Stink Bugs in our Lives, Numbers 21:4-9, John 3; 14-21; March 18, 2012

Invasive Species Pests: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, not to speak of other federal agencies, continually worries about organic material or animals that may slip into our borders and invade the country.

These invasive species are dangerous because they have no natural enemies in our country, no native predators to control their growth. As a result, they wreak havoc with our natural ecosystem, crops and habitats.

In the past, we've somehow invited Chinese mitten crabs, Asian tiger mosquitoes and emerald ash borers; Mexican fruit flies and other creatures into our ecological world. The latest development is the brown marmorated stink bug.

According to The Washington Post (August 8, 2011), stink bugs took a $37 million bite out of the Mid-Atlantic's apple crop in 2010. They also love peaches, grapes and other fruit, and have been known to crawl into houses, seeking warmth in cracks.

Even worse, they're on the move. They have migrated from eastern Pennsylvania to 32 other states, and have been spotted as far south as North Carolina. There have been no sightings in LA to date. Farmers are trying to control the pest with insecticides.

Researchers are looking at the possibility of introducing a non-stinging parasitic wasp to go after stink bug eggs. Although this parasitic wasp is used effectively to control stink bugs in Asia, the danger is that it could become an invasive species itself.

The Book of Numbers Pests:  In the book of Numbers, the people of Israel are on the move, heading toward the Promised Land. As they pass around the land of Edom, the people become impatient, and they 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" (Numbers 21:4-5).

This is not their first occasion for murmuring. It’s not their second or even their third. It is at least the fourth occasion, and in each preceding time, God addressed their complaints in some way. But here they are at it again. And this time, according to the Numbers 21 account, God sent poisonous serpents among them, who bit them, and many of the people died.

Then 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 from us" (v. 7). Really, "We didn't mean it; we didn't mean it." Moses prays to the Lord and God offers Moses a clearly unexpected solution to their problem. "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 perfectly -- whenever a serpent bites someone, the person looks at the serpent of bronze and lives (vv. 8-9).

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 pests?  But what is the true invasive species in this story? Not the poisonous serpents, but instead the impatience, complaints and anger of the people of Israel. These are the pests that infested the Israelites with disastrous consequences, and that continue to afflict us today.

Consider, first, the pest of impatience. Author Jerry Bridges considers impatience to be a "respectable sin" -- that is, a sin that we tend to tolerate in ourselves. But impatience is a sign of a bigger problem, namely "our own attitude of insisting that others around us conform to our expectations."

That's what gets the Israelites in trouble, right? They demand that Moses and God conform to their expectations of a quick and comfortable trip to the Promised Land, along with good food and abundant water.

But wait. Aren't people of faith supposed to conform to God's expectations, not the other way around? Impatience can shift 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. It's a pest that can eat us up, like stink bugs on a peach.

Next, the pest of complaints. If someone asked you to name the number one sin in the world, what would you say? Pride, lust, envy? John Roberts, a pastor in Sterling, Colorado, considers a top sin to be complaining.

"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," he writes. "Everybody complains about stuff all the time. We are so surrounded by complaining that we hardly notice it, unless, of course, the complaints are directed against us."

But God is not oblivious to complaints. God is so serious about it that he tells the church to "Do everything without complaining or arguing" (Philippians 2:14, NIV). Pastor Roberts is convinced that complaining is an expression of our pride -- a sign that we think we know better than God.

Once again, the Israelites. They complain, "We detest this miserable food" (Numbers 21:5). They're not actually starving since God is sending them manna in the wilderness, but they are sick of it. Thinking back to Egypt, they remember feasting on fish, cucumbers, melons, leaks, onions and garlic. Because of their complaining, they get a bite they aren't expecting -- the bite of the poisonous serpents.

Finally, the most damaging of pests: Anger. We see this deadly pest in American politics today, with insults being hurled across the partisan divide and people spewing venom on talk radio. The people of Israel should honor God and respect Moses, but instead 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?" (v. 5).

After suffering serious casualties from the snake attack, the people turn from their dangerous behavior, and confess their sins to Moses, admitting that they have sinned by speaking against Moses and God. They ask for Moses to pray for them, and he does.

Impatience, complaints, and anger -- these sins are as real for us today as they were for the people of Israel. "Sin is a very real and present danger," says Old Testament professor Carol Bechtel Reynolds.

"Though this idea is somewhat out of vogue in today's world, the book of Numbers never lets us forget it. With relentless honesty, Numbers confronts us with our own blights and blemishes." In this book, we find a self-portrait ... of ourselves.

How are you getting along eradicating the pests in your life?

How can we get rid of these pests?  But the book of Numbers is also a portrait of God, a portrait that appears to be harsh and merciful, severe and gracious. God flings these killer snakes at the impatient, complaining, angry people -- that's God's punishment of sin.

God sends death, but offers life. God sends a means of salvation by instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole -- that's God's merciful offer of forgiveness and new life.

Before you say, "I don't like this Old Testament story," remember that Jesus knew it well. That's why he used it to describe himself in the gospel of John. Jesus’ mention of the serpent in the wilderness was in a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. This man had come to Jesus seeking to understand his message and mission, and as they were both Jewish and steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus was able to refer to this serpent story with the certainty that Nicodemus would know it and be able to use it as a comparison to Jesus’ mission.

So, when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “ 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,” Nicodemus suddenly understands that Jesus intends to be a savior.

///(Here, or at the end) Jesus is saying that just as looking at the bronze serpent on a pole enabled those ancients who were dying due to their sin to live, so looking at Jesus with belief will enable those dying in sin today to live eternally. He says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is where Jesus’ role differs from the serpent’s in the wilderness. He did not come to be like the biting serpents of judgment and death. He was not sent to condemn the world, but to save it. Only the bronze serpent was a representation of the role Jesus came to fill (not the others). He came to save all those who are dying spiritually in sin.

When the stink bug of sin bites us bad, all we have to do is lift our eyes. High on the cross is the Son of Man, inviting everyone who believes in him to receive forgiveness and eternal life.

Jesus is our bronze serpent. God's innovative intervention. Our savior, guide, and friend. "Like those poor snake-bitten rebels in the wilderness," concludes Professor Reynolds, "we have only to look up and live."

The good news for us is that God has chosen to provide a means of salvation in his Son 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 cracks in our defenses and even seek us out when we are sleeping. We need to be vigilant, as individuals and as a church, and swat these pests when they appear.

Evasive species cannot survive if we give them nothing to eat. 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.

Starve those pests, those invasive species; don’t give them room to grow.  

This familiar tale vividly pictures the ongoing struggle we have with the stink bugs in our life. A Cherokee Elder was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me ... it is a terrible fight between two wolves.

"One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride and superiority.

"The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

"This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too."

They thought about it for a minute and then The One With No Name asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old man simply replied, "The one you feed."

Amen. Let us pray . . .

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