We’ve all heard of an invasive species. Right now in Ohio there’s the Asian Emerald Ash Borers devouring Ash trees along with the Asian carp making their way into Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes.
Also around the country there’s the Chinese mitten crabs. Northern snakeheads. Mexican fruit flies.
Throw in the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, and you can easily say that all these invasive species really stink because these creatures are causing extensive damage to our landscape, vegetation and wildlife.
The Chinese mitten crab erodes our riverbanks with its relentless burrowing.
The Mexican Fruit Fly attacks our fruit trees and vines.
The northern snakehead fish was brought into the United States by a man who then tossed it into a Maryland lake, and it began to feast on the native fish of the Chesapeake Bay region.
According to The Washington Post the Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs took a $37 million bite out of the Mid-Atlantic’s apple crop in 2012.
Invasive species are dangerous because they have no natural enemies in our country, no native predators to control their growth. Naturally, farmers are trying to control the pest with insecticides, and researchers are looking at the possibility of introducing a non-stinging, parasitic wasp to go after stink bug eggs. The danger is that this parasitic wasp, used effectively to control stink bugs in Asia, could become an invasive species itself.
The truth of the matter is, these pests don’t just stink—they consume, they infect, they devastate.
In the book of Numbers, the people of Israel are having to deal with an invasive species themselves. They are on the move, heading toward the Promised Land, but as they are wandering, the people begin to speak against God and Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then suddenly, they are invaded by a species of poisonous serpents—which results in numerous deaths.
Now let’s recap—The Israelite’s, who have been enslaved for generations, are finally freed by God and God’s servant-leader Moses, and are now on their way to their Promised Land. But in response to it all, the people begin saying, “It would have been better for us to die in Egypt than here in this desert.”
To which God says, “Fine, I’ll just put you out of your misery, you faithless, gutless, whining, complaining excuse of a people.” I may be paraphrasing a bit.
Unlike the invasive species that can ruin a farmer’s crop, God sends an invasive species that kills.
The people rush to Moses for help, crying out, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents.” It’s as if they are saying, “We didn’t mean it; we take it back.”
With great benevolence Moses helps the people, and prays on their behalf. And in response to his prayers, God offers Moses a solution to their problem that is as unexpected as the introduction of a non-stinging parasitic wasp.
“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole,” says the LORD; “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
Moses crafts a serpent of bronze, puts it on a pole, and it works without fail— whenever a serpent bites someone, the person looks at the bronze serpent and lives.
Stink bugs and serpents. Both are nasty, invasive species that do a tremendous amount of harm. And both can be controlled, with the right intervention.
What are the invasive species in this story? The quick answer is the poisonous snakes—but it’s not.
This invasive species is the impatience, the complaints, and the anger of the people of Israel. These are the pests that infested the Israelites with disastrous consequences, and they continue to afflict God’s people today.
Consider the pest of impatience.
Author Jerry Bridges believes impatience to be an “acceptable sin”, that is, a sin that we tend to tolerate in ourselves. But impatience is a sign of a bigger problem, namely, as Bridge’s says, “our own attitude of insisting that others around us conform to our expectations.”
And that’s what gets the Israelites in trouble. They demand that Moses and God conform to their expectations of a quick and comfortable trip to the Promised Land. But wait. Aren’t people of faith supposed to conform to God’s expectations and God’s ways, not the other way around?
John Roberts, a pastor in Sterling, Colorado, considers a top sin to be complaining, saying, “One of the problems with the sin of complaining is that it’s so universal that many among us aren’t even aware that it’s a sin. Everybody complains about stuff all the time. We are so surrounded by complaining that we practically condone it. But God doesn’t condone our complaints. God is so serious about it that we are commanded in Philippians, ‘Do everything without complaining or arguing.’”
Pastor Roberts is convinced that complaining is an expression of our pride, which indicates an attitude that says we think we know better than God.
The Israelites were certainly complaining, saying, “We detest this miserable food.” But the Israelites are not starving, as you might think. God is sending them manna in the wilderness every day, but they’re just sick of it.
They keep thinking back to Egypt, and remember feasting on fish, cucumbers, melons, leaks, onions and garlic—those were the good old days—“even though we were slaves, at least we ate better food than this slop God is giving us.”
Because of their complaining, they get a bite they aren’t expecting.
Finally, the most damaging of invasive species: Anger.
We see this deadly pest every day.
The people of Israel are to honor God and respect Moses, but instead because they are not happy, because they’re not getting their way, they rail against their divine and human leaders and accuse them of leading them to their doom, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” The people shoot angry venom at Moses and God, and as a result they receive the venom of the serpents.
Impatience shifts our focus away from God and toward ourselves; so that we begin to believe that the world owes us a life of safety, comfort and convenience. Complaints create the attitude that says we know better than God. Anger leads to mistrust and division.
That was the invasive species that plagued the Israelites, and they are the same that plague us today. The question is: Is there a “serpent of bronze” that can save us?
Impatience, complaints, anger—these sins are as real for us today as they were for the people of Israel. Old Testament professor Carol Bechtel-Rey says, “Though the idea is somewhat out of vogue in today’s world, the book of Numbers never lets us forget that sin is a very real and present danger. With relentless honesty, Numbers confronts us with our own blights and blemishes. In this book, we find a self-portrait…of ourselves.”
Wow. Such a scathing indictment—but true.
How often are we impatient? How often do we complain? How often are we angered? Sure, in today’s world, there is reason for it all—But here’s the thing—What good comes from it?
In our text, impatience leads to complaining, complaining leads to anger, anger leads to division, and division leads to death. Nothing good coms from it. Certainly not a faithful way through.
Fortunately, Bechtel-Rey doesn’t stop where she did with her indictment, and goes on to say, “While the book of Numbers is a portrait of ourselves, the book of Numbers is also a portrait of God, a portrait that appears to be both harsh and merciful, severe and gracious.
God flings these killer snakes at the impatient, complaining, angry people because that’s God’s punishment of sin. God sends death, but then God offers life. God sends a means of salvation by instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole— that is God’s merciful offer of forgiveness and new life.”
This teaches us that there is a natural enemy to control growth of these invasive species, of impatience, complaints, and anger.
This same story is brought up later in the Bible, in the Gospel of John, by Jesus, who says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The intervention for these invasive species is Jesus. Jesus calls us to seek out absolution from our sins by looking to him who offers us patience, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and love.
Jesus is our bronze serpent. Jesus is God’s invasive species intervention.
Like the poor snake-bitten Israelites in the wilderness, we have only to look up and live.
Though we ourselves are impatient, complaining, and angry, the good news for us is that God has chosen to provide a means of salvation through Jesus Christ.
We are forgiven when we turn to him and confess our sins, and are promised new life when we trust him to be our Savior.
But still the invasive pests of impatience, complaints, and anger are going to continue to invade our lives. Like stink bugs, they climb into our work, our ministries, our homes, our entire lives. Therefore, we need to be vigilant, as individuals and as a church, and swat these pests when they appear because, evasive species cannot survive if we give them nothing to eat.
And if they do appear, then we need to be willing to do the hard part of eradicating them through repentance and forgiveness.
So when you are feeling impatient, take a deep breath. When you want to complain, remind yourself of an unexpected blessing. And when you feel a rush of anger, remember that everyone— even your worst enemy— is a child of God.
So let us eradicate these invasive species, with patience, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and love, and they’ll be invasive no more. Amen.