Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
To begin, a poem, by Anonymous:
Do not be frightened of the snake
Though it is easy to mistake
This lovely creature for a villain
And run away or try to kill him.
He really is quite shy you know
And hides away until you go.
He’ll slither very quickly past,
Hissing softly in the grass.
Don’t hunt him for his lovely skin
And make a handbag out of him.
He’s one of God’s small creatures too.
He has a right to be, like you
The snake has beauty, color and grace
And in this world he has his place.
Did you know….snakes can travel six miles an hour without feet. They can climb trees with no hands. Can shed skins and start all over again. In a recent poll, only three things beat out the fear of snakes: Public speaking, heights and going to the dentist. People are more afraid of snakes than flying, spiders and small, enclosed spaces.
Perhaps, more than any other animal, snakes are the recipients of bad press. I know people who gladly volunteer their time at animal shelters, cuddling up to dogs and snuggling cats, who wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to swiftly dispatch a snake to the hereafter should it be found trespassing on their property.
Let’s face it, snakes aren’t cuddly. And, with those reptilian eyes of theirs, it’s darn difficult to tell what they’re thinking. Are they looking at your as a friend, or are their snakey eyes simply sizing u p ways to make you into dinner? God bless the people who love them.
Snakes make an appearance in the Bible as well. In the book of Genesis, the tempter takes the form of a snake, offering the forbidden fruit to Eve. And later, in the reading for this morning from the Book of Numbers, we discover that the Hebrews were tired of eating quail, quail and more quail, and the never ending manna from Heaven. They say to 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.” Meaning, of course, the quail and the manna. God, it seems, hears their complaints. However, the Almighty does not proceed to shower them with tasty tacos or beef bourguignonne. Instead, the Lord God sends poisonous serpents among them—so as to afflict them even more. And so they come to Moses and say: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
Moses prays, but God doesn’t respond by taking the serpents away. Instead, God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze, and set it atop a pole. Whenever a person was bitten by a snake, they were to look upon the bronze serpent atop the pole, and live.
I don’t know about you, but I find this fascinating. Wouldn’t the simplest, most straightforward solution to the problem of the poisonous snakes be for God to simply take the menacing serpents away? Banish them to a place where no humans lived? But God doesn’t do this. Instead, God tells Moses to make a replica of a snake—ironically, a representation of the thing which the people fear the most—and he tells them to look at it. Look at what scares them right down to their toes….and live.
I suspect this odd story found in the Book of Numbers would have been quietly relegated to some dusty corner of scripture and conveniently forgotten had it not come back to us in the Gospel of John. Here, in the third chapter of John, speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus references the story in Numbers by saying: “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.” Clearly, it’s a reference to this strange story in Numbers (one which the disciples would have known); but it also hints at the way in which Jesus, the Son of God, will die—lifted up, upon the hard wood of the cross.
Ask yourself: What scares you the most? Whether it’s suffering, death, loss, cruelty, humiliation, betrayal, or the fear of what we, at our worst moments, are capable of doing to other human beings—or have done to ourselves. Whatever it is of which you are most afraid—that is what we see upon the cross. And yet, ironically enough, each week (perhaps each day), we look at the cross, not because we wish to be confronted with what has the potential to make our blood run cold; but because we believe that somehow that cross can save us. The ancient Hebrews looked upon a bronze snake set atop a pole; we look at the body of our Savior, hung upon the cross (an instrument of torture and death) and we do so, in order to live.
When I served as a curate in a parish in Indiana, I recall an incident that has stayed with me for almost thirty years. A small girl, probably about five years old at the time, grabbed the hand of her mother and dragged her into the sanctuary, where a large, wooden cross was hung, suspended from the ceiling. This little girl pointed at the cross and said to her mother in an excited voice: “Look Mommy! Can you see what’s in there?” Her mother was perplexed. She looked, and all she saw was a simple, wooden cross. Patiently she responded: “I see the cross honey.” Her daughter was not satisfied and said again: “No, Mommy, look. Do you see?” “See what?” wondered the mother. What was there to see. It was just a cross. “I see the cross, dear.” Her mother responded once again. Her daughter realized she wasn’t getting through—clearly, her mother was as thick as a book. “No Mommy. Look.” And pointing at the intersecting beams she responded: “Look, Mommy, there’s life in there. There’s life in that cross.”
God, you see, doesn’t take the fearful things away. There are snakes out there…and spiders—viruses as well. There are bullies on the playground and the office. There are illnesses, disease, car accidents, fires, bill collectors and pink slips. These things are with us—they are not going away. But what God gives us is infinitely more powerful than all the things which consume us in our fears. God gives us the promise of mercy, grace—and more than this, the promise of the resurrection. Make no mistake, in that cross there is life. There is hope. Look upon it, place your trust in God, and live. In Jesus’ name. Amen.