Numbers 21:4-9; Eph. 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
We’re going to talk about snakes today, and if that makes some of you squeamish, just think of something long, fat and fluffy and pink and you’ll be fine. The lesson from Numbers today makes me I feel I am looking through a murky veil into some obscure mythological legend whose meaning is lost in the ever-changing ocean of time. Snakes that kill and heal? Doesn’t make sense. But stare into the story with me and some meaningful possibilities began to form. I love stories like this which are not clear--which make us reach deeply into our tradition, into history, and into our own hearts.
There’s poor old Moses. He’s been leading his people for a generation in circles around a desert wilderness. They have not enough water and have nothing to eat but flat little communion wafers, without even peanut butter to dress them up. It’s an awful menu. At least in Egypt they had leeks and garlics! And this purposeless wandering! Really—haven’t we seen that mesa before? Of course—when we’re being formed into God’s people in the wilderness of our lives it always seems like nothing’s happening. Maybe they’d made a mistake. Maybe they’d chosen the wrong leader. Maybe God wasn’t really with them. You ever have thoughts like that? Like maybe we’re making all this up? I sure have. It is hard to see God’s purposes being developed, formed, brought to life when everything around us looks dried up as a mesa in August. So the people question and grumble and complain endlessly. God has a hissy fit (no pun intended) and sends poisonous serpents to remind people about who they are and whose they are. They get it, ask Moses to pray for them and immediately God brings about a solution. Moses makes a likeness of the snakes in bronze and holds it up on a pole and whoever looks at it is healed. Notice God does not answer their prayer the way they ask it—God does not take the serpents away. Serpents stay! But the serpent raised up becomes a means of life. Reminds me how exposure to radiation can cause cancer and radiation used carefully can take it away again.
From ancient times the serpent has been an ancient symbol of wisdom, fertility and rebirth as it sheds its own skin. When Eve listened to the serpent in the Garden, it is arguable she chose the mature wisdom that comes of freedom, rather than blind obedience. The venom can be poisonous, but used in the right way snake venom can also become a medicine. Remember the symbol of doctors everywhere—the rod of Aesclepius around which is entwined—a snake!
The people were only to look at the serpent to be healed. They were not to worship it. Later on in II Kings the bronze serpent was destroyed because people were worshiping it—as we tend to do to things we idolize. But here in our story, the people have to deal with the serpents. Sin has real consequences. God does not take away what is hard in our lives, but gives us the means to get through it. Thomas Keating says, “God protects us from nothing, but sustains us through everything.” God gives grace in unexpected forms in the wilderness of our lives.
When Jesus makes reference to this story at the beginning of our gospel, the Greek word for Moses lifting up the snake is hypsoun. It is used only two other times in the Gospel. One is to describe Jesus himself being lifted up on the cross, and the second time is when Jesus ascends in glory. The healing and the cross and the glory are all wrapped up together.
Our lesson from Ephesians is probably part of a longer liturgy which was read in the early church on this Sunday to those who were preparing for baptism. Imagine, after a two year process, as they prepared for baptism at the Vigil of Easter, hearing the words “By grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The healing, the cross and the glory are all the new life they were about to accept for themselves, with the reminder that they receive it not because they had earned it, or deserved it because they were so good, but because God’s passion is to love and cherish all God’s people. “For God so loved the world”--that sixteenth verse is probably so familiar it’s hard to really hear it any more. It’s more of a slogan than a mandate for life. We see it on bumper stickers, tee shirts and bill boards. Notice it doesn’t say “For God so loved the Church,” or even “For God so loved Christians” and certainly not “For God so loved Americans.” The whole world! The good, the bad, and the ugly alike. “Salvation” – a word which gives many Episcopalians the hives; it’s more of a Baptist word! But Episcopalians need to reclaim it. The word “salvation” really is about how each of us and all creation are saved together. It’s about enlarging our life; pushing out the boundaries of community. We tend to use it very individualistically. “Have you been saved?” we might be asked on the street. But the way the Bible uses it, our salvation is always in the wider context of enlarging community. The whole universe belongs to God and salvation is offered to all people so they may have eternal life. When Moses lifts up the bronze serpent, people live. But when Jesus is lifted up, he draws all into creation with him into eternal life.
Remember, eternal life is not something that starts when we die. It is already here, and we already dwell in it. It is a great sacred drama and we are all players in it. Listen to those words again: God “made us alive together WITH Christ, raised us up WITH Christ, and seated us WITH him.” When we’re baptized we are baptized INTO Christ. Christ includes us in his work. We have an active role in our own salvation, even though it’s a gift: we still have to accept it. God doesn’t shove anything down anybody’s throats!
And I can hear some of you thinking—well what about those other verses about being condemned if you don’t believe? What do we do with those? And you’d be right—those are hard verses, and I suspect those verses may be the reason your clergy asked me to preach this week! When my kids were young they got lured to Baptist Vacation Bible School with the promise of ice cream. I looked at the tract they were passing out to kids showing children burning in the lakes of fire who didn’t sign the statement at the end accepting the Lord Jesus as their personal savior, and children playing harps in the clouds if they did. I confronted their pastor in the driveway. “Ralph,” I said, “This is awful.” He looked shocked. “Why do you say that?” he asked. “This is so self-serving,” I said. “This says that the only reason to be a Christian is so you don’t burn in hell forever.” “Yeah?” “It’s faith-by-fear. That has nothing to do with being a Christian.” He started to argue but I was just getting warmed up. “We don’t accept Jesus so we avoid hell! What kind of theology is that? God doesn’t want to condemn anybody! That’s like me saying to my kids, “If you don’t love me I’m going to beat you!” It’s purely selfish. Even if there were no heaven and no hell, there’s still plenty of reason to be a Christian. We don’t come to faith because of what we can get out of it; we come to faith in response to what Christ has already done for us. We follow him because that’s what makes us fully alive.” Pastor Ralph got red and started quoting chapter and verse from Revelation, and I never convinced him, and we kept up this friendly argument for the next eighteen years.
We do have a choice about whether or not to accept God’s gifts. There is a novel by Charles Williams where the protagonist, Lawrence Wentworth, continually makes choices for fantasy over real relationship. This separates him from community, and shuts down the possibility of life and growth. Every time he does he has a recurring dream that he is climbing down a long rope into hell. In CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce it is the same idea—people who live in the gray suburbs of hell can always choose to take the bus to heaven and lose themselves in the worship and joy of God, but—they must let go of their anger, or their resentment, or their ego-centrality. Alas, they usually choose to get back on the bus and return to hell. How can they live without their self-righteousness? That’s not to say there is no final judgment—I believe there is. But it may be largely of our own making. No matter how radical God’s grace is, it is up to us to respond to it. The initiative is God’s. The response is ours.
One more thing while we’re here. I want to quarrel with the either/or, black and white way John has of putting things. Either you are of the light or you are of the darkness. Either you choose light because you do good stuff, or you choose darkness because you are evil. I’ve never found that the world operates like that. Except in bad movies, people are never all good (light) or all evil (darkness). There is light and darkness in every person. We’re all on a continuum. We are all of light and of darkness. Remember Paul wailing “The good that I want to do I don’t and the bad that I don’t want to do I do! Who will save me from my wretched self? Thanks be to God who has already given us the victory!” Salvation!
It is Lent—the season for looking at that darkness within ourselves and asking God to do something about it. In Jungian lingo, we are to come to terms with our own shadow. This may be another meaning of today’s first story. Look again at the snake lifted up in the wilderness for people to look at and be healed. There is God’s invitation to do our hard inner work. God can use what wounds us as a door to grace, to healing, to wholeness. Through God’s incredible goodness, the snake which destroys can also be a way back to wholeness. Looking at the hard stuff within us can lead us through our own darkness into light. We are saint and sinner at the same time—not 40% saint and 60 % sinner on a bad day or 86% saint and 14% sinner on a good day. We are always 100% saint and 100% sinner. We cannot help it! Sin is the human condition! It is not for us to judge who is saved and who is condemned. It is our work to proclaim Christ, pray for our enemies, and work for the well-being of the human community.
So—when you are lost in the wilderness of your life, going around in circles, eating boring food, you haven’t showered in four months, are surrounded by snakes and you suspect the guy you’re following lost his GPS in the Red Sea, where do you look for salvation? Lift up your eyes. See the Lord lifted up, his arms outstretched in love to welcome you into his most intimate life and Body. Bring your real self with all your doubts, love, sins, acts of kindness, failures, humor, fears, hopes, and struggles and let yourself be enveloped by love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Let the people of God say AMEN!