See and Live

Trinitarian Congregational Church                                                     Fourth Sunday in Lent

Anthony S. Kill                                                                                             March 11, 2018

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21


The most striking image presented in the scripture readings is that of the “fiery serpent”, the poisonous snake. And in one of the most bizarre images in the New Testament, Jesus compares himself to a poisonous snake! “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

In the incident recounted in the book of Numbers, the Hebrew people, who had just been delivered from decades of slavery in Egypt, complained about the lousy food and wretched conditions in the wilderness, and blamed God and Moses, regretting that they’d ever left the comforts and securities of slavery to set out on this long, hard road to freedom. Then things got even worse. Fiery serpents showed up, and the people figured they’d been sent by God to punish their insolence.

(Note that in the passage Evan read, it doesn’t say that the snakes were sent as punishment. The people assumed that.) And the more accurate translation is probably “red serpents”, so named for the fierce red inflammation that their bite caused on the victims) Then, when the people repented, God sent healing to them, through the same vehicle that had brought sickness. “Make a bronze serpent” God told Moses “and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Now, the snake has a long history in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. The serpent was present already with Adam and Eve in paradise, and was an important player in the drama of human sin and salvation from the very beginning. In Genesis 3, the serpent tempted Eve with the power to be like God, the power of the knowledge of good and evil. But the symbol of the snake or the serpent is much more universal than the Judeo-Christian Bible. There were serpent cults in the Ancient Near East among the desert peoples, and many of Israel’s neighbors worshipped the snake as a fertility symbol.

And in Greek mythology, Asclepius, the god of Healing, son of the great god Apollo, had the snake as his special mascot. And the Roman god Mercury is always represented carrying a wand with two intertwining snakes on it, as a symbol of opposites, and a symbol of synthesis. In fact, today that same symbol has become the physician’s caduceus, two intertwining snakes on a staff, the symbol of the medical profession, the symbol of the healer. So the “bronze serpent” on a pole that Moses sets up is a symbol of sickness and death, AND a symbol of healing and life.

The symbol of the two intertwining snakes has often been described psychologically or spiritually as a symbol of contradiction, –of two opposites facing and confronting each other. The two form one entwining whole, a new harmonious figure, but the new harmony only comes by embracing your opposite, and coming to terms with your contradictions.

But what a strange symbol! Why is Christ applying it to himself? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

 The image offered in the two scripture readings presents something strong enough to kill you, yet at the same time able to rescue you from death and restore life–even when you’re mortally wounded. Like the potent chemicals used in chemotherapy, or like the surgeon’s art — cutting into your body, to heal your body; Or like snake venom itself, which is milked and used as an antidote to its own poisonous effect.

In what way is Christ the “poison that heals us”, the dangerous presence whose bite can both kill and cure? I think anyone who has ever wrestled earnestlywith the person and teachings of Jesus Christ may well know how Jesus can be poison. Anyone who has tried to live the gospel with integrity in the economic and political world of affluent America in the twenty-first century probably knows how Jesus can be poison.

Jesus is poison to our pride. Jesus is poison to any self-sufficiency or smugness about our politics, about our lifestyles, about our religion. Jesus says “follow me” — and walks into the wilderness. Jesus says “Drink of my cup” and in his cup is the blood of suffering for love. Jesus says “Unless you love the least of these, you don’t love me.” And then sets before us the weakest of the weak, the sickest of the sick, the most wretched of the wretched, the poorest of the poor. “Unless you love the least of these, you don’t love me.” Jesus even says “love your enemies” — and prays that his executioners will receive the merciful compassion of God. Jesus says “take up your cross” and dies on his. Jesus is poison to all those little voices that soothe us into complacency and reassure us that we’re doing fine, that we’re more than good enough, that we have nothing that needs to change.

Not because Jesus is out to poison us or condemn us. Just the opposite. Jesus wants us to live! For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son,  so that everyone who believes in him may not perish  but may have eternal life . . . 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.”

The most important thing to notice about this passage is that God loved the world. God loves the world. God deeply loves the world that God created, and God longs for this creation to live.  It is not only God’s own people whom God wills to save, It is the cosmos, the whole world, that God has loved, precisely by having given the only Son.

Yet God’s action was not disinterested. The purpose of God’s having sent the Son was to save the world, just as the purpose of commanding Moses to erect a serpent on a pole was to save the people from death. The Son came to save, to grant eternal life because God loved the world. That was Jesus’ announcement. “I’m here because the God who loved you of old, still does. He sent me to tell you, to show you, to gather you up into life with him forever.” Jesus’ coming is like the bringing of a light into a dark space. The contrast of light and dark is intense. This passage names several pairs of contrasting realities,  just like the entwining of opposites in that double serpent:

  • condemn versus save
  • believe versus not believe
  • stay in the darkness versus come into the light
  • doing evil versus doing what is true

These opposites express the sharp distinction that is created when our dark cosmos is entered by the light of God. When the bronze serpent was brought into the world, the people either looked and lived, or they did not, and died. As Jesus comes into the world, we trust that which bears God’s gracious love, or we do not. We open our hearts and expose our dark deeds and thoughts to the light of Christ’s healing and forgiveness, or we do not. We open our spirits to receive abundant life in Christ, or we continue to live apart from God, condemned in our own darkness.

Some of us may really have some personal “deed done in darkness” that Jesus asks us to bring to the light, so that we might be healed and saved. Some of us might have some skeleton in our closets, some “terrible secret” or sin or abomination that haunts our conscience or shackles our heart, or disturbs our sleep. Jesus invites us to look on him, on his suffering and his love, and know that our deeds in darkness can be delivered into light.

But I suspect that the “deeds in darkness” that most of us really need to fear are not the ones that preoccupy our minds and interrupt our sleep. No, the deeds in darkness that really have power to condemn us are the attitudes and actions that we are very comfortable with,  and don’t lose any sleep over at all.

Our deed in darkness may involve how justified and very righteous we feel about our judgmental opinions and cold treatment toward some other person or group: — toward an acquaintance or relative who somehow hurt or slighted us at some time in the past. — or toward some person or group whose choices or lifestyles we refuse to even examine or consider, much less understand or accept. Sometimes the deed in darkness is just a small snake in the grass, some half-forgotten memory of an indiscretion in our youth, some secret shame, or undeserved condemnation. But our own guilt or fear or regret or resentment can make that small snake into something poisonous in the present. And until we can lift it up and look at it anew through the healing eyes of Christ, it will continue to sicken us and twist us somehow.

We may not want to walk that step into the light, any more than the Hebrews wanted to walk into the hot desert wilderness on their journey from slavery to freedom. We may not want our little economic compromises exposed, or our consumer pleasures, our social prejudices, our political securities, or our secret wounds, or our religious self-righteousness. But like Moses’ fiery serpent in the desert, it is only by lifting up and looking at the poison that we can be healed from it. The pain of the exposure of the evil, the embarrassment and irritation of revelation, is the suffering that begins healing and restoration.

Only by looking at Jesus, only by seeing Jesus’ example, And trusting his love, and accepting his forgiveness in the bright, unflinching light of day, only by stepping out into that light ourselves, can we really come to know who we are intended to be in God’s design, and how we are intended to live.

“For God so loved the world, that God gave the only son — not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Amen.