March 15th, 2015 “The Poison and the Cure” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
“Why’d it have to be snakes?” Indiana Jones famously asks in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. As a modern day hero, Indiana Jones the fearless adventuring archeologist is well known to be able to boldly face any challenge including landing his vintage plane on a golf course. The only thing that ever gives him pause is snakes. I am certain that Indiana is not alone in his fear of those slithering serpents. Many more people are killed by bee stings each year than by snake bites, but in general people seem to be much more afraid of snakes than of bees.
Now although most of us have an internalized fear of snakes, we know that not all snakes are bad. Some scary looking snakes are harmless to us, while some friendly looking ones possess the most poisonous of bites. Snakes have played a mythical role in the lives of people since the dawn of time, representing both the good and the bad. The Egyptian Pharaoh would often wear a head dress depicting the Cobra which was there to protect him by spitting venom into the eyes of his enemies. The Sumerian God of Healing walked around with two snakes intertwined on his staff. Even now the American Medical Association has adopted this two snake symbol as their own, the snake representing both threat and salve in the experience of healing. Of course, anyone who has had much experience with doctors and surgeons knows that they are certainly not afraid to hurt you in order to make you better.
Of course, snakes play a central role in our strange Old Testament reading for this morning. Today we find the Israelites out in the desert complaining again. The people have been wandering in the desert for years and once again they have grown tired and cranky. They are on the way to the Promised Land, but a person can only take so much wandering in the desert before they get a bit irritated. Strong winds, sand in your eyes, and being constantly on the move are certainly no way to live. The people begin to grumble about the lack of food and they remember fondly their days of slavery in Egypt where they at least got some meat once in a while. Sure God has been sending manna from heaven, but who likes to eat the exact same thing every day over and over? The people grumble against Moses’ leadership and they grumble against God.
Apparently, God has heard enough grumbling for one day and he sends a swarm of serpents to bite the people. This story reminds me of a parent telling a child to stop crying before they give them something to really cry about. To punish the people for their sins of grumbling, God sends venomous serpents among the people and many are bitten and die.
Well, it doesn’t take long for the people to repent, coming to Moses and asking him to plead with God on their behalf to take the serpents away. And usually, this is what would happen. In the past when the Israelites have complained about hunger, God sent manna; and when they complained about thirst, God provided water from the rock. Logic would tell them that God would remove the snakes from their midst, but here God is less lenient. Instead, God tells Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze and place it high on a pole. When the people look upon the serpent, although they are still bitten by the snakes, they will not die. God has no intention of removing the snakes, and although they receive healing, the consequences of the people’s sin remain.
In this story, the serpent becomes the sign of both death and life, both the poison and the cure. The serpents serve to wake the people up to the folly of their complaining. In being brought close to death they are reminded just how much they should appreciate the gift of life. Especially under these circumstances when God and Moses are doing all that they can to ferry these troublesome people into the Promised Land. The experience of the snakes worked to save the people from their grumbling and self-centeredness. In looking upon the snake lifted high on the pole, the people are healed of their wounds, and reminded of the cost of their sin. And in the act of looking upon the snake, the people are forced to forget their grumbling and reaffirm their trust in God.
In our reading from the gospel of John, Jesus compares himself to this bronze snake lifted high on a pole. Jesus teaches that like the snake was lifted up in the wilderness, so he will be lifted up. In the gospel of John, this notion of being lifted up has two dimensions. Literally, Jesus will be lifted up by being raised into the sky upon the cross. But symbolically, Jesus will also be lifted up by being exalted or raised up in power. For the writer of the gospel of John, Jesus’ moment of exaltation begins at his moment of crucifixion.
To look upon Jesus on the cross, is to look upon the snake in the wilderness for in both cases we must look upon our affliction in order to be healed of that same affliction. The Israelites needed to look upon the fear and poison of the snake in order to be freed from it. Similarly we must look upon the reality of death, in order to be freed from death into eternal life. Jesus teaches that this is the love of God; to give to the awful, unrepentant and hostile world the greatest gift of all, God’s Son. To those who believe, the gift of eternal life is given.
But just what is it that we must believe? Not simply that Jesus suffered and died, for that happens to thousands of people every day. No, I think that what we must believe is that Jesus was the Son of God, sent into the world to be with us. The lessons that Jesus taught, the actions that he took, and the way that he led his life, inevitably lead to his death. To face the reality of God on a cross, a God who dies, a God who can be killed, is the heart of our faith and it is what makes our faith unique. That is what we must believe.
Many religions use symbols meant to embody our fondest human dreams; a crescent moon, a lotus flower, a star, and other emblems of striving and aspiration. By contrast our faith uses a symbol of death, for we must look upon the affliction in order to be healed of the affliction. Much as the symbol of the serpent reminded the people of God’s care while they were being bitten, the symbol of the cross serves to remind us of the death of God’s own Son which gives us hope while we live in the midst of death.
Jesus teaches that the promise that we are given, and the choice that we have to make, are about eternal life and condemnation. We must remember that these things do not exist for us simply after we die; rather eternal life and condemnation are things that exist for us in the here and now. The promise of eternal life is about the quality and character of the life that we live in the present. If we look upon the cross, and believe in the self-giving love that we see there, we are freed from the power of death in our life right now. We are given the gift of hope while we continue to live in a world of suffering.
During the season of Lent, we are called to remember our own sinfulness before God. Which one of us hasn’t grumbled about our lot in life? I am certain we have it much better than the Israelites, but I for one admit that that hasn’t stopped me from the occasional grumbling. In our modern world, it is all too easy to neglect the blessings that God has given us, as our culture presses us to continually ask for more. As we spend time during our Lenten journey looking upon the cross, we are reminded of the terrible consequences of our sin. Like the sting of the serpent’s bite, our sin has lasting consequences in our lives. God may provide a path for our salvation, but that does not take away the suffering that our sin brings into the world.
The symbol of the snake and the symbol of the cross are both symbols of the good and bad together, symbols of the poison and the cure in one. As the gospel of John compares Jesus to the snake, we are reminded that Jesus came into the world not as what we would expect. Jesus was the greatest gift from God, given in love, and yet he was often crafty like a good snake; opening his mouth to speak words that can cut us like a sword, words that are venomous and prophetic. It was Jesus’ threatening teachings that led to his death, and it is his teachings which threaten our comfortable way of life today, as he calls us to die to our old way of living and to rise again with him.
One of the wonderful things about our faith, is our belief that God reaches out to us in new life before we are even able to understand and follow the path of self-denial and suffering which Jesus lays out before us. This morning we are going to celebrate a baptism. Like the poison and the cure, the waters of baptism represent the waters of chaos as well as the waters of new life. In baptism we believe that we die and then we are raised again. We are buried with Christ, dying to our old ways of living; and then we are raised anew with Christ, ready to celebrate new life and forgiveness in our world.
Baby Aiden is too young to understand and make these promises, but we believe that God is able to reach out and offer that new life to Aiden before he is even able to ask. God longs for us to be part of this journey of new life and growth, part of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so we celebrate these moments in the baptism of infants as well is an our own continual turning back to our God in repentance and faith. For all of us today this is an opportunity to remember our own baptisms, and the new life that God has offered to each of us.
Like a poison and a cure, the message that Jesus brings often hurts us so that we can be healed. As believers, we are called to risk this suffering. We are called to look upon the cross and to face the reality of our sinful nature. We are called to look upon Jesus at his moment of death, in order that we might be saved. As the snake was the symbol of poison and cure, the cross serves to remind us of the reality of death in our world as well as the path to eternal life. As we continue our Lenten journey, may we look upon the cross of Christ with humbleness and awe, for we must honestly face our sin before we can receive the gift of salvation. Let us praise God for reaching out to us in faith, and for our continual opportunities to reach back to God in repentance. Amen.