Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”. I did some checking, and yes, John 3:16 is the most well-known and popular verse in the entire bible (not to mention the leader in tee shirt sales); but did you notice that it began with the word ‘for’? ‘For’ means the same thing as ‘because’, which means that this is actually the second half of a statement; it explained something. Something happened ‘because God so loved the world’ and so on; and so we have Jesus saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that … and because … and so on. Therein Jesus refers to one of my favorite and the strangest tales contained an Old Testament, one which has puzzled Jewish scholars for centuries, as among other things, it apparently violated the second commandment.
Last week’s OT reading had this same Moses relay God’s command, “You shall not make for yourself any carved image in the likeness of anything that is found in heaven above, nor that is on the earth beneath, nor that is under the earth”. The danger was that they might, “bow down to them and serve them”. Such a concern seemed quite justified, because Moses hadn’t even gotten back down the mountain before the people had already demanded that Moses’ brother Aaron make them a golden calf to serve as a representation of God to worship. Moses quickly learned that God’s proclaimed ‘jealous love for his people’ was white-hot, as God was so angry that God threatened to consume them with fire, relenting only when Moses begged him in prayer, even though Moses himself was so angry that when he saw the calf he smashed the tablets with the commandments on them to pieces. So it seems rather odd that later on in their wilderness journey God would actually command Moses to ‘make a serpent of bronze and place it on a pole’, something that would appear to be just as tempting to become an object of worship as the golden calf (which actually did happen centuries later … in 2Kings a king of Judah named Hezekiah had to destroy it because, as he said, “the sons of Israel burned incense to it, and had named it Nehushtan”).
You know, I find these this rather amazing, because about a month ago we looked at a question from the Sunday School about why the symbol for Christianity was not an empty tomb, but a Cross, an object of a murderous form of execution. In my answer that ‘in order to proclaim the good God had to address the bad’, I gave a number of illustrations, but did not include this one, which I think is the best theologically, but one that is rather obscure and a bit complicated. So, let’s look at it now. The incident with the bronze serpent occurred towards the end of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness where the people were just bone weary and were past the point of seeing the ‘promised land’ as anything other than an illusive dream. And if we pay careful attention to the text, we find that now the people actually turn around, and rather than heading towards Canaan start going back towards the Red Sea where they started, all in order to make a circle around the territory of Edom. Edom was a nation made up of people who were descended from the patriarch Jacob’s brother, thus making them a cousin nation of Israel. Moses had sent word to their king asking to pass through their land promising not to cause any damage or, “even drink a drop of water”. However, no go; the king refused; and so, to avoid a war, they had to double back through the harshest desert in the entire peninsula during the late summer when temperatures were there hottest (the book of Numbers is that specific).
No wonder the people became “impatient because of their journey”. They were done, exhausted, and backtracking, and so they understandably started to complain … “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?” The closer they got back to Egypt, the more they forgot the bad memories from there and remembered the good … the plenteous food and water because of the Nile river. But this was part of the long slide of complaining, a bad habit that becomes worse the more one does it, and it sort of defined their relationship with this God whom they were really just getting to know. First, they complained about having no food, and God sent quails. Then they complained about having no water, and God caused water to flow out of a rock. Then they complained some more, and God gave them a thing to eat called ‘manna’, which they referred to as ‘bread from heaven’ and the Psalms referred to as ‘the bread of angels’ because it just appeared on the ground each morning.
But did you ever go too far? Maybe with your parents, or spouse, or boss, did you ever push one button too much and say “uh-oh”? The Israelites seemed have done the same thing; they pushed God’s patience past the breaking point as they reached a crescendo in their whining when they said of the manna, “We detest this miserable food” (well after all it was rather simple and bland). We are told that, in response, “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many died”. Now while some scholars try to explain this away by pointing out that it happened at a time when ‘people still primitively believed that all misfortune was God’s punishment’, it rings differently if one accepts that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is not just some eternal force pervading the universe, but a living God … with a personality … who is interacting with God’s own people. And so, St. Paul would refer to this event over a 1000 years later when he wrote, “Nor let us try the patience of the Lord, as some of ‘them’ did, and were destroyed by serpents”.
But God is ultimately always a God of mercy. Yes, the people asked Moses to intercede, and yes God relented, but here’s where got strange. Rather than doing what the people wanted, which was to make the snakes go away (which is probably rather significant, when you really think about it), God told Moses to “make a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten and who looks at it will live”.
In other words, rather than removing the source of their chastisement and discomfort, God provided a means whereby they could survive and overcome it … very interesting … because it might be saying something about how God chooses to address and alleviate suffering in a world that morally needs it as a possible experience in order to make free will matter (as we considered last week). Consider this; no one has any rational (read ‘scientific’) explanation as to how staring at a pole could cause a physical healing. It might be helpful, though, to remember that Moses was raised in Egypt, and was purported to have been instructed in all the arts of the Egyptian sorcerers, arts which we might call the ‘occult’. Still, the best scholars can come up with is that this was some form of ‘sympathetic magic’, in which their belief could lead to a physical event. But perhaps the rabbis had it right all along. They explained it this way, “It was not the serpent that gave life. So long as Moses lifted up the serpent (for them to see), they believed on him who had commanded Moses to act thus; thus, it was God who healed them”. In other words, one need not look for an ‘explanation’ when the operative agent was ‘faith’.
Yet this is still startling, because it turns the first commandment, “thou shalt have no other gods but me”, and the second commandment, “thou shalt not make any idols” and turns them both on their heads. Was this an ‘in between’ moment? Was God transitioning them from the olden gods (a quick study of Egyptian religion shows the common theme of ‘snake worship’) and olden cult practices? OR … was God superseding them? Was God saying, in effect, “I am sovereign over all such things” (just like when Moses battled Pharaoh’s priests in Egypt through the various plagues)? If so, God was commanding that people stare right at evil, to gaze upon it, and then to “trust me” to empower them to overcome it.
In other words, was this not a prototype … of the cross?
If you’re wondering, yes, the serpent here is a representation of exactly who we think it is; our old adversary, Lucifer. That God would allow this fallen angel to operate is part of the mystery of evil, but which, no matter how much we may abhor it, seems consistent with God allowing all creation to play out the battle of good vs. evil. St. Paul reminds us that “the painful fiery bite of sin is death”, and yes it does, indeed “sting”. The parallel with how God deals with sin in its totality and the specific sins of Israel in the desert is found where Paul quotes Deuteronomy and concludes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’”.
According to Deuteronomy, being hung on a tree was reserved for false prophets, and there was perhaps no more shameful a penalty imagined. Early Christians knew this was a central issue for Jews who saw Jesus’ death as proof that he was a phony. That is why they referred so frequently and passionately to his resurrection as “God’s vindication” of Jesus. He died seemingly in disgrace. He rose in total victory, not just the scientific claim that our being somehow survives death, nor even the suggestive idea that ‘this life is just a preparation for the next life’, but that his resurrection is the total victory over what truly plagues us, sin … evil. Thus, the Cross is the great challenge; it stares evil in the face and says, “Go ahead, do your worst … because your worst ain’t good enough”.
Did Jesus know that this would be the effect of his crucifixion? Remembering the suggestive detail that when he was on the mountain and was ‘transfigured’ one of those who were seen ‘talking to him about his departure’ was Moses, was this what they were talking about as his mission? What else can we answer but “yes”, especially when Jesus told as much to the Sanhedrin member named Nicodemus in this morning’s Gospel when he talked about the effect of him “being lifted up”.
I would add that we should also not miss the “lifted” part. Taken very literally, this is not how people were usually crucified. Timber was expensive, and somewhat scarce, and was not to be wasted on ‘two-bit would be Napoleons with delusions of grandeur’ (as the Romans, with the possible exception of Pontius Pilate, likely saw him). Crucifixion usually involved only enough wood for someone’s feet be off the ground. This served only to heighten the shame and humiliation, as the crucified one was at eye level, naked, exposed, and vulnerable, where they could be slapped, spit upon, and worse, without guards to stop anyone. It was even often noted that dogs would sometimes have their way with the bodies, even while still alive … rather gruesome, which was the point.
Yet Jesus was given the royal treatment. Surrounded by armed guards he was raised high. This had a specific reason; he was being made into a spectacle. The Romans knew of the hopes many had for him, and that many would come witness his end, and so they wanted to make a statement and send a message, “This is what happens when you challenge Imperial Rome. This is what happens when you reject the Prince of this World”. Remember that Jesus said that the devil “lifted him up” (same Greek words) to a high mountain and said, “All that you see is mine, and I give it to anyone I choose; just worship me and all this is yours”. And now evil was elevating Jesus again and saying through Lucifer’s representative, Pontius Pilate, “Behold the man”. And as usual, the Evil one had is completely backwards.
So how did this fix things? How did the bronze serpent heal the Israelites? How does a man dying on a cross purge sins? No one but God really knows. Oh, from the standpoint of a ‘theological explanation’ we could consider how God laid the foundation of sacrifice through the Temple system. We could look at the role of the blood though the notion inspired by God saying, “the blood is the life”. We can look at various ‘atonement’ theories as offered by theologians throughout the centuries (some rather impressive). But the best language we can come up with is that, “we are saved by grace through faith”. Our job is simply to ‘Lift High the Cross’ (check your bulletins) and sing, “Oh Lord once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, draw the world to thee”.
Then what happens? Well, St. Paul wrote, “You were dead”. Note the word ‘were’. He said, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived … following the ruler of the power of the air, that spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient”. But then he continued, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved even us even though we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … by grace you have been saved … and lifted up with him … and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Here’s the part I love. The same word used to describe ‘being lifted’ at Jesus’ crucifixion is the same word that Paul just used, and which would shortly be used to describe his ‘being lifted up’ at his Ascension into heaven. There is thus a ‘double lifting up’ in Jesus’ mission. The two are inextricably linked; one could not happen without the other, because it says that Jesus did not come ‘just’ to save us from our sins, but to enable us to finally fulfill what has been God’s intention for us all along. It puts the exclamation point on where Jesus began today, as he said to Nicodemus, “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 … because … God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but … have eternal life”. Amen ... See MoreSee Less
Thank you to our Girl and Boy Scouts for hosting Breakfast Fellowship. Everyone enjoyed a delicious breakfast. Congratulations to Julia for receiving the highest honors in Girl Scouts! ... See MoreSee Less