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  • Writer's pictureSteven Marsh

Learning–Complaining Is a Dead End: a Reflection on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

Snakes top the list of common fears with two out of every five Americans.[1] And snakes, that is serpents, are the focal point of the text in Numbers. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The preacher’s first impulse may be to calm this fear by intellectualizing the snake or allegorizing it.”[2] In Moses’ case, once the people stopped complaining and looked to God, the serpent became their savior, not their tormentor.[3] In the gospel reading from John, we are invited to stop complaining about fears, which are rooted in condemnation, and look to Jesus the Savior.

The text in Numbers is the last in a series of five “murmuring stories.” Murmuring is a more accurate translation of the Hebrew than complaining. Murmuring denotes an ongoing “stirring up of the waters,” if you will. While in the wilderness, the people were complaining, about one thing or another, all the time. Although the people were complaining against Moses and Aaron, they were also complaining against God. Yet, Moses intercedes on their behalf. The point of the serpent is this: complaining is poisonous. However, when the people looked at the serpent on Moses’ staff, they were healed from the poisonous bite. But if they didn’t, they would die.

As the text in John reminds us, Jesus did not come into the world to condemn, but to save. We must decide to look to the Savior and trust him. God Almighty sent Jesus into the world, fully God and fully human, to give us eternal life. But not only eternal life. We must decide to look to the Son of Man (Jesus) as the anti-venom to the poisonous effects of complaining. The failure to have “faith” in God is at the root of complaining. A better translation of “faith” is “trust.”

When we are captured by fear and complain, we don’t have faith in anyone but ourselves. When we shift our allegiance to God, and look to the One who has conquered fear, the anti-venom is applied. John Piper in Think writes, “Knowing the truth with our minds and holding fast to it as a treasure in our hearts is the key to holiness…The fact that some people ‘know’ these things and still sin means only that there is more to it than knowing, but not less.”[4] The right use of the mind is so important.

It all began with a complaint. In the 1920s, the esteemed type designer Stanley Morison criticized London’s newspaper The Times for being out-of-touch with modern typographical trends. So, The Times replied to his complaint by asking him to create something better. Morison took up the challenge. He enlisted the help of expert draftsman Victor Lardent and began conceptualizing a new typeface with two goals in mind: efficiency and readability…In 1926, The Times tested an early version of Morison’s new type. After test upon test…the final design was approved, and “The Times New Roman” was born…Times New Roman is still going strong, proving that sometimes there’s something better than criticism: become part of the solution instead.[5]

Believing is the anti-venom for complaining. Believing works on solutions. I want the best for others. But, when I complain, such is not the case. I desire to lead out of my brokenness. But, when I complain, such is not the case. I know that Geneva is God’s church. But, when I complain, such is not the case. Complaining indicates unbelief. And unbelief is an indication of the condemnation from which we can be saved. W. Hulitt Gloer, Professor of Preaching at Truett Seminary, writes, “If believing is more than giving mental assent to certain propositional statements—if believing really means obedience—then during Lent, as we remember the obedience of Jesus, we must ask: ‘Do we really believe?’”[6] My friends, complaining is a dead end. So, I ask, do you really believe? Look to Jesus.

[1]The Harris Poll 1993 #3. Released: Monday, January 18, 1993.

[2]Barbara Brown Taylor in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 101.

[3]This concept of “tormentor to savior” is gleaned from Barbara Brown Taylor in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 2, 101, 103.

[4]John Piper, Think (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 127.

[5]Meredith Mann, “Where Did Times New Roman Come From?” The New York Public Library (12-9-14). Taken from the website, March 9, 2018.

[6]W. Hulitt Gloer in in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 2, 121.

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