Healing Snakebites

Sermons at All Saints Parish: Sunday, March 18, 2012 (Fourth Sunday of Lent)

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9/John 3:14-21 (“As Moses raised the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up….”)

I always have to smile when the Old Testament reading we just heard comes back around. I like to call it “Snake on a Stick” Sunday. We know the story is very, very old – scholars tell us it was written more than 3,000 years ago – and its images are unforgettable: struggle in an endless desert; people whining, full of resentment at God; deadly snakes biting, people dying; Moses praying desperately for the people; a strange sculpture on a pole that heals you just by looking at it.

Like all great stories, this one can bring up feelings. Most of us have a fear, if not a dread, of of poisonous snakes – and in this story there’s not just one, but many – aggressive, angry, lethal. If you’ve ever opened up a whole nest of them, like I accidentally did when I was a kid exploring the woods behind my family’s home in the Carolinas, when I opened a nest of copperheads, you’ll get how scary they can be.

But where the story gets really strange is in this command Moses gets from God to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. “Everyone who’s been bitten by a snake and looks on the sculpture will live,” God tells Moses. And they do. It’s such an odd thing for God to do. Didn’t we just hear last week that we weren’t supposed to create any “graven images”? Now there’s an exception? It’s confusing.

But the situation is even stranger than that. Not only does God tell Moses to make a graven image: the image is actually that of the agent of pain and death. Of course, it’s also the Hebrew peoples’ eternal symbol of being driven out of paradise by their rebelliousness, disobedience, and resentment towards God.

If you’re dying from snakebite, a snake is probably the last thing you would have wanted to look at. But God said to. Others have been saved by it. So you look… and you’re healed. And you keep the snake on a stick with you, just in case. The Hebrew people kept that sculpture in the temple for 600 years. 

We still use it today, you know. It’s on the EMT shoulder patch. A competent EMT’s presence can heal despair with hope; heal panic with calm confidence; heal alone-ness with accompaniment. Help is here. It’s going to be all right. The image is still healing life-threatening poisons.

So we know that these God-given images can and do have the power to begin healing. We know from the story of the people in the desert that God sometimes chooses the last image we would have expected to provide healing for us. And that – that’s the starting place when Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.”

He can see ahead to what’s coming, and he knows what it’s going to be like to look at. He obviously wants to remind his friends that what they will soon see is going to be terrible. Because none of us has ever actually seen a person crucified, we don’t get how repulsive it is. It takes hours to die. The suffering is unbelievably intense. He’s saying “this is coming. Be ready. And remember. Your people saw this before, and it saved their lives. It will do that for you, too. Remember.”

Still, the image repels us, doesn’t it? We object, perhaps strongly. We struggle and resist intellectually. We might even say “what kind of God is this that does this kind of thing to God’s Son?” And yet, we can’t escape Jesus’ utter conviction that this was a sign of God’s love for all humanity. That’s what he says.

And yet, it’s much more than a conviction, much more than being convinced of something by a powerful argument. We put all our trust in the idea that Jesus was, himself, of full and equivalent power to his Father. The suffering and crucifixion that was coming was not being done to him by God, making Jesus some kind of victim of God. Absolutely not. Jesus was a full participant. He understood, accepted, sought out, even embraced the necessity and effectiveness of this sign of the depth and power of God’s love – Jesus’ love – for all people, for all time.

And that’s why he says the most famous line in all of the New Testament: John 3:16. Often, when we pull out just that one verse, we miss that to say “this is how much God loved the world, that God sends God’s only Son that all who believe in Him may have everlasting life” can only be grasped, and even then only partially, if we have the image of the crucified man, the one Jurgen Moltmann called “The Crucified God,” in our minds as we hear those words. 

It’s shocking, but it’s also true. Jesus put these words together. John put them together, and we’re supposed to hear them that way. We’re supposed to imagine the crucifixion, and imagine Jesus on the cross as both God’s only Son and as fully God in all his power, and then, and only then, hear John 3:16. “This is, indeed, how much I love you. I’m willing to do this. For you.”

Seeing the God-man dying on the cross, and hearing those words “look, look, look.  Do not turn your eyes away. This is how much I love you,” I hope we can begin to experience for ourselves the healing that happens when we look on this shocking, unexpected, terrible image and come away with the beginning of healing. 

The healing that’s offered comes to us when we grasp, ever more deeply, the reality of how much we really are loved – enough to go through that horror and pain and real suffering. God really did, and does, love us that much.

So how might that heal you, and me, not then, but today? What poisons are in us now that need healing? In what new ways might you find life as a result of gazing upon the man on the cross? Here are just a few possibilities.

Perhaps you have been poisoned by messages you received growing up that you wouldn’t amount to much. Or that you have to wear yourself out trying to save other people. Or that you aren’t really all right the way God made you. Perhaps you’ve been poisoned by racism you grew up with. Or hard-heartedness towards the poor. Or an unwillingness to forgive someone over hurts long past.

So many messages, so many distortions, so much poison. We’re bitten all the time, injected with poison from advertising, politics, economics, and, sadly, each other. And in each case, we are invited to look on the cross and hear “I love you this much. Enough to go through this.” And the ice around our heart can begin to thaw. The poison can begin to drain, and healing can commence. It really does work.

And once the healing is under way, we’ll want to keep it going. We’ll want to keep gazing on the image lifted up. And with this new health and healing, with this new energy, and hearts filled with new gratitude for what has been done for us, we get to work. Others who were repelled by the image need to see it anew. Only you can give them that gift, and as you do so, you will participate in their healing as well.

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