Fourth Sunday in Lent – cycle B
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
One of the matriarchs of Immanuel, Ellen Breting, told me several years ago, she used to carry snakes around in a basket as a child. I’ve always shied away from snakes. I take comfort in the fact snakes want to avoid me almost as much as I want to avoid them.
Only 400 of the known 3,000 snakes are poisonous. And the venom can lead to death. More people are killed by bee stings than by snake bites, but that statistic doesn’t stop most of us from having an almost primordial fear of them. A Harris Poll (1999) found nearly 40 percent of Americans listed snakes as the thing they feared most. People are more afraid of snakes than they are of public speaking and spiders! Are you one of them?
You remember the scheming serpent Adam and Eve Encountered in the Garden of Eden. But what about this bizarre, mysterious and fascinating story about Moses, the Israelites, and the poisonous serpents that bit them? Slavery in Egypt is behind them. Somewhere in the middle of their 40-year sojourn to the promised land the people were forced to back track. They had to make a lengthy detour around the territory of Edom rather than go through it. They were already tired and impatient—literally, “short of soul.” This was too much.
So, they complained their usual complaint to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Numbers21:5b). ‘There is no food and no water. We’re sick of this miserable food.”
When they were starving, manna was heaven-sent. But the people were fed up eating manna cakes every day. Vegetarian manna stew, manna and quinoa loaf. It was much too much. “Like us—when things don’t go our way, when patience runs thin, when gratitude is scarce, and when the past is idealized—they grumble. They whine. They complain. The King James Bible says: they murmur!” (Rev. Craig Mueller, “Antivenom,” 4/7/18) Things were so much better back in Egypt, they murmur. Sure, we were slaves, but the food was delicious. So, the people went to Moses to have it out with him. Seeing no end in sight, they fear they will die in the wilderness.
The saying goes, every church, even to this very day, has a back-to-Egypt committee. We all take turns serving on that one. Sometimes, we just want things to go back to the way things were rather than expose ourselves the slings and arrows of the unknown future. So, God answered their murmuring with poisonous snakes. The snakes bit the people back to their senses. And some of them died. Yet it gets the people’s attention, and they repent.
They return to God seeking healing and forgiveness. And God provides a very strange and shocking remedy. Not snake bait, or an exterminator, not even a snake charmer! But an antivenom. The snakes still exist and they continue to bite people, but now, they do not die. God told Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole. The snakes are the result of the people’s disobedience and sin. But the snake-on-the-stick is the means to their healing and salvation. They would look at it and live.
If you’re wondering what in the world is antivenom? Snake venom is injected in mammals such as horses, sheep or rabbits. These animals have an immune response that naturally generates antibodies against the venom. The antivenom is harvested from the blood of the animal and stored to treat snake bite victims.
Antivenom. The cure for snakes is a snake. Amazing. As one preacher (Barbara Brown Taylor) said, Moses takes the very source of the people’s fear, their rebellion, and their death. Pulls it up from beneath their feet and puts it on a pole for the people to look at.
Strange story. Yet this is the story Jesus tells the late-night Rabbi, Nicodemus, to explain himself when he came asking about who Jesus is. Jesus said, “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 might have eternal life” (John 3:14). Jesus is the antivenom. Jesus takes the poison of this world and gives it back for healing.
In the desert, God simultaneously taught the people about their sin and about God’s grace. The problem and the solution came in the form of the same bronze serpent. Pastor and author Max Lucado says, “To see sin without grace is to despair. To see grace without sin is arrogance. To see them in tandem is conversion.” In the fiery serpent, just as in the cross, sin and grace are combined into one symbol. Jesus, our holy serpent, lifted upon the cross, draws us out from the darkness of our hearts and minds. Jesus will crush underfoot and replace the powers and principalities that rule this age with the air and light and grace of the Kindom of God.
In John’s gospel Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are comfortable and familiar with this idea. It is Jesus, after all, who gently, patiently, and tirelessly sought us out though we were lost. Yet, for John, Jesus is also the antivenom who meets us in the unseen depths of our hearts and minds. Jesus, our Immanuel, comes among us, slithering into our delusions of self-sufficiency, into our fears, our hatred, our love of violence. Out of his mouth come words that cut like a sword, venomous, prophetic words. They bite and threaten our delusions in order to heal us.
Almost as a reflex, we reach for a club or pole to beat him to death. And yet, by that very pole God lifts him up, raises him toward heaven, exalts him above all other creatures. God delivered us from destruction. Jesus is lifted up on the cross. Jesus is lifted up from the grave. Jesus is lifted up at the ascension and we are lifted up with him.
The poisonous, prophetic Word of Jesus is our anti-venom, our antidote for sin. Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us out of the heart of human darkness. Jesus shined a light upon our path to leads us out of our lostness. Now, we, together with all who meant to kill him, standing at the foot of the pole meant to destroy him, look up and say, ‘Truly this man is the Son of God.’ Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord. We are lifted up. Thanks be to God!
The daily newspaper chronicles our will to death and darkness –political corruption, violence as media entertainment, corporate greed, religious wars, and the extinction of countless species of living things. But “…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” (John 3:16). Like the bronze serpents of old, Jesus uncoils our fears, cleanses our hearts, is remaking us and our world from the inside out. This is grace. Amazing grace. This is life. Eternal life, beginning now and stretching into forever. This now is our mission. Alive and at work with Jesus to lead all people out from darkness into light, from hatred into mutual love, from judgment into mercy, from death into life. Amen.