March 18, 2012
“God so loved the world that God gave his only-begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting 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.” God’s whole objective is to save the world, not shame or condemn it.
Of course, then we might ask, “Save it from what? Save it how? Save it for what?” Each of those is a great question, and a topic of many theological books, but I am going to address them only partially and from one point of view today.
To start with, we are in Week 4 of our Lenten journey, a journey toward a deeper and more significant relationship with God and the world God loves. This journey is 40 days long, not counting Sundays, and is often referred to as “wilderness time.” For some people, it involves sacrificing a special food or activity, so that its absence heightens awareness of everything else. For some, it is a time of additional prayer or spiritual reading. Whatever you do or do not do during Lent, you should recognize that our 40 days are a tiny reflection of what our spiritual ancestors went through in the desert. Talk about a wilderness time! Though the Israelites may or may not have wandered in the desert for a literal 40 years, they certainly went through a challenging transition from life in Egypt to life in the Promised Land.
So often we skip over this part of our collective faith history. We learn about God parting the sea and allowing Moses to lead God’s people through it, but drowning the Egyptians who chased after them. And we hear about Moses getting the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and God feeding the people with manna from heaven when they got hungry. But often we skim over the other events that happened on their journey to the land they symbolically describe as a place flowing with milk and honey. By the time of today’s reading, they’re nearing the end of their wilderness time, but they don’t know that. They only know they are hot and tired and have almost given up hope. They feel stuck between a promise and its fulfillment.
So, like most people who are discouraged and weary, they complain. They whine about the quality and quantity of the food they get, and about the scarcity of water. They start wishing they were still enslaved in Egypt. However mistreated and miserable they’d been there, at least they felt secure about where their next meal was coming from. Their complaints may seem petty and ungrateful, but remember they’ve been in the desert a LONG TIME!
On our faith journeys—at Lent and other times—”we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” The details of our particular enslavement may not closely resemble the slavery our forebears in the faith, but the fact remains that we do wear shackles. I am not just talking about people with addictions or destructive habits, though certainly that is a type of enslavement. But there is also the enslavement to the appearing successful or lovable or right. Some people are victims of complacency or apathy, or a tendency to overdo. There are those who are in bondage to grudges that limit their capacity to love. There are people who cannot believe that they are forgiven and so are enslaved by their own pasts. In any case, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. What is God saving us from? Seems like ourselves.
Though I understand why God, who liberated the Israelites from slavery, and guided them by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day might be frustrated to hear the people saying, “Why did God bring us out here if just to let us die?” I am still taken aback by God’s response in today’s OT reading. What does God do when the people complain? Sends poisonous snakes into their midst. I cannot imagine why God would think this was helpful. What happened to the idea that God so loved the world that God would do anything to save it? How can a poisonous snake be an instrument of God’s saving power when it is the very instrument of death from which the people need to be saved?
It seems counter-intuitive, but for centuries and in many different cultures, snakes have been used as medical and religious symbols of healing. Check out the symbol of the World Health Organization or the crest of the American Medical Association. They depict snakes coiled around sticks. Though the symbol is officially connected to the Greek hero and god of medicine Aesclipius, bronze serpents that seemed intended to be worn as pendants have been found in many desert locations all around the Near East. Maybe there is a universal attraction to the fact that snakes shed their dead skin and go on–that really is a compelling image of resurrection, renewal, new life. Or perhaps there is simply power in facing the dragons one fears. Seeing the source of poison for what it really is can be an important step in addressing its impact. In any case, I think the sensationalism of the snakes might overshadow the real story of healing in this text, which is more subtle.
In a rare moment, the people recognize that they have sinned. They believe they are suffering because of their callous dismissal of God’s good intentions and providence. They know need to be saved, and that they are powerless to save themselves. So what do they do? They approach their pastor, Moses, and ask him to talk to God on their behalf. They do not ask for forgiveness. They assume it. They ask for deliverance from the immediate consequences of their sin.
If you encounter poisonous snakes, I doubt your first instinct would be to talk to your pastor. Maybe that’s because we have a rather clinical understanding of healing in our culture. We are taught to think that healing comes through a person in a lab coat who hands us a prescription or arranges a surgery. Even our healing services here at Trinity, which are pretty tame by comparison to live reptiles, are a stretch for some people because they can’t imagine how it works.
But for the people of Israel, who believed that their spiritual and physical well-being were interconnected, it seems absolutely necessary to them to speak to Moses right away. And it turns out that God does not need test tubes and Bunsen burners and IVs to create healing; God is very good at improvising with whatever is at hand. Because Moses does what the people ask, and goes to God on their behalf, and God tells him how to address the people’s pain. And then Moses does what God asks, however ridiculous and pointless it might seem to him or to us. He raises up a snake up on a stick and encourages the people to look up at it. When they do, the threat goes away.
How in the world can looking at a snake on a stick provide healing? I do not pretend to know. But isn’t it interesting that this is the very image Jesus seized upon to describe himself in today’s reading from John? And doesn’t it bring up the same question about Jesus’ means of saving us? How in the world does Jesus’ death by means of the death penalty save us? I am unwilling to accept the idea that God, who loves the world and wants to save it, requires a blood sacrifice to appease God’s appetite for vengeance. But if God didn’t need a blood sacrifice, why did Jesus die? And why on a cross? Why didn’t he die as a hero in battle instead of on an implement of capital punishment reserved for common criminals and political rabble-rousers. And yet, God is not constrained by what makes sense to us. The cross becomes a symbol of life for us as weird as that sounds. As weird as a snake on a stick as a symbol of healing.
But maybe we need to examine the image of a snake coiled around a stick. I’m wondering about those unhappy Israelites in the desert, and what I keep seeing are those who have been bitten by snakes looking up at the one on the pole Moses is holding, and being healed. What strikes me about this image is that it is the opposite of what we would usually do when we are scared and in pain. Our normal reaction to traumatic moments—physically and emotionally—is to curl in on ourselves. To cover up. Think of a hedgehog and you will see what I mean. Poke it and it curls up in a little prickly ball, protecting its tender belly.
Interestingly, what God is asking is that the people NOT do that. Do not coil up into a ball. Do not protect yourself in the face of this danger. Instead, God asks the people to open up. To LOOK up. God knows that healing comes through relationship–relationship with God, with one another, and with ourselves. We are invited to open up, not so that we might be slain in the wilderness, but so that we might more completely connect with our Lord. We are invited to wrap ourselves around the cross of Christ, to cling to it as nothing else. The pillar of God’s salvation allows us to be strong even in our vulnerability and safe in the relative insecurity of freedom. We are set free to live and to love.
So, if we must uncoil to live, and yet we are in bondage to the tendency to avoid that, what now? Remember that the people of God knew instantly that the first step was prayer. Prayer nurtures relationships. When we pray with and for one another, we loosen the bonds of self-absorption we tend toward. We gradually uncoil. Prayer, such as the prayer offered by Moses on behalf of the people of Israel, is a way of unraveling our hearts from around themselves and from around the idols and false securities they are squeezing. Prayer opens us up–our whole selves in all their complexity are laid bare before God, and in that vulnerable position, we acknowledge our need for God, for grace, for freedom from our sin. It sounds invasive, doesn’t it? But opening up the wound is the only way we can receive the gift of healing.
And God is there with us, in our wilderness places, helping us, holding us, saving us. An uncoiled snake may appear defenseless, but God so loves the world that God saves us in our weakness. Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider