A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Based on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
Richard Jeske, Vicar
Of all the things Jesus could have used from the Old Testament as a picture of himself, he uses a snake, the bronze serpent that Moses put on a pole. What an odd comparison to make: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”
It’s a reference to the old story mentioned in our first lesson for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, about the time when the people of God were on their journey from slavery in Egypt to the land God had promised them. They were in the desert for a total of forty years. Think of it: a generation in the desert, the wilderness generation. It took a lot of faith to believe that what God was doing with them was good. Instead of the joy of being released from slavery, out there in the dessert those bad old days of the past in Egypt suddenly turned to the good old days. Instead of joy and gratitude for the manna and quail God had provided them for food, they soon got tired of the diet – you know, same-old, same-old. As we heard: “So the people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? Out here there’s nothing to eat, and we can’t stand this miserable food!’” So the Lord said, “OK, maybe you’d rather have snakes” – and poisonous snakes began to take their toll on the people, until they quit blaming God and would look to him for healing. Moses was instructed to put a bronze serpent on a pole, and whenever anyone would look at the serpent they would be healed.
Jesus uses that story as an analogy about him and his cross. Whoever looks to him on his cross and believes in him has eternal life.
What an odd comparison. I don’t know about you, but snakes are not my favorite animal. If you find yourself close to a snake, what’s the first thing you want to know about it? (Is it poisonous?) If it’s poisonous, what will you want to do? (Head quickly in the opposite direction – call 911 or call Pest Control or your local exterminator or get Clint Eastwood to pull out his six-gun and shoot it dead.)
Remember the even older story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden? It told the man and the woman they should what they wanted to do; they could be like God if they did. So the snake wound up getting a curse put on it, as God said: “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God said to the serpent, “and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:14-15). That old Genesis story says that there would be ongoing enmity between the descendants of the snake and the descendants of Eve. Snakes and human beings would never get along very well. Snake charmers aside, among human beings there is a primordial fear of snakes – before 9/11 and Al Queda and Isis a 1999 Harris poll said that nearly 40 percent of Americans listed snakes as the one thing in life that they feared the most. So for a lot of people, the only good snake is a dead one.
But the bronze serpent on Moses’ pole was a symbol of healing – and Jesus uses it of himself in today’s gospel. In the ancient world outside Israel, snakes appear as not always bad. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt wore a headpiece with a hooded cobra on it, as a symbol of protection for the Pharaoh. The Sumerian god of healing was depicted with two intertwined snakes on his staff – and that symbol of healing is still worn today – do you know by whom? -- by your doctor: it is a symbol adopted by the American Medical Association. Two snakes intertwined on a staff: both threat and healing, and if any of you have had surgery, you might have feared the doctor for what he or she would be doing to you in order to heal you. Surgeons have to hurt in order to heal.
In Greek mythology, Asclepius, the god of healing, carried the image of a snake on his staff, but it could also be suddenly transformed into a live serpent. So sometimes these ancient snakes are saviors, and sometimes they are dreaded demons. Snakes can go both ways. They can be strangely beautiful, and fearsomely powerful. A snake is a creature that can travel six miles an hour without feet. It can climb a tree without hands. Snakes can shed their old skin and start all over again. They live in dark, secret places, and generally are nocturnal. They appear to most of us, not always in our front yards, but in the deep recesses of our most threatening dreams. Even in our dreams, when a snake appears, we want to run the other way.
But – and here’s the biblical point – snakes have to answer to God too. They are his creatures, like we are; and they can do a lot of harm, like we can. But God can take them and transform them into symbols of healing. The very thing that can bring pain, can bring healing as well, a sign of protection, and of authentic life.
So Moses’ healing serpent became a sign of Jesus’ cross, when he was lifted up so that those who believe in him may have eternal life. Think of how crosses are used today: they are often beautiful objects to wear, in silver and gold, often seen on altars, all clean and polished, and often with jewels on them. They can adorn church buildings, be used as worship objects, be given as precious gifts to loved ones.
But Jesus’ cross – the one on which he was crucified – was ugly. It was not a toy, not a decoration, not a piece of jewelry. It represented everything that was wrong about the human race. It represented cruelty, rejection, and anguish and deep pain. It represented the desire of human beings to play God. It represented human stubbornness and evil. And yet, in the hands of God, it became a symbol of healing. God sent his Son into the world of human stubbornness and cruelty, into a world in which human beings prefer lies rather than truth, where human beings would rather harm and kill – and he gave that world another chance at life -- eternal, authentic life.
In spite of all its evil, of all its rejection of God and his will, the world is still God’s creation and therefore God simply did not want to leave it captive to its own impulses. But we were trapped in the desert and couldn’t get out ourselves. So God acted: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
So Christians use that cross to remind them that eternal life is available to them right in the midst of the desert where both good and evil are at hand. Eternal life, i.e. authentic life, the way God meant life to be lived, is available because God has transformed our world by sending his Son into it. At their baptism Christians take that cross onto themselves, when the priest marks them with the sign of the cross and says, “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” So Christians mark themselves every day with that sign, to remind them of their baptism, and of what God has transformed them into being. An ugly symbol of death becomes for them a sign of new life, authentic life, the way God meant it to be, God’s life, which is eternal.
Jesus’ cross then becomes the place where we let our values be judged. “This is the judgment,” John’s Gospel says, “that the light has come into the world.” Jesus’ cross is God’s judgment on the dark values of this world. When we look to Jesus’ cross, no longer can we count others better than ourselves; no longer can we ignore the needs of others; no longer can we accept lies, and practice racism, and the exploitation of others who are made, as we are, in the image of God. A light has come into a dark world, says the Gospel writer John, and it judges our darkest values and offers us healing. We get to decide now who we are: people who love the darkness or who love the light. Today Jesus tells us: “Those who do what is true, what is authentic, come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
You know, those words were a subtle compliment to someone. Jesus said them to Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who, John says, came to Jesus at night to learn from him. He came to the light, but in the darkness, at night. But now that Nicodemus has come to the light, namely to Jesus, he has an assignment: to show clearly that his deeds are done in God. A few chapters later he does that. He had come to Jesus by night, not wanting anyone to see him talking to Jesus. But soon, when his fellow leaders want to arrest Jesus, he tells them: “Aren’t you going to talk to him first? Aren’t you going to give him a hearing? Aren’t we supposed to do that first?” Of course, Nicodemus then became the object of their ridicule (John 7:45-52). And later, after Jesus’ death, it was Nicodemus who, with Joseph of Arimathea, reverently prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Once he had come to the light, namely to Jesus, Nicodemus could no longer remain in the darkness.
All because he heard what Jesus told him: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
What a privilege it is that our congregation has been given that message to tell, not only in words, but also in deeds. In our world we are confronted with darkness every day, but we get to choose the light. That’s life, authentic life, in the desert of good and evil. All because of a cross, the symbol of degradation, which God has transformed into the sign of our healing, and of our salvation. We will wear that cross gladly on our foreheads, and we will take it wherever we go, so that others, through us, will look to Jesus’ cross for the healing that they know they need. It is no longer just an icon, but it is the light from which we now live.
-- Richard L. Jeske