Just as the cure for the snake is a snake, the cure for all human life is the sacrifice of one man’s life.
Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-18
The fourth week of Lent greets us with an odd piece of scripture from the Book of Numbers. In John’s gospel, Jesus quotes from this pasage in his secret conversation with Nicodemus.
I love this story because it’s weird, if not down right icky. As we move closer to the High Holy week, it reminds to watch our step as we make our way towards the suffering cross and the redemptive glory of Easter.
I hope by now you’ve figured out that Lent is more than a time for self-reflection. It’s also a time where our faith is vulnerable and put to the test. Which makes the Hebrew’s story timely for today.
Their plight reminds me of one of my least favorite scenes from a movie. If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you might know the scene where Indiana Jones is led to a deep, dark tomb that holds a clue to the treasure he’s seeking. Dropping his flaming torch down in the cavernous tomb, Indi discovers there’s something else down there as well…thousands of slithering, slimy snakes!
I can’t tell you what happens after that because my eyes are always tightly closed. But I can still hear the hissing sounds as Indiana Jones complains, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
I imagine the Hebrew people were saying the same thing when they were faced with another obstacle out in the wilderness. During their great Exodus story God remains patient, putting up with their incessant whining and complaining.
Just as it was in Egypt, God hears their cries and comes to them; caring for their needs by sending them food and water, and a fiery light to guide them. When they bemoan about these gifts, God snaps and sends them something to really complain about…deadly snakes!
I hate snakes, so I can sympathize with them. And their complaints do seem legit. I mean here they are, stuck in the wilderness – with no end in sight. It’s not like being stuck in traffic and complaining about being late to wherever you’re supposed to be. They don’t have a clue to where they’re going or why it’s taking so long to get there!
Living with uncertainty is too much for them, and they begin to crack. Don’t you find it odd that the very gift God has given them has become the very thing that breaks them? They want to go back to the way life used to be – enslaved in Egypt rather than live in freedom. They’d rather face the devil they know than to face the mysteries of God’s promise.
If Lent has taught me anything it’s that we humans don’t like to wander for too long in our wilderness. It makes us uncomfortable, and puts us on edge.
We like to know where we’re going and how long it will take. We like to have some control of our life, even over God. And when things don’t go as expected, when there’s traffic on our road of life, we make sure God gets an earful. In return, we get a bunch of snakes.
Seeing the error of their way, the Hebrew’s turn to Moses who goes to God on their behalf. If there is one thing they’ve learned on this journey – and we can take this to heart too – is that when they cry out to God, God listens. And God reacts, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. “Everyone who looks upon it shall live.” Moses knows better not to ignore God’s strange request. Because of his faithfulness, all the Israelites who died are immediately given new life, and all who were bitten are instantly healed. You might say gazing upon this bronze serpent is the medical antidote to the deadly vipers that attack and harm us.
If you’ve ever been to a hospital or a doctor’s office, you might have noticed the logo for American Medical Association has adopted a similar image – a reminder that sometimes our flesh and bones have to be ripped open or broken before we can be made right again.
In his book A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” As Hemmingway’s real life struggles remind us, life is hard. Sometimes we feel like the snakes get the best of us.
The darkness of the world tricks us to believe life is stronger than we are. It bites at our heels until we feel like we can’t go on any further. It fools us to think we’re alone, lost with out any hope in sight. But this Jewish story tells us something different.
No matter how bleak life might seem there is always hope, because God came to be with us, to intercede on our behalf.
Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on a pole… so too will the Son of Man be lifted up for our sake. Popular for a reason, John’s famous bible verse reminds us that we are loved so much that God would send his Son to die for us, just so we can live. Think about that: from death, comes life.
Jesus says that anyone who looks upon his cross, and believes, will be healed. He is telling us that salvation is linked directly to our healing. They are one in the same.
But this is no ordinary medicine, in which we all of a sudden get better only to die again at a ripe old age. His healing is everlasting. By quoting from Numbers, Jesus reminds us that everlasting life doesn’t begin in some far away utopia – it begins the moment our eyes and heart gaze upon the cross.
Jesus doesn’t wait to heal us from all the toxic and venomous attacks we endure. Instead he is here now, ready to save us from the snakes that slither into our lives: self-doubt, fear, jealousy, greed, addiction, or worry.
Like Paul writes to the Ephesian churches, we are all dead because of our sin. We are led to believe the things of this world will save us, keep us comfortable, and drive those snakes away.
We can’t save ourselves. But Jesus can. God, who is rich in mercy, comes to us in our dead state and makes us alive again in Christ Jesus. The cross is our immediate healing and salvation. The snakes can’t win.
God hears our cries, and gives us the antidote – the grace of God’s love that comes to us through Jesus Christ. We can accept God’s love and begin living in divine eternity today. Or we reject it and continue to suffer in a hell of our own making.
Hemmingway was right. The world will break us. It’s full of snakes that strike and strangle the life out of each and every one of us. But just as the cure for the snake is a snake, the cure for all of human life is the sacrifice of one man’s life.
So perhaps Lent is not so much about you and I, as it is about the One who truly delivers us from the hardships we suffer and the complaints we offer.
Lent is a time for each one of us to get closer to Jesus and fix our eyes upon him by turning away from the evil that slithers and strikes out to bite us.
It’s a time to embrace the challenge of the Gospel, to pick up our cross and follow the Christ, who came not to condemn the world but to save us all.
I hope that you will leave here today knowing this:
God does not give up on you. God does not abandon you. Or leaves you all alone to struggle. God knows first hand what it’s like to live in this world. And to suffer at the hands of betrayal and injustice.
For God loves you so much that he was willing to come to you, and rescue you, even if it means that he has to give up his life for you in order to do so.
This is why we call it the Good News.
Let us pray:
Holy and Merciful God, as horrible and deadly as that brutal Roman cross was designed to be, you were able to transform it into a healing and life giving balm. As we move through the wilderness of Lent, may we never lose sight of that cross; knowing and believing that from it we receive your love and our own Easter celebration. Amen.
Bartlett, David L., and eds. Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Helmer, Ben. Snakes. 03 11, 2018. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2018/02/11/snakes-lent-4-b-february-18-2018/ (accessed 03 09, 2018).
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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