(Author’s note: this is the introduction to my sermon on March 11, 2018 “A Prescription for Salvation” from Numbers 21:4-9 at First United Methodist Church Winnfield, LA)
A guide at Blarney Castle in Ireland was explaining to some visitors that his job was not always as pleasant as it seemed. He told them about a group of disgruntled tourists he had taken to the castle earlier in the week. “These people were complaining about everything,” he said. “They didn’t like the weather, the food, their hotel accommodations, the prices, everything. Then to top it off, when we arrived at the castle, we found that the area around the Blarney Stone was roped off. Workmen were making some kind of repairs.” “This is the last straw!” exclaimed one lady who seemed to be the chief faultfinder in the group. “I’ve come all this way, and now I can’t even kiss the Blarney Stone.”
“Well, you know,” the guide said, “according to legend, if you kiss someone who has kissed the stone, it’s the same as kissing the stone itself.” “And I suppose you’ve kissed the stone,” said the exasperated lady. “Better than that.” replied the guide. “I’ve sat on it and you’re more than welcome to kiss me there.”
Last Sunday we left the people of Israel at Mount Sinai where they had received the commandments of God. They spent about a year at this holy mountain. (They arrived at Sinai in Exodus 19:1; they did not break camp until Numbers 10:11.) In today’s text, the people of Israel are like those complaining tourists. In our text for today, they are on the move again through the wilderness. God had graciously provided for their needs with manna in the morning, but all they had was an attitude: “We detest this miserable food” (v. 5)! It was manna, heavenly food, but they were tired of it. We don’t really know what “manna” means. Some scholars say that the word “manna” came from the word meaning “what is this”, others say it comes from the word “to despise,” so that the very name of the daily provision from the hand of God was being mocked every time they gathered it in the morning.
Because of their complaining, God infected them with a plague of poisonous snakes. This is a strange and maybe even repulsive story to us. This story still has meaning for us because the Israelites are not any different from us, and I believe God teaches us a three-part lesson through this experience of the children of Israel: first, their discontent (vv. 4-6); second, their petition. (vv. 6-7); third, God’s prescription (vv. 8-9).