The Snake & God’s Love
Scripture - John 3:14-21
“And be sure to watch out for snakes!”
The ranger gave us a final warning before the family & I set off into the rocky hills of Joshua Tree National Monument. The hiking paths had been empty for several months because of a particularly
hot summer. Many creatures that normally kept away from the hiking trails had, apparently, spent the summer enjoying new-found freedom. There are plenty of dangerous snakes in the So Cal high desert. To be honest, I do not know exactly what I would do if I met one.
Fortunately, we did not see one on our hike. But today’s text sent my mind back to the way in which the symbol of the snake has been used in many cultures over many thousands of years. From the snake in the Garden of Eden to the mythic serpent-ancestor of the Aztecs & the ‘old god of nature’ in parts of Africa to this day; from poetry to art & medicine, including psychoanalysis; the figure of the serpent or snake has haunted human imagination from the beginning of time.
In many cultures, the serpent is seen as positive & powerful, though dangerous. In many others, not least in some parts of the Jewish & Christian traditions, the serpent is seen as a strong negative force, symbolizing the evil in the world & in all of us. The question of what to do about the serpent is a way of asking the question of what to do about evil – or what different cultures have designated as evil.
Our reading for today gives a clear & confident answer, which has itself been powerful in subsequent thought & culture. Verse 14 looks back to the incident described in Numbers 21:5-8. There we read: The people spoke against God & Moses: ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!’ So, the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people & they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.
The people went to Moses & said, ‘We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord & you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.’ So, Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous snake & place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it & live.’
During their wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites grumbled against Moses, & were punished by poisonous snakes invading the camp, killing many of them. God gave Moses the remedy: he was to make a serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole & hold it up for people to look at. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole would live. The serpent entwined around the pole, a symbol which appears in other cultures too, remains to this day a sign of healing, used by various medical organizations.
After this, the bronze serpent was stored in the Tabernacle as a sacred object, until, much later, King Hezekiah discovered that the people were worshiping it, & broke it to pieces. In the time of Jesus, one Jewish writer found it necessary to emphasize that it was not the bronze serpent itself that had saved the Israelites, but the saving power of God. All this shows the strange power of the symbol, & highlights even more the importance of v. 14 for understanding what Jesus had come to do.
This is, in fact, the only place in the New Testament where the bronze serpent is referred to. Here it points clearly to the death of Jesus. Moses put the serpent on a pole & lifted it up so the people could see it; even so, the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Humankind as a whole has been smitten with a deadly disease. The only cure is to look at the Son of Man dying on the cross & find life through believing in him.
This is very deep & mysterious, but we must ask: How can the crucifixion of Jesus be like putting the snake on a pole? Wasn’t the snake the problem, not the solution? Surely John is not suggesting that Jesus was like the poisonous snakes that had been attacking the people?
No, that is not what he is saying. What he is saying, & will continue to say in several ways right up to his account of the crucifixion, is that the evil which was & is in the world, deep-rooted within us all, was somehow allowed to take out its full force on Jesus. When we look at him hanging on the cross – or lifted up as John says here & several times later in his gospel; the cross is an ‘elevation,’ almost a ‘glorification’ – what we are looking at is the result of the evil in which we are all stuck. And we are seeing what God has done about it.
We are seeing, in particular, what God’s own love looks like. John refers us back to 1:18: No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known. And behind that to 1:1-2: In the beginning was the Word & the Word was with God & the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All of this in order to say: when J died on the cross, that was the full & dramatic display of God’s own love. It was not a messy accident; it was not God letting the worst happen to someone else. The cross is at the heart of John’s amazing new picture of who God is. He is now to be known as the God who is both Father & Son, & the Son is revealed, lifted up, when he dies under the weight of the world’s evil & sin. The cross is the ultimate ladder set up between heaven & earth.
But evil is not then healed immediately & automatically. Precisely because evil lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must ourselves be involved in the process. This does not mean that we just have to try a lot harder to be good. You might as well try to teach the snake to sing. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look & trust; to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, & to trust in him, to have faith in him.
Here there opens up the great divide, which John describes in terms of darkness & light: Through the Word was life, & the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, & the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. Believing in Jesus means coming to the light, the light of God’s new creation. Not believing means remaining in the darkness. The darkness - & those who embrace it – must be condemned, not because it offends against some arbitrary laws which God made up for the fun of it, & certainly not because it has to do with this material, created world rather than with a supposed ‘spiritual’ world. Darkness must be condemned because evil is destroying & defacing the present world & preventing people from coming forward into God’s new world. We call that new world eternal life; that is, the life of the age to come.
But the point of the whole story is that you do not have to be condemned. You do not have to let the snake kill you. God’s action in the crucifixion of Jesus has planted a sign in the middle of history. And the sign says: Believe in me, & live.
Let us pray. Through the immeasurable grace of God, Christ leads us from death to life. By sending the Son of Man into the world, God leads us from the darkness into the light. Through the gift of faith, Christ brings us the gift of God’s salvation. Thanks be to God! Amen.