By The Rev. Sherry Deets
4 Lent – March 18, 2012
Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (v. 14). The story is from Numbers 21:4-9, and every Jewish child knows it. The Israelites sinned by grumbling against God for bringing them out of Egypt into the wilderness. God punished them with a plague of fiery serpents, killing many Israelites. The Israelites confessed their sin and begged for mercy, so God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it aloft on a pole. Whoever looked up at the bronze serpent was saved from the fiery serpents–given new life–born anew.
Serpents, snakes. Yuck. I do not like snakes, they bother me. And for those of us who think the only good snake is a dead snake need to remember that people in the ancient world did not look at it that way. They lived in an arid land, a dry land, perfect for vipers, and for that reason had occasion to run into them on a fairly regular basis. In other words, they lived side-by-side with the creatures, and had a more intimate relationship with reptiles than do you and I.
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, called the caduceus, is used even today by the American Medical Association. Why? Well, if any of you have ever had surgery, as one minister puts it, you “know that if you get mixed up with these people who work under the symbol of two snakes twined on a staff, they often hurt you in order to make you whole. Keep that thought in mind.” (William Willimon, “Saved by the Snake,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 34, No. 1, Year B, January-March, 2006, p. 54.)
If you’ve ever had major surgery you know that there is a recovery period, not so fun, that occurs after the surgery. Eventually we do recover and usually feel better than we did before the surgery. We opt to have surgery that extends our life. But the doctors have to hurt you in order to make you whole.
Which bring us back to the story from Numbers and the snakes. Finally, the Israelites appeal to Moses, admitting their sin, and ask him to intervene on their behalf before the Lord. “Pray to the Lord,” they say. “Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” Suddenly, when you’ve got snakes slithering around you, ready to take a bite out of your ankle, the idea of eating manna and sleeping on a cot isn’t such a big deal. And Moses does just that. He’s had a couple of close calls with the vipers himself. Who’s to say that just because he is their leader, and has a personal and close relationship to God, that he will be spared from being bitten? It is in his own best interest to get rid of the snakes, so he is more than happy to oblige their prayer request.
So, upon hearing the appeal of Moses, the Lord removes the serpents, right? Nope, the snakes remain right where they are.
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 miraculously healed. Scarred, but healed. In other words, Moses made a replica of the very evil the people feared. (William Willimon, ibid.)
These poisonous snakes were referred to by the Hebrews as fiery serpents, for 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. It is all strange. Very strange indeed.
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.”
He talks about it during his conversation with Nicodemus, the religious leader who comes to see him at night. Nicodemus would have known this story of Moses and the snakes, and probably is quite shocked that Jesus would use it as an analogy for himself.
William Willimon tries his best to explain all this. He says, “The Gospel of John therefore refers to Jesus, not only as the good shepherd, but also as the good snake. He surprised us, came in among us, slithering in to our illusions of stability and safety. We reached for the ax to beat him to death. He opened his mouth, and spoke words that cut us like a sword, venomous, prophetic words.
“And we beat him, whipped him, and lifted him up high on a pole. And in lifting him up from earth toward heaven, his poisonous, prophetic words of venom became the anti-venom, the means of salvation. And even those who had killed him, standing at the foot of the pole, were able to look up and say, ‘Truly this is the Son of God.’”
And then, Willimon admits, “I don’t know what this means.”
In that Old Testament story, when the people prayed for deliverance from the snakes, God seems almost eager to respond to their prayer, even before they asked. God is always eager to offer redemption, but redemption on God’s terms and not ours. The Lord didn’t grant their prayer in the way they wanted, did he?
Neither did God do things in his Son as we would have done them. Would you have chosen to send your child, allowing him to be hung up on a cross? God doesn’t think the way you and I do. So to confess that we don’t understand this is not defeat. It is simply a way of admitting that we are not God, and that such things are best left up to One who knows a whole lot more about redemption than we do. The only thing with which we are left is to accept the grace God provides us, leaving the why of it all to the One who knows better than we how redemption takes place.
It is God’s will that none of us perish, but “have eternal life.” How God chooses to do that is God’s business. Let’s accept it with gratitude, even if we have to look the snake in the eye. Lord, save us, sinful as we are. Forgive us our impatience and teach us to accept the mystery of redemption offered through your Son, Jesus. Amen.
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