March 15, 2015 Numbers 21: 4-9 John 3: 14-21
Rev. Catherine Purves
You can’t beat a visual image for grabbing people’s attention. I could talk until I’m blue in the face about sins and the dangers they pose for us, but that will have nothing like the impact of that single image of the Hebrews’ camp in the wilderness overrun with poisonous snakes biting everyone in sight. And in the middle of this chaos of pain and death, Moses is standing resolute with a long pole topped by a bronze serpent. Yes, that image certainly captures our imagination. Snakes and sins – that’s the nature of the danger, that’s the urgency of the Lenten call to repent, and that’s the wonder of our salvation in Jesus Christ.
Snakes are nasty. Few people like them, and those people are strange. There is a reason why our image of Satan in the Garden of Eden is a snake. According to the story of the fall, it was through the crafty temptation of a snake that sin came into the world. And after Adam and Eve fell prey to the snake, God declared to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Forever after the snake was viewed with loathing and with fear. Snakes and sins were forever joined.
But in our story about snakes and sins this morning that relationship seems a little more complicated. This is the last of the complaining stories that took place when Moses was leading the Hebrews through the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. First, they had complained that there was no water. Then they complained that there was no food. Then they complained that there was no meat. Now they were again complaining about all of that, and they were blaming God and Moses. This open rebellion would not go unpunished. Sin has its consequences, but in this instance we may be surprised to hear that God used poisonous snakes, literally fiery serpents, to get the Hebrews’ attention (it worked) and to drive them to repentance. That primal enmity between the snake and the human now becomes the catalyst, the means by which the people are driven back to God.
Let’s take a time-out from our story for a minute to recognize that we have a lot in common with those Hebrews. Not only do we have an aversion to snakes, but we share their propensity to sin. We too know how to complain. We too have a tendency to blame others, and often to blame God, for our predicament. We can always find something to complain about. Why is it so hard for us to be satisfied with what God has provided for us? Even Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden managed to feel discontented, with a little help from the snake. Before we are too quick to judge the grumblings of the Hebrews in the wilderness, we should consider our own level of discontent and our constant inclination to complain.
But, getting back to our story, there is yet another surprise. Not only does God use snakes to punish the people, but an image of a snake becomes an instrument of healing and salvation. Moses is directed by God to fashion a bronze serpent and to set it on a pole for all to see. The snakes will keep on biting, but those who look up at the image of the snake will live. The instrument of judgment, the snake, became the instrument of salvation when God decided to deal with sin in a saving way. The important thing for the people was that they must look up to God and to the means that God had provided for their salvation. Life and death are always in God’s hands, but spiritual health and healing are always God’s will.
This may not now seem quite so strange to us, because we have all discovered that we draw nearer to God in times of need. Suffering and the threat of death can drive us to look up to God for our salvation. Snakes and suffering are powerful motivators. They spur us to get beyond our perennial state of complaint and rebellion to the point of desperation when we finally realize that our only hope is in God and his gracious mercy. We then (and perhaps only then) discover that we need to grasp hold of the means God has provided for our salvation and we finally figure out that we are totally dependent upon God for our life and our salvation. The wilderness was the place where the Hebrews learned this, and the wilderness is where we learn it.
Our New Testament reading is the conclusion of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, an unusual figure who appears only in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was attracted to Jesus and who came secretly by night to meet with him. Later, Nicodemus would speak out bravely on Jesus’ behalf before the chief priests and the other Pharisees, insisting that they at least give Jesus a hearing. And Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea prepared Jesus’ body for burial after the crucifixion.
But this first encounter with Jesus did not go well. Nicodemus couldn’t get his mind around what Jesus was saying. Like many in his day, and our own (!), he could not understand Jesus’ insistence that he must be born again, that is, that everything must change, and that God’s salvation was about to be realized in a completely new and unexpected way. Nicodemus was no slouch, but he just didn’t get it. “How can these things be?” he asked Jesus.
Looking for some point of connection with Nicodemus, Jesus remembered the strange story of Moses and the bronze snake. Who would have thought that God would use the hated snake both to chastise and to save the Hebrews in the wilderness? The lifting up of the snake as a symbol of God’s salvation was so bizarre. It was at least as unanticipated and as inconceivable as the lifting up of the Messiah on a cross, or the idea that through his death the whole world would be saved. Could this really be the unbelievable way that God was going to deal with sin…again? Sin and snakes, suffering and salvation – who would have guessed that the cross, like the snake, could become our symbol of salvation? Certainly not Nicodemus.
And is it any easier for us than it was for Nicodemus? Is it any easier for us than it was for the Hebrews in the wilderness? Last week we read that Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. What is Christ crucified to us?
Jesus himself explained what his being lifted up on the cross should mean to us. In what is perhaps the most well-known verse of Scripture Jesus tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The brutal and deadly cross is the symbol of God’s love and God’s sacrifice for us. It is not an image of judgment and death, but of salvation and life. Further, Jesus insists, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Can you believe in that image, potent with suffering, stained red by the drops of Jesus’ blood? It is hard to see this as a picture of hope, or as an image of the defeat of sin. Can we really look up at that cross and be healed? The surprising answer is, “Yes!” It’s as unlikely as a fiery serpent on a pole, but this is the divine way of dealing with our sin. Obviously, God acts in ways that are mysterious to us. God can use snakes and suffering. God can use sacrifice and love. God can use a Messiah on a cross, a king with a crown of thorns, in order to save us and heal us and give us life. It is shocking, but true.
But these deep mysteries that Jesus revealed to Nicodemus (and to us) do not simply turn some great cog in the clockworks of creation so that sin is no longer a threat. Even in Eden, the possibility of sin existed, and it certainly persists unabated in our world. But God does provide a way to defeat sin. We are called to turn from sin and to look to God for our salvation. So, in the wilderness, as the Hebrews were dying in their sin of rebellion, with fiery serpents snapping at their heels, they had to look up to the symbol of salvation that God had provided. Those who did, lived; those who did not place their hope in God, died.
Jesus widened the field of salvation to encompass the whole of creation and all people, but he narrowed the focus of salvation to that one shocking image of him being lifted up on the cross. We must look up, in order to be saved from our sin. Though Jesus was adamant that he did not come to condemn, those who do not look to his cross, trusting in God to give them life, have already condemned themselves. This is how it is with snakes and sins, suffering and salvation.
As we draw near to the holy mysteries that are so vivid and powerful for us in Holy Week, let us look upon the cross of Christ and see there an image of hope and healing. For this is the truth: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Your sins need not be deadly, if you look up at the cross of Christ and believe.