Our Old Testament text this morning is one that may not be familiar to many of us. It’s a story from the Jewish Exodus – the time when the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness looking for the Promised Land.
Typically, Exodus stories share a common theme - the people complain about the conditions they’ve had to endure, God threatens to punish them for their lack of faith, and then a miraculous event occurs to show them that God will always provide.
When the people complain that they’re hungry, God rains manna down from heaven. When they complain that they’re thirsty, God brings forth a stream of gushing water from a rock. But the story we’re about to hear has a bit of a twist.
In this story, the people complain about their living conditions and God sends them snakes. Yes, snakes. But not just any snakes, these are poisonous snakes and the text tells us that many people died from their bites.
While we may find this element of the story unsettling it serves to set up the miraculous event that we know is coming. God instructs Moses to make a snake out of bronze and place it on a pole and it becomes a symbol of healing. All who look upon it will live. The takeaway lesson for the Israelites here is that God has the power to punish transgressions, but for those who show remorse and seek forgiveness, healing is always offered.
Here is the text from the book of Numbers. Listen for the word of God.
4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So 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.
Our gospel text this morning takes us back to the story from the Jewish Exodus that we just read. Here Jesus mentions Moses lifting up the serpent on the pole as a reference to the source of healing and renewed life that it became, and then he reveals that he too is destined to be lifted up in a similar way and offered as a source of life and healing for all.
This is the gospel passage that contains the familiar verse that we see printed on signs at sporting events, on billboards, and on bumper stickers.
John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”
In this passage, Jesus is responding to Nicodemus – a Pharisee who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to learn more about who he is and why he has come.
Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him." Jesus responds by affirming that not only has he been sent by God, but he has been sent by God with a world changing purpose.
His purpose is to be the light that pulls people out of the darkness. He was sent not to pass judgment on the world, but to save it from destroying itself.
This is a powerful message, and for a people who had for centuries carried the image of Moses holding the snake aloft on a pole as a source of God’s healing power, they would soon learn how Jesus being lifted up on the cross would come to take on a similar meaning for all.
Here is the passage from the Gospel of John.
Listen for the word of God.
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.
“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.
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 15, 2015 – Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
“For God So Loved the World…”
When I sat down earlier this week and looked at the lectionary texts for today I felt a bit like Indiana Jones when he was about to descend into a cavernous underground chamber to search for the Holy Grail.
The chamber was dark so he dropped a lighted torch into it and he saw thousands of slithering serpents covering the floor below. Then he looked up to the heavens and uttered the famous words, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
While I personally don’t have an overt fear of snakes, many of us do.
According to a recent Gallup poll, snakes top the list of things that people fear the most.
56% of us fear snakes more than we fear heights, confined spaces, getting a disease, or public speaking.
Hollywood actor and leading man Matt Damon is so afraid of snakes that when he was making the movie "We Bought a Zoo" he openly wept when snakes were brought onto the set. His co-star Scarlett Johansson says she watched Damon "rock back and forth and cry like a baby” while the snakes were positioned all over the set.
He wasn’t acting - he was absolutely terrified.
Anthropologists believe that our fear of snakes is genetic.
It’s built into our human DNA because there was a time in our ancient past when giant snakes roamed the earth and ate our ancestors for breakfast.
As children we’re taught by our parents to fear some things – running into the street, touching a hot stove - but our fear of snakes seems to be innate.
In fact, we human beings are freakishly adept at spotting snakes in the wild even when they’re hidden. Studies of the region of the brain that handles fear response have shown the human brain reacts to seeing a snake before it has cognitively processed the image — in other words, we can be scared of a snake before we even know it's there.
Which explains why God rained serpents down from heaven when his children were misbehaving. He knew they would scare the bejeesus out of us.
Knowing that we have an innate fear of snakes also helps us understand why Moses was told to place a bronze serpent on the end of a pole and have the people look at it as a source of healing and protection.
While this may seem counterintuitive to us, it was actually quite common for people to do this in ancient times. In primitive cultures a snake placed on the end of a pole was thought to ward off plagues and evil spirits.
Displaying an image of the thing that was feared the most was believed to unleash a certain sympathetic magic that led its maker to feel protected. If you wanted to keep the lions away, you carved a statue of a lion and placed it outside your hut.
Primitive peoples in all parts of the world have practiced this kind of sympathetic magic -- but we’re not accustomed to encountering it in the Bible, where God is seen as the one true source of protection and healing, not idols or magic statues.
Here we might say that it’s not the snake on the pole that is warding off evil spirits but it is God working through the symbol of the snake.
It is God who offers forgiveness to the complaining Israelites and it is God who heals them of their wounds.
But we may wonder why this story is included in today’s lectionary.
Apart from Jesus referencing the text in his response to Nicodemus, what does this story about God sending poisonous snakes to kill misbehaving Israelites have to do with Jesus’ assertion that God so loves the world?
In fact, we may wonder how God could love the world when we have so many bible stories that focus on God’s anger and disappointment with the world. Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah and the flood, the Egyptians and the plagues, and these stories from the Exodus where God grows tired of hearing his people complain and decides to send poisonous snakes to take them out one by one.
These are the stories that often make us squirm because they don’t quite jive with our image of a loving, merciful, and benevolent God.
In fact, some of us have such a hard time making sense of these stories that we feel compelled to draw a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.
We might say, “I’m not comfortable with the angry wrathful God of the Old Testament. I much prefer the God of the New Testament – the God that is full of compassion and mercy” - the God who so loved the world, that he sent his only son to gift us with eternal life.
The reality is there isn’t an Old Testament God and a New Testament God, there isn’t a Jewish God and a Christian God. There is one God.
And the Bible is simply a reflection of the thousands of ways that we have of interpreting and envisioning that one God over the course of time.
The bible contains thousands of stories, and yet it is one story.
It’s possible to read the whole of scripture as God’s love story for the world.
From the creation story in Genesis, to the wilderness wandering in Exodus, to the lamenting and rejoicing of the Psalms and Prophets, to the Jesus stories of the Gospels, to the building of the first churches in Acts and Paul’s letters, to the end of days predictions in Revelation.
God so loved the world that God chose to create it, act in it, and save it from self-destruction.
As with any love story there are times of wedded bliss and there are times of turbulence.
Communication breaks down, things are said and done that both partners regret, angry words are exchanged, tears are shed, and at some point each party may threaten to leave and give up on the whole relationship if the other doesn’t agree to change, to listen or do more, to not take the other for granted or assume that love and grace is there for the taking without a reciprocal offer of the same.
This love story that God has written with the world requires active participation by us.
As with any relationship, our relationship with God asks us to make ourselves vulnerable, to take risks, to open ourselves up to change and the possibility that we’ll feel hurt or disappointed when things don’t go the way we expect them to…
because the act of opening our hearts to love leaves us open to experiencing pain as well.
We may not believe that a loving and compassionate God would threaten to strike us down or send poisonous snakes to harm us if we misbehave.
These stories we find in the Old Testament may simply be the interpretation of a people who lived in a chaotic time in which their world had been turned upside down – where God was thought to be both protector and punisher – and the God who gave them life could and would just as easily take it away.
What may be easier for us to conceive of in these stories, and in our time, is a God who responds to our pain by taking what we fear most and turning it into a source of healing.
Putting the snake up on a pole was God’s way of taking a real and visceral fear that we human beings share and subverting its power by making it a vehicle for healing.
God did much the same with Jesus.
God so loved the world that God gave us his only begotten son….
to be Emmanuel – God with us in the world.
To teach us, to lead us, to challenge us, to show us that we can be so much more than we believe we are capable of being.
But humanity’s response to being challenged in this way was to shrink back in fear…and to take the source of its fear – this man named Jesus who pushed people to move way outside of their comfort zone – and eliminate him.
Driven by their fear, the people did what they had been doing to each other for thousands of years….They put Jesus up on a cross and watched the life drain out of him.
And then God did something amazing.
God took the cross - this object of pain and suffering, of violence and death - and turned it into a source of healing and renewed life.
Jesus would live again.
Death would not have the last word.
Violence would not have the last word.
Fear would not have the last word.
The journey to the cross would become a journey towards liberation.
The walk we take with Jesus through Holy Week would serve to bring us closer to God because we know that God through Jesus experienced our suffering and our pain.
And the death we experience through Jesus would become a symbol of how we are called to die to our old selves and be born into a new life in Christ.
God takes our fears and converts them into sources of healing.
Because it is through the act of acknowledging and confronting our fears that we diminish their power.
Whatever it is that we fear – death or illness, losing our home or job or sense of security, facing our addictions or afflictions, revealing our greatest failures or deepest secrets, asking for or granting forgiveness – we can loosen the grip our fear has on us by giving it over to God and letting God use it as a conduit for healing and renewal.
What is it that you fear?
What if you took this fear that you’ve been hiding in the darkened recesses of your heart and stuck it up on a pole so you could get a better look at it?
How might God use this fear to heal you – to liberate you – to make you whole once again?
We may not completely lose our fear of snakes by sticking an image of a serpent up on a pole - but we can lessen its power to unhinge us by seeing it as a potential source of healing rather than pain.
In Greek mythology, Asclepius is the God of healing and medicine.
He carries a staff entwined by a serpent, which has come to be known as the Rod of Asclepius.
We use this symbol today on hospital signs, doctor’s badges, ambulances, and on anything associated with the medical professions.
Snakes, as it turns out, are healing after all.
For God so loved the world…
God gave us life.
And the purpose of our life is to live in relationship…
with God, with creation, and with each other.
And God gave us Jesus.
To teach us how to live our life in relationship.
And when we reject this gift, and push it away in fear.
God gives it back to us,
Again, and again, again.
For God so loved the world…