4 Lent – March 14, 2021
Today’s scripture is filled with paradox. Fascinating paradox. In our first reading, God tells Moses to make a poisonous serpent out of bronze, set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” And then Jesus reminds us of this in our gospel passage. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Healed by looking at a serpent on a pole?
It’s important to know that, in those times, snakes were seen not just as the enemy but also as symbols of protection. The pharaoh in Egypt often wore a head piece that displayed a hooded cobra. The snake was there to protect the pharaoh, to spit venom at his enemies should they try to hurt him.
Ancient people realized the irony in snakes. The venom found in snakes is the source of medicine by which snake bites can be healed, so the symbol of two intertwined snakes is used even today by the American Medical Association. Why? Well, if you’ve ever had major surgery you know that there is a not so fun recovery period that occurs after the surgery. Eventually we do recover and usually feel better than we did before the surgery. But, in essence, the doctors have to hurt you in order to make you whole.
This is the really strange part of the story. It’s also where the lesson from this story is found. The Lord has Moses construct a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. Everyone who is bitten by a snake is to look at the serpent, for in doing so they will be healed. Scarred, but healed. In other words, Moses made a replica of the very evil the people feared. (William Willimon, “Saved by the Snake,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 34, No. 1, Year B, January-March, 2006, p. 54.)
These poisonous snakes were referred to by the Hebrews as fiery serpents, because that is how you feel when you are bitten by one of them… fiery, feverish. The Hebrew word for it is seraph, from which the heavenly being is named, Seraphim. The snake, which brings a terrible, painful death, is also the Seraph which gives life. Paradox.
It’s strange. But Jesus says it is the nature of salvation… that in the hands of God, “evil and good, threat and promise, life and death are all somehow mixed up.”
We are once again standing at the foot of the cross and we are reminded that we have choices in life. We are reminded as we look at the cross that we will die, so the larger question becomes ‘how do we live a life worthwhile of our breath’?
Remember the Old Cherokee Legend of the two wolves. I’ve shared it several times over the years.
An Old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
John’s gospel tells us this morning “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
There is actually good news in this statement. Judgment, as it turns out, is about telling the truth. The Greek word “krisis” translated here as “judgment” refers less to the rendering of a sentence than it does a separating and revealing. “Verdict” or “decisive moment” might be closer, even “uncover” or “disclose.” That emphasis might help us hear these verses as more descriptive than they are accusatory. Those who believe that God is love are saved; they look to the One lifted up for healing. Those who can’t imagine that God comes bringing love rather than punishment are lost, lost to their despair, their sin, and their confusion. The verdict, conclusion, or revelation is indeed that we love darkness more than light. That it’s hard to imagine God being different than we are. That we do not want to admit our need and receive God’s grace and forgiveness. That there is something in us that fears being exposed and, perhaps we assume rejected or, for that matter, transformed.
The Greek word “Krisis” is the root of our word crisis in the sense of a decisive turning point. God’s mercy made manifest in the lifting up of the Son, the visible sign of God’s grace poured out for the world, creates for us a crisis, a turning point, a decisive moment that we might perceive and receive God’s redemptive, life changing love.
We’re standing at the foot of the cross. When we make decisions, when we are in our moments of crisis, so to speak, all sorts of thoughts can go through our minds. We are asked to pause and see, really see ourselves. Remember we have two wolves inside of us. What makes the difference is which one we feed, which thought we give life to and take action on. When we realize that we have sinned, we can bring it into the light of God and with God’s grace and mercy, we will be redeemed.
And so Christ comes to ask us about darkness and light: What do we love more? Where will we allow this love to take us? For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….. Amen.