Rev. Sarah Buteux
Look and Live
Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:14-21
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B
I don’t know why, but we New Englanders are an intensely private sort of people. We don’t really like to talk to people we don’t know, and if we must make small talk we typically keep it as small as possible. However, there is one thing we will talk about, with pretty much anybody, and that’s…. (anyone want to take a guess?)… the weather.
Seriously, how many of you have talked about the weather this week with people you don’t know? Yeah, me too.
And man, has this been a week of weather. On Tuesday I went for my morning walk in the woods and it was just beautiful out. The sky was clear. The sun was warm. It was a gorgeous day from start to finish and all anybody could talk about all day was the coming storm. How bad would it be? Would we lose power? Would school be canceled?
You all had those conversations on Tuesday too, right?
And then on Wednesday morning, as we stood waiting for the bus, braced for the worst, we noticed the first snowflakes begin to fall. Tiny, perfect, impossibly delicate, little snowflakes.
I actually felt a pang of sadness as I realized that this storm I was dreading the day before might be our last big snow. After-all, there’s no quiet like snow quiet and there’s something really wonderful about snow days, isn’t there? The release from obligations. The permission to stay home.
And then the storm came and as far as I can tell, everything from Wednesday afternoon on was canceled in the adult world. The wind began to blow, the snow picked up, and we all went to bed dreading what tomorrow would bring…which was like what? 4 inches? 4 inches after all that hype? Frankly, it was a little disappointing.
All the adults were expected back at work Thursday, but – wait for it – all the schools were closed. So I spent way too much time that day cooling my heels at the top of a sledding hill with other parents all anxious that we weren’t getting enough work done, when we all should have been thanking our lucky stars that the storm wasn’t worse than it was and we all still had power. Some of us even expressed sadness that the snow was already melting.
It’s like God can’t win, at least when it comes to the weather. I feel like we all have seasonal defective disorder – that feeling that no matter what the weather is, it’s not quite right. Rather than stay focused on the gifts of the present we can’t help but worry about the future. If it’s unseasonably nice in the moment we lament that it won’t last. If it’s appropriately awful we fear it will never end.
We’re just never quite satisfied or at peace. And honestly, its not just the weather and it’s not just us. I don’t think it’s peculiar to us here in New England, this ability to see the cloud within every silver lining, I think it’s just something peculiar about humanity.
I mean we can trace this strange penchant for negativity all the way back to the Israelites, and with that segue, I will.
Our story for today comes from the book of Numbers, and we’d probably never read it in church if Jesus hadn’t drawn a parallel in today’s gospel reading between himself on the cross and this snake on a pole, (not to be confused with the Samuel L. Jackson classic: “Snakes on a Plane,” in large part because “Snakes on a Plane” won’t preach. It is completely unquotable… for sermon purposes. What you do on your own time is up to you.)
Actually, the truth is this story in Numbers probably wouldn’t preach either, if it weren’t for Jesus bringing it up with Nicodemus – because it’s dark, it’s messy, and, well, it’s just kind of weird.
We come upon it at the end of a series of “murmuring stories,” so called because throughout their sojourn in the wilderness the Israelites, according to the King James Version of the Bible, “murmured,” or, in more modern parlance, “complained,” a lot.
Just to bring you up to speed, these Israelites are the very same people whom God freed from slavery in Egypt. These are the folks Charlton Heston led in a daring escape across the Red Sea. (Just seeing if you’re paying attention).
God has brought them up from captivity and out into the wilderness and what do they do with their new-found freedom? They grumble and they whine. At every juncture they complain to Moses: “why did you bring us out here to die. We were better off as slaves in Egypt.”
First it’s the water. The Israelites are out in the middle of the desert. You’d think they’d be happy for any water at all, but no, the water is too bitter (Exodus 15:22-25). So God shows Moses how to sweeten it. Then they complain to Moses that they are hungry and what does God send but… (come on, you can do this)… manna from heaven (Exodus 16:2-3).
Yeah, but nobody liked it and the portions were too small. Just kidding, they don’t say that till our reading this morning. The manna tasted like honey, at least at first, and God made sure there was enough for everyone, everyday. But that didn’t stop people from trying to hoard it…and let’s just say that didn’t end well.
Then they’re thirsty again (Exodus 17:3) then they want meat (Numbers 11:4-6) so God sends Quail…. “You want meat, says God, I’ll give you meat. I’m going to make you eat meat till it comes out your nose.” And folks, that’s a quote, not a paraphrase. So you can tell God’s patience is wearing thin.
Which was not good because this went on for 40 years. 40 long years of wandering. 40 years of whining. And yet, when they finally arrive at the promised land (Numbers 14) the Israelites don’t want to go in because they are afraid to fight for it.
So they end up wandering for another 40 years, which doesn’t make anybody happy and all this murmuring and complaining and whining comes to a head in today’s story because today, rather than just murmuring against Moses and Aaron, the people began to murmur against God.
And God, well, God has had enough. God sends poisonous snakes amongst them, many are bitten and some people even die. How does this square with the all loving ever patient God I preach to you about all the time? Two words: not well…at least not at first.
The people are dying, calling out for mercy. They cry out to Moses and admit: “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prays for the people and God devises a most peculiar plan.
“Make a poisonous serpent,” God says to Moses, “and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” Now this is strange for many reasons, MANY REASONS, the first being that it smacks of both magic and idolatry.
Moses fashions the serpent out of bronze. It is what it is, an inanimate work of art, and yet one look at this statue, this – for lack of a better term, this idol- brings instantaneous healing and relief.
Not only that, the snake would have been a familiar symbol to the Israelites. It was an icon they would have encountered throughout Egypt while they were slaves there. Pharaoh wore a headdress with cobras on it. All of lower Egypt was protected by the snake goddess Wadjet whose big holiday rolled around every year on, get this- cause I can’t make this stuff up – December 25th. Weird huh?
And then, as if that weren’t enough, according to Egyptian mythology there was also Amduat, the many coiled serpent from which Re the Sun God and all of creation was believed to have been born and to whom one returned when one died. Because the sun dies every evening and rises anew every morning, Amduat was not just revered as the creator but as the god of… resurrection.
So as you can see, this snake that God commanded Moses to make was a powerful, loaded, many layered symbol. So powerful, in fact, that the Jewish people grew quite attached to it in spite of the prohibition against idolatry. In fact, they held on to it, for years. They even gave it a name, “Nehushtan.”
It eventually found its way into the temple in Jerusalem, and we know that the people worshipped it because 500 years later, King Hezekiah ordered them to stop. He himself cut down the pole and broke the serpent into pieces in order to ensure that it was fully and finally destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).
All if which I am bothering to tell you because I want to give you a sense of just how odd this story really is. It really makes you wonder why God would go with snakes to begin with, and why, all those many years later, Jesus would point back to this snake in particular as a precursor of the work he had come to do?
After all, even if Jesus and Nicodemus were unaware of the Egyptian mythology, they would have been familiar with the cult of Asklepios the Greek God of medicine. Asklepios, whose symbol – used even today in modern medicine – is a serpent entwined on a staff. Asklepios- the son of a God and a mortal woman – who grew so skilled in the healing arts that he was capable of bringing people back from the dead; an act that eventually got him killed. Wild huh? I know.
There are so many layers and allusions and syncretism’s at work here that it is hard to say anything definitive. I have the sense that stories like these work on us at some primal level the rational mind can only begin to grasp.
Speaking of which, who here even likes snakes? There’s always one or two in a crowd. I grew up with one of those outliers, but the truth is, most people don’t. In fact, most people have a very pronounced aversion toward snakes, almost as if there is something deep within us that suspects something deep within them: something that assumes they mean us harm whether they do or not.
And I think this anthropomorphic antipathy goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Not the literal garden. I’m talking now in terms of archetypes and allegories. I think there is something within human consciousness that has been deeply affected by that story and snakes, for better or for worse, have always borne the brunt of our fears.
In fact, looking back at our story for today there is a midrash, a Jewish commentary on this story in Numbers that I think is particularly helpful. Rabbi R. Israel Meirha-Kohen points out that the serpent in the garden was actually the original murmurer, the first to sow dissent in the ranks of humanity when he talked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit.
This is why God, at least according to this Rabbi, sent snakes in response to the Israelite’s seditious murmuring. It was a sort of poetic justice, if you will.
The sin of speaking against the Lord, of sowing dissent with words, is punished by snakes, analogues of the first serpent who brought sin into the world when he murmured against God in the first place.
Snakes, in the words of Steve Garnaas Holmes, “were their betrayal come back to bite them.”
And think about that murmuring for a bit longer. Think for a moment about just how poisonous our words can be when we speak in anger or even just use them carelessly.
Think about how much damage we cause when we speak about others behind their backs, when we start to complain about our leaders or our partners or what “those people” are getting up to.
God knows how much damage our tongues can do, how words can bite, how ears can burn.
God knows how our jealousies and fears, prejudice and anger, our lies and our lust, can poison the world around us.
And God also knows that the only way to draw that poison out is to drag it into the open, expose it to the light, take a good hard look at it, and repent.
From venom cures to homeopathy to the creation of vaccines, we know that the cure is often found within the disease, and it would seem that the same holds true on a spiritual level as well.
If you want to cure what ails you, the brokenness that your sin has wrought, then you need to go back to that sin – no matter how repulsive it might seem, and figure out precisely what it was you said or did that you need to atone or apologize for.
Does that make sense?
Good, because when you think about it like that, all of a sudden snakes and crosses start to make a little more sense too. In fact, I know there are plenty of people who would rather handle a snake then go back and handle some of the mistakes they’ve made in this lifetime. But until you do, the poison will only linger.
I think that is why God commanded Moses to lift up that snake for the people to gaze upon and why Christ himself would give his body over to his enemies to be lifted up on a cross. Not because there is anything salvific in snakes or suffering in and of themselves, but because honest confession requires an honest assessment.
In order to truly repent of all the wrongs we have said and done, in order to counteract all the poison we have ingested and spread, we need to look it full in the face. We need to see our fears and sins writ large before we can truly see them for what they are and leave them behind.
Friends, there’s a little piece of paper in your program.
Go ahead and find it.
Hold it in your hand.
Maybe now is the time to write something down,
take a good hard look at it,
let it go.
During the hymns or the prayer time or the postlude, you can come up here and leave that little piece of paper in the cross.
That’s what it’s here for.
That’s what it’s always been here for.
Dana’s going to play for a little while to give you some time to think and pray….time to give some part of you to God that you’ve been hiding or holding back, some part you can’t live with…not anymore.
I know it’s not easy.
But I also know it will be ok…
Because if our God can turn snakes into instruments of healing for an entire people, and an instrument of torture and death (like the cross) into a symbol of new life for all the world, then hear me when I say that God can transform the very worst in you into something worthwhile.
Look and live.