the generation to die out, they still complain about their lack of provision. The Lord sends ‘fiery serpents’ among them, and people were bitten and died. The Israelites confess their sins to Moses and ask for the Lord to remove the serpents. The Lord instructs Moses to make a ‘fiery serpent,’ place it on a pole and have anyone bitten by a snake to look at this snake on a pole in order to be healed. In other words: There’s death in life yet life in death. How?
The Lord doesn’t remove the snakes, but He makes their cause of death a source of life. Quite a contrast, huh? Without diving too deep in Old Testament theology, let’s consider the importance of such a contrast. The snakes persist, but they also become the source, the symbol, of healing. Their sin is ultimately the cause of the snakes presence in their midst, yet instead of removing the snakes altogether, the Lord uses the snake on a pole as a way of seeking life. In order for the snake-bitten Israelites to live, they must look at the snake on a pole, be reminded of their sin, but live by God’s grace. Some Israelites died, obviously, while now there is a reason for them to live. There’s death in life yet life in death.
Unfortunately, people we love die every day. When we look at things that remind us of them, we’re reminded of the pain of their absence. We may only see death, but in a very abstract way, we envision their life by looking at reminders such as pictures, notes, plaques, or tombstones. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News for our world today that may only see death or life, because THERE’S LIFE IN DEATH. Humanity continued to follow the Israelites pattern of sin, confession, forgiveness, repeat until at the right time Christ came to take on the weight of our sin and destroy its stronghold over us. Sin kills life, and Jesus Christ who knew no sin became, or took on, our sin and carried it to the cross. When we look to Jesus’ cross, we see death. When we look at the grave, we see life. What a contrast.
This upcoming Sunday is All Saints’ Sunday, a time when the Church remembers the saints who died particularly this last year. We usually light a candle to remember them, and I imagine this may be difficult for some, or perhaps a lot of us. We light the candle and remember one persistent thing: death. But, I want to encourage you to light a candle, and look to the cross, where death was destroyed. Then look to Christ’s empty grave, where eternal life for humanity was/is given. The contrast: There’s death in life yes, but there’s life in death.