This was told yesterday morning at our church by one of the staff for the African Childrens Choir. It was part of the childrens' morning devotions and, perhaps because the storyteller and I had talked about this week's Old Testament reading (Numbers 21:4-9), it works for my sermon tomorrow. Here is the story:
Once upon a time, there was a village at the base of a high mountain. The people who lived in the village, as so many peoples do, had a special ceremony to mark the time when a boy child became a man. When he was deemed ready, the boy would leave the village and climb to the top of the mountain - about a day's journey - taking nothing with him except what he wore. He would spend the night on the mountain and return the following day whereupon the whole village would hold a big celebration to mark his transition from boy to man.
There was a boy in the village preparing for this rite of passage. Finally, the day came when he was ready to climb the mountain. Everyone saw him off early in the morning and began preparations for the next evening's celebration. He strode off in confidence to find his own trail for, you see,, there was not a marked trail for him to follow. Each boy was expected to find his own way.
As he walked, the boy thought about life, about childhood and putting away childish things so he could be a man in all senses of the word. He thought about what it means to be a man, how there are challenges that children do not have to face and the lessons to be learned in manhood are harder than those of childhood. He thought of his parents and gave thanks for all they had taught him and for the love they had for him.
But mostly as he walked, he was acutely aware of where he was and what might be there with him. He had to take each step carefully because there were many kinds of snake on the mountain. He needed to look for edible berries and bark so that he would not go hungry. He had to find streams so he could quench his thirst. And he became aware that the higher he climbed, the colder it got - not just because it was higher in the air but also because the day began to die and night was coming on.
At last, he reached the top of the mountain. It was almost dark and he barely had enough light to find some branches to make a shelter for himself. When it was done, he crawled into the shelter to go to sleep.
But he began to hear a rustling noise just outside his shelter. He tried to ignore it but it wouldn't go away even when he thought good thoughts about his family and the village. Then a snake put his head under the edge of the shelter!
"Please, little brother," hissed the snake. "It is very cold up here on the mountain and I have no heat as I am a cold-blooded animal. I know that your kind fear my kind but I promise not to bite you if you will just share your body heat with me. If you don't, I will surely die from the cold."
The boy thought this must be a test of his manhood. He knew well that the snake could kill him in an instant. But he had been raised to be a compassionate man, helping others when he could, and so he agreed to allow the snake to sleep beside him. And so they slept side by side all night and the snake did not bite the boy.
In the morning, the boy jumped up to begin his journey back down the mountain and to the village waiting to celebrate his coming of age. The snake was still there and very slow to move. Even though he had some heat from the boy during the night, it was still very cold. So it asked the boy if it could ride down the mountain on the boy's shoulders, at least until it was warm enough to move easily on its own. Because the snake had kept its promise not to bite, the boy agreed again to help the snake.
And so they started the journey down together. By noon, it was much warmer and the snake was beginning to stretch and writhe as snakes are wont to do. Still, the snake asked the boy to carry it a little farther. After awhile, the boy was so used to the snake's weight and occasional hiss that he didn't even know it was still there.
Just before they reached the village, the snake lashed out in an instant and bit the boy. Immediately, the boy began to feel the poison enter his body and his limbs grow numb. As the snake began to slither away, the boy asked, "Why? Why did you bite me when I had been so kind to you and helped you live?"
And the snake said, "You knew when you let me sleep with you what I was. I am a snake. I cannot change who I am or what I do."
And the boy died.
Now, several of us hearing this story were horrified to hear the ending. But the storyteller went on to say that sin is like the snake. It cannot change what it is and we know when we decide to take it in what it is and what it will do to us. Even though we rationalize our bad choices or think we will only do them once, they slither their way into our very being and will kill us.
And she is right. What seems like mere whining and complaining by the people in the wilderness will, if they keep it up, destroy them from the inside, will kill them as it becomes their way of life. So did the Lord send the snakes or were they already there, waiting to bite those who harbored them?