Gospel: John 3:14-21
1st Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
2nd Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
I've never been afraid of snakes. When I was a tiny little girl, my uncles used to find garden snakes and bring them to me to look at and touch. I think they might have been trying to scare me, but I thought they were fascinating. One small snake, I remember petting on my grandma's back porch, had two heads. Even in gardening class, snakes fall under the "Beneficial" title. They are not pests. They help out in the garden because they mice and eat slugs--two things you don't want around! Garden snakes might be helpful, however, poisonous snakes are another matter. If you get bit by a snake, this is a life-threatening emergency. Call 911! Don't stop and make a bronze snake and put it on a pole and look up and live. Go to the hospital, right now!
So why did God instruct Moses to make a bronze snake that people would look at? Why did God give them the training that they would later use to make the Golden Calf that they would worship instead of God?
Let's take a moment and think about snakes. They slither on the ground. They live in holes. They are very near-sighted and they see better at night. They are creepy because they have no limbs. They are creepy because they are quiet when they move, for the most part. They can sneak up on you. You don't even know they are there until you step on them. Then add the poison and it is obvious why people are afraid of them. We adopted our cat when she was a year old. I doubt she ever had an encounter with a snake. One day, Nick left his belt on a chair and she was sitting near it. He went to grab it and she freaked out. Her ears went back and her hair stood on end and she hissed. Something in her recognized the shape of a snake and something in her reacted to it. Animals and humans know, instinctually, that snakes are a threat.
But in the Old Testament Reading for today, the people were acting rather snake-like. And we all tend to do things like this. We might not like snakes, but we like to act like them. The Israelites were being led through the desert. They were supposed to go through the land of Edom. However, they got scared, so they went around. God knew better and tried to tell them which way to go. But they refused and they ended up sneaking around the people they were trying to avoid. That's how they ended up in this snake's pit. We can all be like snakes sometimes. We get sneaky. We think we know a better way. We like to keep our thoughts secret and our actions in the dark, because when they come into the light, they aren't so pretty. We are often pretty near-sited. And we do crawl along, pretty low to the ground, sometimes.
So what do you think happened when all these people started getting bit by snakes? They became very fearful. Every step they took was filled with fear. I would be willing to bet, they scattered. Everybody ran in every direction. And as they nursed their wounds and tended the sick, they started to blame each other and God. If you hadn't complained, if you had chosen a better route, if God had cared enough about us....They must have gone to a very dark place to believe that God would have done this to them.
So what is it about this solution of putting a bronze snake on a pole that is helpful? I think it may bring them together in one location. Those who had been scattered came back together. They were no longer isolated. They saw they weren't the only ones. They saw some were worse off than them that they could help. They saw beyond their problems to other people. The other part is that they looked up. They could no longer slither and sneak along the ground in the dark. They lifted up their eyes. Maybe they even found hope by looking up. Maybe instead of going into their own dark thoughts and suspicions, they saw the bigger picture. Maybe they even saw God with them in their situation.
God didn't send snakes to bite people who complained. Otherwise I would have a million more snake bites than the none I have right now. I was once bitten by a dog, but that's not the same thing. We know that snakes bite complainers and less anxious people, alike. What God did do was have compassion on all of us. For God loves us all so much, that God gave us the most amazing gift of all, God shared God's own self with us in the form of Jesus. And it wasn't God lording it over us, but becoming someone just like us, that we could look in the eye. God did this to bring us up from our normal snake-like situation, to lift us out of suffering and fear and crawling around in the dirt to see the bigger picture, that the life we live is for love and that life goes on forever.
Oh, how John 3:16 gets so misused to beat people over the head. Have you ever had this used against you to prove you weren't the right kind of Christian? We love sound bites. We love easy answers. Just give it to me in one sentence and I'll be satisfied. I'll use it to justify myself and prove I am better than other people and I'll use it to show that others are unworthy. It does say that belief is important! Is your belief the right kind of belief? Have you accepted Jesus Christ? Have you been born again?
Let me take a moment to break it down:
God loves--this is about God's compassion, mercy, and love. This is unconditional love. This is the most powerful force in the universe. To use God's name in an unloving way is to use God's name in vain, and you know you've heard that in the commandments somewhere! I'll give you a hint--don't do it!
God loves the world--humans, animals, plants, earth, heaven, stars, sun, sea, and all of creation.
That he gave his only son--a free gift, a healer, a teacher, a miracle worker, God's own presence with us.
That whoever believes in him--This is where we get stuck. How much belief is enough? What about people who never met Jesus? What if you say you believe, but you don't live a righteous life? What about newborn babies who never get the chance to believe? The word believe in German is "belieben" to belove. Whoever loves him, loves his way of unconditional love.. And more importantly, God believes in us, not some words we might say, like a magic trick because we are afraid of eternal torment. Our loving God has a beautiful, loving, peaceful plan for us, but we keep slithering around in the dark, afraid to look up and see God looking back at us, seeing us as we truly are, and helping to lift us from what we are used to, to a place of true peace and love. God looks on us with compassion, believes in us, beloves us.
Would not perish--this is about bringing us all back into right relationship, not pushing us away or causing us to be hurt
but have eternal life--this is forever.
And in case we still have the idea that this reading can be used as a weapon, the reading goes on, "For he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." God came in Jesus to accomplish the healing and restoration, the saving, of all the world, and God can do it! God will take us from crawling creatures who love darkness, to loving creatures who know how to look up, look to God, and find hope. Jesus came to fulfill the beautiful Isaiah prophecy about the child playing safely near the den of the adder. I know you'll recognize it because we read it at Christmas about God coming into the world in Jesus. Let yourself picture this promise of God. Visualize this world that is coming:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the awe of the Lord.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up: Most children use the word "up" very early in their language development and even if they can't say it, they will let you know with their arms reaching. I still remember my boy demanding "up" to several of you! How powerful is that one little word. We all spend some time crawling around on the floor, whether we got there by our own fault, or we are injured or just not at the developmental stage to be able to get up any higher ourselves. Jesus came down to our level and saw things from our perspective. And God lifted him up--on the cross, as an example, on the throne, in the resurrection, in the ascension. He went where he was meant to go--up. And he brought us with him. He gave us the chance to see a little bit farther, hope more fully, connect more deeply with each other and all of creation. Now each of us look around and hear voices saying, "up!" It is our chance to reach out a hand to our brothers and sisters like Jesus did for us and help them to see the bigger picture, connect, and know they are valued and loved. And sometimes we find ourselves right back in that snake pit and we get to be lifted up again and again, by Jesus, through our neighbors, friends, and family until the day when we are all up and see clearly in the light of God.