Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Light of the World’

Raised Up Like the Serpent

March 15, 2015 Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16.  This verse is probably one that most everyone knows.   It’s probably one that most everyone as heard or seen.  And if you have ever watched even a dozen or more athletic events through the years, especially golf and have seen the signs raised up with this notation on them, you may even gloss over it as fast as it enters your mind.  I’ve always been amused with that aspect of this one sentence; that so many or our Christian brothers and sisters use it to get attention.  Because while on one hand there are believers in Jesus who use it as their mantra to explain how anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus as their lord and savior is condemned to hell; others hold it in their hearts that this is too hard to believe.  That if God not just loved the world, but is Love and the one true light – as we are also taught by John (among others) – how could not believing or not even knowing this gospel separate someone from God?  In other words, does the passage from Paul we read today really mean what John Calvin believed?  That there is an elect group of people who God has chosen to receive salvation and no one else gets in, defying the forgiving virtues of grace that we know so well?

This is such a difficult teaching, not only to comprehend without throwing our human thinking out the door, but to break down theologically as well.  And it leaves many preachers leaving it tucked into the gospel reading and heading toward the other lessons.  As I will do… for a moment… then we’ll return.  Because leading us into this creed of believing is a reference to the Book of Numbers that was given to us for this day.  Jesus said “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up…”  Now Jesus very often uses scripture to show the relationship between himself and what the prophets were speaking of.  (It always fascinates me how people who had so few books could remember so much written material.  This is just a side bar on the subject but it shows how far too much information we have on our minds these days.  I have a very hard time just remembering names, a few passages and psalms here and there, and a tenth of the grocery list I left at home.  This is proof of how much we really do need the bible in our daily lives and not just on Sundays… keeping the scriptures alive as so many did before us.)  But; let’s look at what the serpents or snakes represent.  This is one of the times the people are grumbling and complaining about what they don’t have.  Keep in mind they are now free from bondage.  They are on their own, traveling around the wilderness searching for a new home.  There is no food or water… and here comes one of those lines that completely befuddles you, how can there be no food or water and have the food be so miserable?  It really does represent extreme dissatisfaction when you detest the things you don’t have!  So God thinks, “Well, they are once again placing troubles over freedom.  I guess it’s time for another lesson.”  So snakes are sent, fatally poisonous ones at that, and as more Israelites are bitten the more they die, until at last the people look at it as punishment for their groaning and complaining.  And as Moses usually does, he talks to God to try and intercede for them and we have the bronze serpent mounted on a pole that heals those who are bitten.

One word we can throw out with this: Idol.  We can be led to think this is a form of idolatry but keep in mind they are not giving praise and bowing down to the statue.  They are using it as a representation of their problems and a means of coming to terms with those things that are killing them.  Well into the future, where 500 years later this same snake is in the temple in Jerusalem, people had made it into an idol, and came to revere it so much they gave it the name Nehushtan.  King Hezekiah then had it destroyed to put an end to it.  For as much as many people hate them, snakes and serpents are used throughout cultures as representations of one aspect of life or another, in many ways as a good thing.  For instance we are aware that the emblem worn by people with the American Medical Association is that of a snake entwined on a staff.  That symbol comes from the Greek god of healing.  We are told back in Genesis how wise the serpent was.  And other cultures depict it as symbols of fertility.

But for the Israelites the snakes sent by God meant one thing:  sin.  It was for their sins that the snakes were sent and it was by looking up at a snake that they repented.  There’s a saying that goes along with this that says ‘that which kills, heals’ or if you’re into the pop singer Kelly Clarkson one of her songs has a line; ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ For many poisons and diseases it’s the very thing that causes you pain that is used for the serum.  We build up immune systems and create vaccines from the very viruses that give us the flu and other communicable diseases.  The venom from snakes and spiders is milked to make a serum that will reverse the effects of their bites.  The snakes can also be thought of as the things in life that become our downfall.  We may first think of it as our diseases or our illnesses, but are those things mostly our faults?  Perhaps we can think of the serpents as our faults, our grumbling, our moaning, our inequities, yes – our sins, all of these and more are what keep us from living a healthy and spirit-filled life.  These are the things that spread some of the true sicknesses throughout the world; the sickness of hate, of greed, of indifference, of intolerance, of exclusion.  I don’t know if they are dangerous or deadly until they come back to bite me.  And then they show how bad they really are.  In fact in some interpretations of this the Hebrew word used is the same as fiery!  Another says flying!  Flying, fiery serpents!  Were they really fire breathing dragons or perhaps was the sting of the venom so bad it felt as if you were on fire?  I like to think that the realization of what keeps us back and truly is a sin against God and our neighbor can be enough to cause you to feel a little sick, and perhaps if it’s bad enough maybe even some fiery heart burn.

But how will this same item bring you relief?  How can our sins bring us grace and forgiveness – new life?  The revelation here is that once we’ve identified what ails us, once we come to grips with our faults; we hold them up in front of us and examine them for what they’re worth.  Just as the Israelites looked up at the bronze serpent on the pole to be healed of their wounds, we hold up our wrongdoings and reflect on them.  And once we admit the shortcomings and change our way of thinking (or repent), we are healed and forgiven, and the grace of God carries us on.

So it’s no coincidence that these passages are used in Lent.  We are in a season of repentance.  More and more people are using Lent as a time for an inner journey, finding the things in their lives that do them or others no good, and making the necessary changes to move on.  We are creating the same story for ourselves as the Israelites did who held up the bronze serpent.  It is nearing the time in Lent where we will look up at the son of man being raised up on a cross.  Jesus spoke the words.  He was raised up.  Except not just raised up on a cross for our viewing.  Not just raised up in atonement.  Not just raised up to cure us of our ills.  But raised up in his own pain and suffering – for us to see and feel the healing power of Christ – in our personal lives, the healing power of Christ in our family and neighbor’s lives, and the healing power of Christ in the life of the church.  Yes, God so loved the world… that He gave his only begotten son… and we are left with the mystery of how it all works… a mystery of which the more you believe, the deeper the mystery becomes… until nothing matters because the only thing you see is the light.  Amen.         Deacon Pete

citations:  RCL; Year B, 4th Sunday in Lent