Snake on a Stick

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21, March 15, 2015

Our Old Testament lesson is one of a series of times when the Israelites complained to God while they were journeying away from slavery and to the Promised Land. There are several passages like this one in the Book of Exodus. A few years ago, when we studied the Book of Exodus I often pointed out that fear is practically another character in the story. God acted dramatically in setting the people free, but they often got scared when they did not have water to drink, or food to eat. They would grumble against Moses, or God or both Moses and God, and each time God came through. It was as if they forgot that God had parted the Sea of Reeds for them and that they had passed through on dry ground, even as pharoah’s charioteers and soldiers were thrown into the water and drowned. They kept being afraid again…and again…and again.

In this morning’s lesson they sound like a teen ager to me. Looking into a full refrigerator and saying, “There’s nothing to eat around here.” Did you notice this verse? “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Well, which is it? Is there no food, or is there nothing you want to eat? The fact is, there was plenty of food. God had been providing manna and quail for years. Now I will grant that one can get tired of even the most delicious food pretty quickly if one eats it at every meal, but the fact is, the Wanderers were not in danger of starving, they were simply bored with the food that God had been providing, miraculously, for a long time.

OK. God got a little steamed at them, so God sent poisonous serpents among them. Some of the Wanderers were bitten and died. This reminds me of when my 6th grade English teacher would give us work to do, and when she decided there was too much talking going on in class, she gave more work, because obviously we had time to talk, so we had finished our work. She just didn’t get it. We talked because we could…anyway, giving us more work only made us grumble more—it did not achieve Mrs. Matthews’s goal of a quiet classroom. That’s the difference between God and Mrs. Matthews, I guess. In the lesson this morning, the people immediately understood that the poisonous serpents were a direct response from God because they had complained. The people went to Moses, admitted their sin and asked Moses to pray to God so they could get relief from the snakes. It worked. The remedy was Snake on a Stick. Anyone who was bitten could look at the bronze serpent and would not die from snake bite. It’s a weird story. Just wait, it gets weirder!

Let’s take a look at the gospel lesson. Nicodemus, a prominent leader at the temple, has come to Jesus in secret to talk to him. I like to think of him as Nic at Night. Nicodemus is taking a risk, coming to Jesus, even in secret. But he wants to understand what Jesus is doing; he wants to know who Jesus is. And Nicodemus repeatedly does not understand what Jesus is talking about. He’s a prominent leader, a Pharisee, but he’s in the dark and he’s kind of dense. Jesus though isn’t especially clear in what he’s conveying to Nicodemus. But he does use scripture familiar to Nicodemus to help him understand what is coming, what Jesus is getting ready to accomplish in the next couple years. He reminds Nicodemus of this morning’s Old Testament lesson, about how the bronze serpent was held up as a way of preventing death to the Wanderers. But for Jesus and Nicodemus the stakes are much higher: Jesus points out that he, and here he uses the title “Son of Man,” must be lifted up…that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

This is really, really strange! And most of us have been Christians and church-goers all our lives, so it doesn’t seem strange to us. The most recognized symbol for Christians around the world is the Cross. In our kind of Christianity our cross is empty, that is we do not have Jesus’ body on the cross in our churches or jewelry or artwork. Other traditions use crucifixes, on which the dead or dying body of Jesus is represented. Sometimes I smugly point out that we prefer to emphasize the resurrection, that Christ’s death on the cross preceded his rising from death, so we do not focus too much on his death, the way some traditions do. Still, if we’re honest, both symbols are pretty odd. The Cross is the means by which the state conducted capital punishment, and this particular form of capital punishment was especially painful and humiliating. Christians around the world use this symbol of pain, suffering and humiliation to represent our faith. If we were getting started today, what would we use? Remember: Wisconsin has never had capital punishment, but other states have used firing squads, hanging, lethal injection and electrocution as their means of executing criminals guilty of very, very serious crimes. What symbol would we use, and how successful would it be? Do you think people would be attracted to this new religion in which people believe that God’s son was really alive, and was executed as a criminal guilty of a capital offense? Would people be attracted to this message by seeing followers of God’s son wearing a miniature syringe on a chain around their necks? When you think about it this way it’s crazy, it’s nutty!

Yet the one we follow points out to it proudly and openly, the Son of Man must be lifted up. It’s public, for everyone to see. And in two weeks, on Palm Sunday, we’ll hear the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in worship. We’ll hear how his body was lifted high on the cross, that lots and lots of people saw him there and that he died there, publically. And, as Christians, we believe that Christ is one of the three ways God is represented and understood in the world. And that this part of the Trinity died. And that Christ’s death changed everything. Everything!

God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that whoever believes may have eternal life. This is another hard idea to understand, that God’s love was expressed to the world in the death of God’s own son.

When we see the crucifixion as an act of profound love, then it’s possible, and perhaps not too crazy to lift the cross high. To make it a symbol, not of degradation, but of supreme, costly love.

To me, that’s the only way this symbol might work. But we cannot think of the love that God showers onto humanity in a shallow, romantic way. Costly, painful, supreme are words we need to use to express and encounter God’s love. Sacrificial love. Love expressed through humility and service. Love that dethrones our sense of what we are entitled to, and what the world owes us. The love God expresses to the world through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, love that we lift our eyes to, comes at a cost. The Wanderers were rescued from death when they were afraid, again, and with a symbol that reminded them of the very thing that was killing them. And so is the world saved, by Christ’s death, for humanity on the cross. It’s costly, painful, sacrificial and stronger than we can hope to express. And comes from a depth of love that we can only imagine. Amen.