Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Ever since I was a child, I have had a disdain for Snakes. Gartrer Snakes. Grass Snakes. Tree Snakes. Ribbon Snakes. Water Moccasin Snakes. Rat Snakes. And Corn Snakes. Growing up in Maine, those are the Snakes I knew, and there were plenty of then given all the fields, brooks, and swampy marshes that made up our area. They didn’t bother my father so much, but my mother could not stand the sight of a Snake, much less being in the presence of one. So, whenever she encountered one, she made it known by shouting what many of us might: SNAKE!
In the back of the property, there was an old, open bed trailer used for hauling small things. On it, was a gate that served as a ramp and very often this gate rested on the grass. Once when I was younger, my mother and I lifted the gate preparing to move the trailer, and under the gate were a handful of different snakes. SNAKE! My mother yelled, and we jumped away and changed our plans until we thought they probably slithered away. Since then, childhood curiosity always had the best of me, and I couldn’t stop wanting to find them—even though I was completely disgusted and frightened by them. I wanted to feel my heart beat rise just a little, to feel the adrenaline, because surely—if I hung around them—they would strike me. So on some of summer’s hottest and most humid days, my brother and I would go to the trailer…. He would lift the gate…and I would stand back. The adrenaline was palpable, and I swear there was a smell. “Are you ready,” my brother would say. Laughing and anxious, he would lift the gate and I would look down and my eyes getting bigger before I could even shout: SNAKE! After, I would run back to the house, shaking them off me as if they flew and landed on me—because at 8—you can get away with stuff like that. Now, reality says they were probably more scared of me than I was of them and sought shelter more quickly than I did.
Something about this encounter kept me coming back; it kept me curious. Perhaps it was perhaps the adrenaline, the did have a game like feeling to it. Perhaps it was just that it was an activity my brother and I shared. But, regardless, images of snakes still give me pause, and if I am honest, they still cause me to want to yell SNAKE and run away! And so snakes, whether they be encountered in their natural habitat, in scripture, in film or in story, I still find myself getting tense about their very nature, their slithering ways and their scales, their predator tendencies, their mere intimidation. When I think of snakes—I don’t recall the ones used in God’s story throughout scripture; I certainly don’t think of the advantage they are to the eco-system, to pest control, or even their presence in the history of medicine.
Snake oil, or venom, has for centuries been used by cultures throughout the world as a form of medicine for a myriad of ailments. It is thought that small doses of venom, a fraction of the amount one would receive through a snake’s bite, is thought to have healing powers. This has been so much a part of culture since the ancient of days, that it has become the understood symbol of medicine. The Ancient Greek god, Asclepius, was called the god of healing and medicine, and it is his ruling staff that the snake is wrapped around.
However, despite the snake’s possible healing agents, its needed place in our eco-system, and its often underrated help—I still find them bothersome. Scripture does not have them too elevated, either. Most notorious is the serpent in the garden of Eden. They find Paul on the beautiful island of Malta; we have seen them mentioned in the Psalms, and in the stories of the Prophets of old. And we see them here today.
Commentator Elizabeth Webb says,
What kind of God is this who inflicts death on people for their lack of trust? Recall that the people have been to Sinai; they have received the law and are bound in covenant with God. Their lack of faith is, to the writers of this passage, a violation of the covenant, and therefore worthy of punishment. But God does also provide the remedy. It is notable that God does not remove the snakes but provides a means for healing in the midst of danger. God brings healing precisely where the sting is the worst.
And this is just one example of the ways in which God has called us into Covenant—and it is just one of the ways in which God has given mercy in our doubt, our questions, our fears—even if they have not been completely removed.
Several books later, in 2 Kings 18, we come to see the snake Moses made, has one final appearance. Over the years the people had come to give this snake much more power than it deserved, becoming an idol. The king at the time, Hezekiah, found it a complete distraction and had it destroyed as a step of faithfulness toward God.
Now, this kind of a story sounds so familiar to the gospel narrative. Through Jesus, God incarnates the world with grace, with mercies, with hope—all of which criminalize him and see to his death. In our gospel lesson today, Jesus confirms this when he says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”.
In a way, God’s judgment is represented in Jesus Christ—just as it was in the snake Moses made. Our involvement in God’s story—in the life of Christ—is a way in which we share peace, grace, light—but more importantly perhaps it is the lens through which we find our own way, and our own healing. And just as the snake who once served this need, a means of salvation for all who gazed upon it, and was destroyed, Jesus is preparing for the same outcome. Even the Apostle Paul today points to the value of Christ’s passion—which is so that no one may boast, so that no one may be left out—so that this world might learn another way to live and to love, together, so that we do not destroy one another.
This week, I attended the village meeting about the new low-income housing that was being planned for Wilmette. While it passed, it was not without controversy, and there were good arguments on both sides being presented. Now, there are ways to present opinions, regardless of what they are, that are both helpful and harmful. Helpful ways might include the sharing of real data, informed facts, and even remaining questions, but all in a civil and well thought out manner. Harmful ways might include: the sharing of biased opinion, uninformed facts, and even remaining questions, in demeaning, unkind and uncivil tones. Truth be told, I heard good arguments, kind ones, with meaningful points, from both sides of the matter. However, what bothered me most were some of the ways in which people with lower incomes were talked about.
At least one person referred to people with low-incomes as, “those people,” questioning their character as possible citizens here. Another pointed out that those who could move here might not even “drive nice cars.” Another implied doubt that the potential neighbor would probably not have the skill or desire to care for their property. Another spoke about the privilege it is to live in this community and that it just wasn’t for everybody… everybody… everybody.
Beloveds, the ways in which we talk about or value others has so much power. We can come to believe narratives about people or things, and potential outcomes of situations that just aren’t always substantiated because of our fear, and overtime, I have to wonder of these are the kinds of fears, the kinds of misgivings, that disconnect us from God, enabling us to put faith in our own merits—rather than in God’s good graces.
This isn’t only about the town hall meeting. This is about the ways in which we advocate for others, come to understand people different than ourselves, and live in graceful and compassionate ways that project the love of Christ in a conflicted world. It is about looking at the face of Christ and working together to build a kingdom where bit by bit, we can heal those things that beset us, tear us down, tear one another down, and dispel hope.
Part of our narrative as Christians in this world, is to walk into a marked season where for forty days, we journey. We journey deep into our hearts to look for and work out the fears and misgivings we have against those things which give us un-holy pause. We look to love the person we hold in judgment and see what it is in us that allows us to keep them there. We pray to let God’s love change our hearts, as we live into the love we profess, the love we affirm, and to behold the world—the world that God so loved--and died for.
My prayer for you, for all of us this Lent is that we live into a light that allows us to be saved from ourselves, saved from our biases, and those things which are different than we know--because God did not come into the world to condemn it—but to Love it—with everything she has. Amen.