Numbers 21:4-9, “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
John 3:14-21, “And 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.”
[Sermon for First Presbyterian Church, Thomaston, Georgia, Sunday, March 11, 2018]
Good morning! I am glad to be here this morning, but I have to tell you something. When I looked at the lectionary readings, and this story of grumbling and snakes was there, I could see why Glenn might want someone else to handle this reading about the snakes. And as we are in a Presbyterian church, that does mean that the only handling of snakes that will be done this morning, and frankly, the only kind of snake-handling that I am interested in, is to attempt to handle them with words.
But even handling this passage with words, it is not easy to grasp, to hold. This is not a passage with which we feel safe.
This is a passage about suffering, even more, suffering sent by God. I suspect many of you feel as I do, that we would rather move on, quickly, to the gospel reading. This predicament reminds me of times when I have been walking around the pond on the land where I grew up, over in Dublin, Georgia. As a boy, I would be walking through that wooded area beside the pond that felt for all the world like a wilderness to me at the time. But you had to watch your step, because right around the spillway, where there was a collection of rocks to hold the soil, there sitting on a rock was often a snake, sunning itself. And when you saw that serpent . . . you stop . . . pause . . . and you gently stepped around it. At the time I could not have told you exactly what sort of snake that it was, although my father had told me a story, more than once, about being bitten on his fingernail by a baby rattlesnake that had somehow made its way into his toolbox. Luckily, thankfully, its fangs did not pierce the nail of my father’s thumb.
There are sometimes dangers around a farm, around the woods, and in the wilderness. As a boy, I had been warned.
So yes, this is the sort of story when we encounter it in scripture, that we too feel that we would like to gently step around, to avoid it, to leave well enough alone. So we move on to the gospel reading, of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. This Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious leader, who came by night because he might have lost his position had he been seen with Jesus during the day. Jesus was the sort of person with whom “respectable” people did not want to be seen. There was danger there too.
But then when we try to avoid the first reading by slithering over to the gospel reading, the danger shows up there too: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”. There is that staff with the snake, being held up, and being held up as an image of who Jesus would be.
And this reminds me of a truth about our faith, about our lives: we cannot always hide from what we are afraid of. We cannot perpetually avoid our hurts, those hurts we have done and the hurts that have been done to us. Sometimes we have to look at them.
And the children of Israel, this group of people wandering about in the wilderness in this passage from Numbers, they had plenty of hurt to look at. Yes, they were now free from slavery, having been liberated by God through Moses from oppression under Egypt. But still, this freedom was not so easy either. And as with many who have left difficult situations, there is sometimes a way of looking back, even at a situation that hurt us deeply, and saying, “Well, it wasn’t that bad.” And we grumble. We grumble about the food. We grumble about how far we have to walk. We grumble like kids in the backseat on a long trip asking “are we there yet?!?!”
So in this passage, God gets tired of the grumbling. But instead of being the angry, frustrated parent in the front seat yelling, “NO! We are not there yet!”, in this passage, for reasons that I’m not sure there is an adequate explanation for, this God sends venomous snakes to bite the people, causing them pain, causing some of them death. And it is at that point that the people go to Moses to “please, please, please” take these snakes away from us.
But then that is not what happens.
Instead, God has Moses create a snake made of bronze. Moses attaches it to a pole and then raises this snake high above the people so that those who have been bitten can look on this bronze snake and then be healed. This was what God told Moses to do. It is a strange cure to be certain.
The cure is that we must look at what hurt us in order to live.
Now, I am a therapist, a clinical social worker by training. And there are many with whom I have sat that know that when they come to me, we will look at what hurt. Most of these wounds are emotional and mental, although those wounds often come with injury that is physical as well. These wounds that we carry are painful; they burn as the venom continues to work its way through our system, infecting our thoughts about ourselves and our thoughts about others. Over time this venom infects our biology in ways that affect us physically, not just mentally, although the mental pain is enough.
And so we raise up what hurt us. We look at it long and hard, seeing it clearly so that it cannot hurt us anymore.
So as you can see, on this particular Sunday in the season of Lent, this passage about the snakes is paired with this story of Nicodemus going to Jesus, by night. He wanted to talk to Jesus about being “born again” or depending on your translation, “born from above”. And Nicodemus struggles with these teachings that he has heard from Jesus. He struggles with who Jesus says that he is. And then in the context of this conversation, Jesus says that Jesus too will be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.
We will have to look at our hurt, the hurt we have caused and the hurt that has been done to us. We will have to have it raised over our heads and fully see it.
This is the path to rebirth. This is the path of healing. This is the way for us as Christians.
And Jesus goes on to one of the most loved, most memorized, most often seen at football games on a piece of paperboard passages: John 3:16. “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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
You see, God did not send snakes this time . . . and the purpose is not condemnation, but reconciliation. But that reconciliation may mean looking at the hurt that we have caused . . . and the hurt that has been done to us. Reconciliation is not just forgiveness of sin by God, but also forgiveness of each other, of the extension of light and grace and love from God to us, but also to everyone.
So, as we continue this Lenten journey, may we be a people who are willing to look at our hurt, at the hurt done to us and the hurt that we have done, and may we be willing to be people of light and grace and healing out in the world.