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I don't like snakes.
I don't like any snakes- even the ones I know are perfectly harmless.
I have no rational reason to react so negatively to snakes.
They are actually kind of remarkable creatures.
They can travel 6 miles an hour and have no feet.
They can climb trees without any arms.
They swim with no fins.
They can shed their entire skin and grow a new one.
They can eat prey larger than they are.
But I still don't like them and I find the Old Testament lesson this morning to be a little creepy.
The poor Israelites were still wandering around the desert.
They had been promised rescue- salvation- freedom but they were tired and thirsty and really sick of eating manna for every meal. So for about the 900th time they started to complain.
Now when they complained about slavery, God sent Moses to rescue them.
When they complained about thirst, God gave them water from a rock.
When they complained about hunger, God sent manna to feed them.
So when they start whining again they had reason to believe God might fix it.
But it seems they caught God on a bad day.
You think your life is bad now? Try this!
And God sent poisonous snakes.
Well, that seemed to do the trick.
In no time the Israelites were repenting and praying for God to rescue them once again.
But this is where the story really gets interesting.
God doesn't kill the snakes.
God doesn't send a mongoose to eat the snakes.
God doesn't remove the pain and the suffering from their lives.
Instead God tells Moses to make an image of the snake and hang it on his staff.
If the people are bit, they can look at the bronze snake and live.
This was not the first time the symbols of a staff and a serpent were combined.
The Greek God of healing, Asclepius, carried such a staff.
The significance of the serpent had something to do with
the shedding of skin and renewal as symbolizing new life,
Products derived from the bodies of snakes
were known to have medicinal properties in ancient times.
The staff with the snake wrapped around it
is still used today as a symbol for the American Medical Association
and many other groups focused on health and healing.
So God says look up.
Look at the snake and live.
If you want to be saved-
if you want to be rescued
look at what it is that hurts you
look at what causes your suffering
look at the thing you most fear
look the evil in the eye
and look up toward God and be rescued.
It seems an odd way to rescue the Israelites.
But John writes in his gospel that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so the son of man must be lifted up.
Just as the Israelites were to look at the creature on the staff and live
John says we are to look to Jesus hanging on a cross and live.
Because this is how God loves the world. This is how God rescues the world.
The reading from John this morning contains what may be the most popular verse in all of scripture. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life."
Maybe we know it.
But do we get it?
Really get it?
Does it make any more sense to us than a snake on a staff?
Somebody at Bible study last week read this and said
I have to wonder what I would be willing to give my son for.
We talk about our children giving their lives for our country by service in the armed forces. We speak of police officers and fire fighters and civic heroes who endanger their lives rescuing people they do not even know.
But God gave his son, his only son, to rescue us.
Do we get it?
Someone else at the bible study said we don't really want to understand it.
If we did it would be too overwhelming.
Jesus died. We were not asked. We were not consulted.
We were not given a vote or even a voice in the whole thing.
Jesus died. He died for us- for all of us.
He died for you personally, and me personally. He died for each of us.
As good Presbyterians we don't talk much about this.
We focus on how Jesus taught us to live.
We talk of God's love leading us to mission and service and tolerance.
We celebrate the empty cross of the resurrection
rather than the bloody crucifix of death.
We focus our faith on the future- what we can be- what we can become
loved and supported by God's grace.
But the fact remains that at its core the story of the Bible is a story of rescue. God rescued the Israelites from slavery. Jesus rescued us from sin and death. In Hebrew-Aramaic the name Jesus means- Yahweh rescues.
We don't focus on it because in the end most of us feel we have no real need of God's rescue.
Sure, maybe we have had those temporary moments in life
a time of critical illness or a personal crisis
a struggle with addiction or a time of debilitating grief
But day in and day out most of us are not thinking about God rescuing us.
We may be planning how to get a new job.
We may be going to a counselor for problems in a relationship.
We may be trying to improve this or that in our lives,
but rescue? Save? Us?
We can take care of it ourselves thank you.
We have trouble admitting that we are held captive by our shame.
It is difficult to admit our weakness.
We gloss over our failures.
There are things that just drain the life from us
and we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free,
and yes we all are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue.
Lent is the time when we come to God in all honesty,
Lent is the time when we let God's light shine in the dark recessed corners of our lives.
Lent is the time when we look at our shame, our guilt, and our sin,
we face whatever it is that is biting us at the heels,
we face whatever poison is infecting our relationships,
we look into the eyes of whatever it is we fear the most
and whatever keeps us from enjoying the life God has given us.
Lent is the time to look at the snake on the staff,
to look at Jesus on the cross,
to know that God came and God died.
God loves so we can live.
Thanks be to God. Amen.