March 22, 2009
A Stick, a Snake and Salvation
Our lessons this morning take us back to the Exodus. The people of Israel are fleeing Egypt and heading for the Promised Land. God freed them from Pharaoh, parted the Red Sea, led them by a pillar of smoke, and promised them a land flowing with milk and honey. But every so often the "let's go back to Egypt Committee" would become active. This is the group that led the complaining, spread the fear, and tried to get everyone to forget Moses and the Promised Land
and just go home. This is the group who turned a quick trip across the dessert into 40 years of wandering.
And now, near to the end of the forty years, Moses is leading them back to the Promised Land. And once again the "Let's go back to Egypt Committee" begins to doubt and complain. They said things like, "At least in Egypt we were fed, and we had homes we could stay in." "This manna is getting old. Remember when we had real food?" They said also, "Who of us has seen God? To which of us has he spoken? Who among us can say he or she believes all the tales our fathers and mothers left us? Who?"
And finally Yahweh had enough. This time, the story says, Yahweh sent snakes into the camps to kill his faithless people. There were droves of snakes moving through the camp, snakes in the tents, snakes in the breadbaskets and the cooking pots, snakes in the bedrolls and snakes in the cribs.
Then Moses, falling on his knees, petitioned God's mercy on the Israelites. God told Moses then to take a brass vessel and hammer it into the image of the serpents that were attacking the people. Moses did and he wound the brass snake around the crosspiece of his staff and then he ran through the camp, holding the staff aloft and calling out to the people in the throes of their agony, "Look up! Look up and be saved! Look up! Look up and be saved!"
And the Bible says that those who believed, those who stopped looking down at the snakes, who stopped trying to pull them off of themselves and their children, but looked up instead at the brass snake...those men and women did not die, but they were saved.
This does not mean that they were not bitten, but simply that those who looked up and not down did not die of their wounds. Eighteen months later, it was these men and women who saw the Jordan part before them and who walked across its dry bed to claim the land of milk and honey promised them by God.
The antidote that God provides requires the people to face the cause of their suffering. The snakes are feared. And they should be, they are killing people. But if the people will look the thing they fear, full in the face, acknowledge their situation, (their lack of faith and God's forgiveness), relief will come.
They need to stop looking down at their own limited abilities, their own useless efforts, the cause of their fear, and they need to look up. Up toward the God who loves them, the God who has delivered them in the past, the god who promises to deliver them yet again. Look up and be saved. Somehow in the inexplicable mystery of the moment evil and threat are transformed. The snakes that appear because of the people's sin are the means of leading people out of their sin. The snakes that are the means of death become the way to life.
It is a strange story. Somehow in the hands of God evil and good, threat and promise, life and death, are all mixed up. We can't explain it. But it was a deep, dark, powerful, symbol of salvation. So powerful that Jesus uses it to describe himself. He uses it to describe himself to Nicodemus. He is trying to explain about being born again and new life, about redemption and new beginnings.
When the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross He will be the most hopeless human being in all creation. He will have been killed by the powerful and self-righteous. Despised and forsaken by his friends. Teased and tormented by his jailers. Laughed at and ridiculed by his enemies. He will have been stripped of all of his powers, reduced to his absolute bare humanity. And there is nothing he can do to save himself. There is nothing he can do
If there is to be any future, if anything good is to come out of this man, lifted up on a cross, it will have to be by an act of the gracious and redemptive powers of God. For any new life in this situation, for any healing, will be a new gift given by God.
What Jesus does for us, lifted up on the cross, is what the snake did for the people of Israel in the wilderness. As we go through the wilderness of our daily lives, as we struggle with the complexities or the monotony of each day, as we listen to the world talk as though- nothing is possible except what we can accomplish, and we are taught to pull ourselves up and make our own way in the world, we can look up, look up and be saved
If we look up to Christ on the cross we are reminded of the power of God to come into our world and do a new thing.
When we are up to our necks in the snake pit, bitten by envy or desire, wounded by arrogance and self-sufficiency, or the snake that crawls out of a bottle, we may look at the son of man and have faith in a new promise, a new assurance that there is grace that can heal us, there is power beyond our power, there is new life when the old one has been poisoned to death, there is a new future when the old one has reached its end.
Those whose eyes follow the Son of man as he is lifted up see God's healing of the world.
In the Gospel of John it is not the cross itself but the transactions behind the cross that restore us to wholeness. Hidden in the crucifixion is God's desire to heal the world, and God's desire to heal us.
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.
Thanks be to God