Fourth Sunday in Lent
Most people I know are scared of snakes, even the non-venomous kind. It seems counter-intuitive that, for centuries—and in many different cultures—snakes have been used as symbols of healing. Look closely at the symbol of World Health Organization or the crest of the American Medical Association and you’ll see snakes coiled around sticks. Officially those symbols honor the Greek hero/god of medicine Asclepius, but in desert locations all around the Near East, ancient bronze serpents—clearly intended to be worn as pendants—have been found. Maybe, alongside our fear of them, humans have an attraction to snakes. We can’t help admiring the way snakes shed their dead skin and go on living. It is a compelling image of renewal and new life. Maybe even resurrection!
But I’ll admit, it’s hard for me to understand what’s going on with the snakes in our OT reading today. I understand why God might be exasperated with the people for whining non-stop ever since God freed them from slavery in Egypt. What I do not understand is how God thinks sending serpents could help. And yet, somehow God is able to bring good even from something terrible.
In a rare moment of Biblical history, the people recognize that they have sinned against God. They do not curse God or Moses or the snakes or each other or anyone or anything else. They acknowledge that they have hit bottom (to borrow a term from our friends in AA). They acknowledge that they are a mess and are powerless to save themselves. They approach their pastor, Moses, and ask him to pray on their behalf. They do not ask for forgiveness. Apparently they assume it. What they want is deliverance from the immediate consequences of their sin.
God tells Moses to lift up one of the fiery serpents on a pole and command the people to look up at it. Why? Perhaps it’s simply that there is power in facing our fears. Seeing a source of a poison for what it really is can be an important step toward healing. Again, ask anyone who’s been through a 12-step process: the first step to recovery is seeing a thing for what it is, calling it by its real name. Then the healing can begin.
Or maybe the power of this moment is that God asks the people to do the opposite of what we usually do when we are scared and in pain. Our instinctual reaction to traumatic moments—physically and emotionally—is to curl in on ourselves like a porcupine protecting its tender tummy. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Luther seized on the Latin phrase, incurvatus in se—to be curved in on ourselves—to describe sin. Luther called sin the unwillingness or inability to pay attention to God, to creation, or our neighbors because we are focused only on ourselves. What God asks the Israelites is that they NOT coil up into a ball of self-absorption. Instead, God tells the people to LOOK up.
I don’t know how or why looking at a snake on a stick provided healing for God’s people. But I do know that Jesus seizes upon this image to describe himself in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. Jesus, who heals and saves the world is lifted up, both on a cross and from the grave. And what is it God saves the world from? In John’s Gospel, the poison of sin is usually systemic sin like injustice, oppression or the lack of mercy, more than individual errors. Jesus would do anything to save the world from those serpents. But as we know, just as God did not remove the threat of the snakes from the people in the wilderness, Jesus doesn’t remove his followers from the place of danger, nor does he do away with evil altogether. What Jesus does is join us in our struggle.
Jesus acknowledges that some people won’t look up or embrace him or his teachings. He announces, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
Being saved, then, isn’t only about living with Jesus in the sweet by-and-by. It’s also about walking with Jesus right now, in whatever desert experiences or trials we face. Not everyone gets it. Believing in Jesus is not an intellectual or theological decision. It’s taking a stand against society’s sinful and brutal mistreatment of the creation and the people God loves. Jesus wants us to look up, so that we notice what is happening around us. We are called to survey the world God so loves, and then to live the truth that we proclaim as children of the light. Looking up at the cross and being saved means opening ourselves up to loving and being loved, no matter how risky. Following Jesus means actively taking on his teachings and example. It is not for the faint-hearted.
But don’t be afraid. Remember how the people of God dealt with the poison that surrounded them? The first step was prayer. When we pray with and for one another, we loosen the bonds of self-absorption. We uncoil. Prayer 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 are laid bare before God: our racism, our homophobia, our classism, ageism, and every other kind of –ism we employ, as well as our hopes, our passions, our dreams, and our desires to be of use. Without hiding anything, in prayer we approach God, acknowledging our need for grace, for freedom from our sin, for the courage to take a stand.
And just as opening up a wound is the way to let the poison out, and let the medicine in, opening up like this makes space for us to receive the gift of healing God wants to pour into us. God so loves us that God invites us to come to the table with empty, open hands where we will receive God’s very presence. And we do it together, so that we are sustained for the journey as a community, as well as on our own path. We look up and around so that we see we have partners as we explore what to do with our white privilege, how to share our church property, and what it means to live faithfully every day. With hearts and minds and hands in the dangerous posture of openness, God comes to us in the wilderness bringing light and life and healing. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world through him might be saved. Jesus is with us in the wilderness! Look up and Live!
~Pastor Susan Schneider