Tag Archives: snakes

“Has the Lord’s arm been shortened?”

Numbers 11 verses 11-23

John 3 verses 12-21


In May 1944, the American 442nd Regimental Combat Team landed in the Italian port of Naples.

Soon a kitchen and supply tent were set up.

A short while afterwards, a dozen or so locals were spotted lurking near the facility, watching with hungry eyes.

One of them approached the mess sergeant and offered his and his family’s services to help clean and keep the place in good order.

The American asked him how much he wanted…

The man shook his head. “No lire – there is nothing left here to buy – just give us your garbage, your left-overs.”

Thinking that the Italians might be farmers, and wanted the rubbish as fertiliser, or to feed their pigs and hens, the Sergeant said, “OK, go ahead, help yourself”

At that, the Italians surged forward to the rubbish bins, cramming the slops into their mouths – potato peelings, congealed stew, coffee grounds – anything that they could get hold off…..

“STOP!” shouted the American, “you can’t do that. You can’t eat that garbage!”

“But you PROMISED!” wailed the hollow-eyed Italian, “we will work for it…”

Now THAT is real hunger…hunger as the soldier had never seen before.

And, we have seen real hunger too – not just the poor, starving children in these far-off countries blighted by drought or civil war……but increasingly here… in this country.

Who would have imagined even just a decade ago that many thousands of our fellow citizens rely on food banks and soup kitchens.

I saw on Border News on Friday – the day that English schools finished for the summer holidays, that a charity in Cumbria is handing hundreds of food parcels to families – in order that their children get something to eat; there being no free school lunches over the next couple of months or thereabouts, the schools, of course, being closed.

This is the 21st century…..not Victorian times, with ill-fed and undernourished poor kids and adults

How often have we ourselves said something like, “I’m starving” or “I’m dying of hunger” when we’re a bit late having our lunch?

That’s not hunger; that’s not starvation. How blessed we are; indeed sometimes spoiled for choice.

And, let’s say this – we live in a society where there is so much waste. I read a week ago about how much uneaten food we throw away – added up, it amounts to hundreds of pounds a year.

It illustrates our abuse and also our taking for granted the bounty that God has blessed us with.

Let’s turn now to our Old Testament reading. The Book of Numbers over many chapters tell of the wanderings of the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land.

Over and over again, three stark words stand out: “Hunger” “Thirst” and Weariness”

Only those who have experienced such a plight.

Those who were prisoners of war in the last war, those incarcerated in Belsen and Auschwitz, those who slaved on the Burma railway in the 1940s, those on the hunger marches of the ‘30s – they knew, they felt, they understood – yes, they and such as they suffered.

In the Authorised translation of the Bible, Moses addressed the hungry and weary children of Israel who doubted if any relief would be given to them.

He says, “Has the Lord’s arm been shortened?”

In other words, “Is there no limit to God’s power – to his providing for you?”

“Is God deliberately withdrawing his favour?”

If we truly believe, if we have a faith that is strong enough, the answer is a resounding “NO!” even in the bad times, the appalling situations.

In one of James Herriot’s books, his fictional alter ego is called out one Sunday night to look at a couple’s dog – a ten mile drive….and he’s not happy about it.

A woman invites him into a shabby living room, one end of which is curtained off.

Behind the curtain, in bed, is a desperately ill looking man -her husband.

A little dog is lying there, his legs not functioning and he can’t walk.

The vet can barely keep his temper – surely this could have waited for another day or so, and a visit to the surgery.

Then the man spoke. “I was a miner, but the roof fell in on me. I got a broken back. The doctor says I’ll never walk again”

A pause…then in a hoarse voice, “I count my blessings. I suffer very little and I’ve got the best wife in the world”

The vet wondered what these blessings could be – his wife, certainly; the dog who was a faithful companion; the wonderful views across the Yorkshire Dales….and that was about it.

His irritation seeped away. Driving the ten miles back home across the Dales, he felt very humble.

Forgetting to be thankful is very easy; we enjoy a lifestyle – even a simple one without much in the way of material possessions – which many would envy.

Let us be thankful – not just for the good things of life, but for life itself.

And to the Israelites’ question about God abandoning them, or, at best limiting his care for them…. he was to provide manna in the wilderness, water out of a rock, resting places by the way, and even means of healing when they were bitten by serpents.

Take the snake bites….Moses acted somewhat strangely. He fashioned a bronze serpent, fixed it to a pole, and held it up so that everybody who wanted could see it.

They were told that those who did look, would be cured. God would provide healing.

Did anyone question then whether there was a limit to God’s power?

Some answered “No” and looked and were cured.

Others answered “Yes, there is a cut-off and He can do nothing for us in this our condition …. take that bronze snake away!” And they buried their heads in their hands.

Doesn’t this imply that our loving God can provide for us, his children, even when we find ourselves in our own personal wilderness?

In John’s Gospel, reference is made to this story from the Hebrew Scriptures.

A well known verse. Here it is in the traditional translation:

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Has God’s arm been shortened? Is there a limit to God’s power?

Apparently, it could be….. but the limit is not on His side; it is on OURS

God offers us his gifts, but he does not force our hand open to receive them.

Such is the reality of free will that God, who has implemented it, will not infringe it. If he did, we would be no more than puppets in his hands, manipulated at his whim.

All this applies to the greatest gift of all that God has provided in the wilderness of our human folly, willfulness and failure – Christ lifted up on the Cross for the world to see…..

…….that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life”

Here is healing. Here is power. Here is hope. Without limit………….

PROVIDED we respond.

A postscript – in November I will be visiting the River Kwai where the notorious railway was constructed. Despite the lush tropical scenery and the heat of the sun, this place is no paradise. It was hell with palm trees for the prisoners of war who laboured there – exhausted, starving, on the point of collapse.

Then on the 31st December, I shall be visiting Auschwitz – a bleak place of death and desolation, where, as we know, horror was piled upon horror.

How will I respond when seeing these two places? I don’t know. But, of one thing I’m certain, I will be thankful to the God whom we worship that – in comparison – our petty problems are nothing.

And, generally speaking, for all of us, comes the realisation of just how blessed we are – and then perhaps….just perhaps….. we may acknowledge that we are God’s hands in this world of his creation.

May our hands be open to give as generously as we can.

And may we never allow our arms to be “shortened”


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Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

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