St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Lent 4, Year B, 2015
“ ‘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’ ” (John 3:16-17). Amen.
One of my colleagues jokingly named today “Snake Sunday,” and it’s not hard to see why. In Numbers we find large numbers of the Israelites bitten by “poisonous serpents”, the remedy of which is to stare at a bronze serpent on a pole (Nu 21:6, 9). And Jesus makes a reference to the same bronze serpent when he is speaking with the Jewish leader Nicodemus (John 3:14).
Throughout the Bible, there are examples of snakes. There’s the serpent in the Garden of Eden who convinces Eve (and then Adam) to eat fruit from the forbidden tree (Genesis 3). Then there’s the snake that Moses’ brother Aaron turns his walking stick into to demonstrate his power to Pharaoh and attempt to convince Pharaoh to let his people go (Exodus 7:10-12). And both Jesus and John the Baptist try to grab peoples’ attention by calling them snakes or a “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7;12:34; 23:33 and Luke 3:7).
Snakes are not most people’s favorite creatures, and they feature prominently in movies because of the visceral reaction so many of us (me included) have to them. Think Anaconda and its various sequels. Or Snakes on a Plane. Even Indiana Jones freaks out when he lands in a pit of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And don’t forget all of the snakes in the Harry Potter series.
We have this morbid fascination with snakes, and it’s no wonder; they’re terrifying! Just google what one drop of venom does to a small container of blood. On second thought…don’t.
Ok, back to the story of the Israelites. They’ve been traveling for a while now in the wilderness, and they’re tired. Tired of the endless walking, tired of the scenery, tired of eating the same darn food every. single. day. They’ve had enough, and they don’t keep quiet about it. When they speak against God and Moses, it doesn’t mean that they just mutter or even complain loudly; it means that they become hostile. The passage says the Israelites become impatient, but it can also be translated as greatly discouraged; they have lost their confidence in Moses and in God, and as a result, they lash out.
Yes, life has been rough in the wilderness, but that does not mean that God has abandoned them. Every step of the way, God has been with God’s people. God hears their crying in Egypt and brings them out of slavery. When the Egyptians follow them to the Red Sea, God protects them by parting the water for them and drowning their enemy. When the Israelites become thirsty, God provides them with water. When they run out of food, God sends down manna. When they complain that they don’t have any meat, God sends them quails (Exodus 16). [If you have ever tried to feed picky eaters, I’m sure you can relate to God’s frustration in this passage.]
What follows, while extreme, is a classic case of the punishment fitting the crime: the venom in the Israelites’ attitude is reflected in the serpents’ poison. And the only way for them to be healed is to look precisely at what poisoned them.
I don’t know about you, but my heart goes out to the Israelites in this passage. I’d like to think it’s because I can relate to their frustration, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s more because I see myself in their shoes. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have experienced venom in our lives. We experience it within ourselves: jealousy, greed, disrespect, self-absorption (whether vanity or self-consciousness). And we experience venom in our world: corruption, poverty, racism, violence. In the past few weeks we have seen the slaying of a well-known Russian opposition leader, two officers shot in Ferguson, the scandal with the fraternity at Oklahoma University, and the killing of Officer Robert Wilson III, just half an hour from here.
Maybe why I’m so nervous about identifying with the Israelites in the story is that I am afraid of what that says about who I am and how I relate to God. Maybe you feel that way, too. We sneer at or are constantly dissatisfied with or question the value of the gifts we have been given by God.
Rather than constantly looking over our shoulders for snakes, however, remember that the story doesn’t end with punishment. When the snakes descend, the Israelites return to Moses, repent of their sins, and ask Moses to pray for them. God responds by giving Moses the antidote to the snake bites.
Note that having an antidote doesn't mean that no one is ever bitten again. In the same way, we can't protect ourselves or loved ones from experiencing venom within ourselves or from others. The antidote is not a permanent fix; and yet, it never runs out; God has a never-ending supply of healing and forgiveness. We constantly stray, but God is always ready to welcome us back.
There are many times when I wonder why God doesn’t just wave God’s hand and restore all creation to its original glory. There is so much suffering in the world, and it’s easy to feel like God is either causing our pain or is too far removed from us to care, at least not enough to do anything about it. As a character in The Princess Bride quips, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
But the passage from John’s Gospel reminds us that the story does not end with pain and death but with healing and life. "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” (John 3:14-15). God does care about us. In fact, God cares so much that God took human form and experienced life from our point of view. God, in Jesus, walked the path of humanity with us and suffered on the cross for us. And just as lifting up the snake healed the Israelites from the snakes’ poison, so did and does Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross heal us from the venom in our lives.
God is calling us in this Lenten season to reflect on and repent of the venom in our lives. What is keeping us from respecting ourselves and our neighbors? Where is our discouragement preventing us from connecting with God on a deeper level? What steps can we take to repair these relationships?
When we look at, name, and own the venom in our lives, the things that poison us, we are finally open to receiving God’s forgiveness. Let us take courage in that we worship a God whose final word is one of abundant mercy and unconditional love. “ ‘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’ ” (John 3:16-17).