Serpents and the Son of Man

Lent 4, Year B Sunday, March 18, 2012

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

So Must the Son of Man Be Lifted Up

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you know that the symbol of the medical profession is a snake entwined around a stick?  It’s always seemed weird to me, even after I learned where the symbol comes from: today’s first lesson.  I guess it’s because the story of the bronze serpent being lifted up seems weird to me, too.  Snakes are freaky things.  I grew up in a region where there really aren’t any dangerous snakes, but they still creep me out.  There are many places around the world that have very dangerous snakes, snakes that can kill you.  Deserts, especially, like the one the Israelites were travelling through, contain many poisonous snakes.  People who live where poisonous snakes live hate them even more than I do.  After all, snakes can be more dangerous than other wild animals, because snakes are a lot more likely to come into your camp or your home without being noticed.  You can have a snake right next to you and not even know it until it’s too late.

I get why God would use snakes as a consequence for sin: it was easy.  Probably all he had to do was stop protecting the camp from the snakes that were already there around them.  What I don’t get is what happened next: why would God then use a statue of a snake, the dangerous thing that was killing people, one of the things they hated and feared most, to save them?

And then there’s the Gospel, where Jesus compares himself to that snake.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  Now, how many of you think of snakes when you think of Jesus?  Jesus is life, and love, and salvation—snakes are dangerous and deadly and insidious.  What’s the connection?  There are a lot of other metaphors Jesus could have used, so why pick something so creepy?

When Jesus speaks of being lifted up, he’s talking about being lifted up on the cross.  For his first hearers, the cross was a lot more terrible than snakes.  We don’t really get how horrifying it was, because we’ve never actually seen anyone crucified.  Dying on a cross was agonizingly painful and humiliating.  It was about the worst way to die anyone could imagine—that’s what made it so effective a punishment.  The question those first Christians asked about the cross was the same question I asked about the statue of the serpent: Why would God use something so evil to do something good?  Why would he save people through something bad?  Why not just zap the snakes away?  Why not just wave a magic wand and say our sins our forgiven, no messy crucifixion necessary?

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.  Just ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.  Sending the snakes away wouldn’t do anything for the people who were already bitten.  For some kinds of snakebites, only antivenom, made from the venom of that species of snake, will give the body the resources it needs to fight off the poison and break the poison’s destructive power.  The bronze serpent which God told Moses to make worked like that, turning the power of the snakes against them.

Sin is like a snake.  It gets in everywhere, and it can be hard to spot.  Of course, the difference between sin and snakes is that most people don’t like snakes, but lots of people either like their sins or don’t recognize them for what they are.  It’s easier not to pay attention to the consequences of our actions.  It’s easier to be selfish than it is to be generous, and it’s easier to focus on our own wants than it is to genuinely open ourselves to the people around us.  It’s easier to focus on our own anger and hurt than it is to understand and forgive.  It’s easier to choose revenge than justice.  It’s easier to follow our own ambitions than it is to follow God’s call.  It’s easier to separate ourselves than to connect with God and our fellow human beings.  And it’s easiest of all to come up with justifications, reasons why our selfishness, greed, bigotry, self-righteousness, and callousness are okay.

But we can only believe that if we walk in darkness, hiding from the knowledge of what we’re really doing.  Once God shines a light into that darkness, we can see what we’re really doing.  We can see our sin like snakes around us and in us.  We can see the snakebites caused by our sinful thoughts and actions.  And it’s not easy to deal with.  Being healed isn’t easy, whether we need to be healed from physical illnesses or spiritual ones.  As anyone who’s been sick or injured knows, some treatments can be painful or unpleasant in the short term.  For people with cancer, for example, chemo and radiation treatments make you sick in the short term to save your life in the long run.  God heals all who call upon him from sin and from physical illness, whether in this life or the next.  But sometimes, we would rather stumble in the darkness than walk in the light.  Sometimes we would rather live with snakes and snakebites than be cured.  Sometimes we would rather live with the cancer of our sin than face the healing that only God can bring.  “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Sin matters.  Sin has consequences.  When we sin, we hurt ourselves and the people around us.  One definition of sin is that sin is whatever separates us from God and from our neighbor.  The injuries we do to ourselves and other people can’t simply be waved away.  They matter.  I’m sure every one of you can think of a time when someone said or did something that really hurt you, in a way that had long-lasting consequences.  We can’t, or at least we shouldn’t, pretend that those hurts don’t matter.  Forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, doesn’t mean sweeping the bad stuff under the rug and ignoring it.

Forgiveness, for God, means taking all the pain and suffering, all the consequences of our sin, and confronting it head-on.  Forgiveness, for God, means breaking the power of sin and death so that healing can begin.  Forgiveness, for God, means creating an antivenom in the form of the cross, to turn the power of sin against itself.  Forgiveness means cleaning out the wound so that healing can begin.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Christ didn’t come to condemn us, but to save us.  God came into the world and became truly human for our sake, because he loves us.  No matter how sinful we are, no matter how much we sometimes cling to darkness instead of God’s light, God still loves us.  God loves us so much that he was willing to take the pain needed for our healing on himself.  God loves us so much that he, who has never sinned, was willing to bear the consequences of the whole world’s sin, on the cross.

Christ has been lifted up, to shine God’s light into our darkness and to heal us from our sin.  By God’s grace we have been saved, not by our own worthiness but because of Christ’s love and mercy.  We can turn away from God if we want to; we can choose the darkness, if we want to.  But no matter how far astray we go, how sick with sin we become, God’s love is more powerful than anything else in the whole world.  God’s light is more powerful than the darkness, and the cross of Christ is more powerful than any sin.  May we walk in the light of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Amen.

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