Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Believe it or not, we are on the downhill side of Lent now – it always seems to me that the Fourth Sunday in Lent marks the inevitability of Holy Week. The Church fathers and mothers thought so too – they marked this Sunday as Laetare Sunday – that term is taken from the incipit of the Introit at Mass, “Laetare Jerusalem” (“O be joyful, Jerusalem”). This Sunday is also known as Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday, and Rose Sunday (because the golden rose sent by the popes to Catholic sovereigns was blessed on this Sunday). Traditionally, it was a window to relax our Lenten disciplines, a day of hope as Easter is in sight.[i]
As I reach this point, I begin to feel a little anxiety, a little dread, as we approach Jerusalem with Jesus, and the events of that fateful week. The writers of the lectionary reflect this unrelenting march. Today’s lessons are filled with sermon fodder that point to Holy Week.
I wonder if you were as surprised by the Old Testament reading as I was. I remember the first time I preached through this lectionary year. When I got to this story, my jaw dropped. I honestly couldn’t remember when I had ever heard it before. When I got to the line, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died,” I began to wonder if an elaborate joke was being played on me—that line sounded far too much like it might be out of the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.” In that story, one of the protagonists has never managed to read the Book of Mormon. When he finds himself teaching the people of Uganda, where he is working as a Mormon missionary, he starts making up his own stories, pulling in characters from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
But no, this one is really in the Bible. It is the last of five “murmuring” stories in the Book of Numbers, where the Israelites in exile make complaints against Moses and Aaron. Their complaints are mostly about food and water, and each time they murmur God answers their complaints with some kind of assuagement.
But it seems that this murmuring is one time too many: They are tired of this wandering in the desert, and they complain not only against Moses, but directly against God. And God responds by sending snakes!
Well, my first reaction to this story was that there was no way I was going to preach on it. What do you do with God sending snakes—and then having Moses create a bronze snake on a pole as a sort of talisman against those very snakes? It sounds almost more like a bad B movie than a biblical story.
But in fact, my negative reaction is exactly the reason I need to take this one on. So here we go—let’s see if we can make any sense of this wild story as part of our Lenten journey, and if we can find relevance in it for our lives today. No promises, though…
This story is included in the story of exiled Israelites as yet another example of the uneasy nature of the relationship between God and God’s newly chosen people. Remember that most of these stories from the early part of our Biblical history are about establishing the nature of God and God’s connection to those who God has chosen. The Israelites are almost like petulant children, constantly testing how far they can push their loving parent.
What’s remarkable from that point of view is that this God does seem to have limits. This God seems to say, enough is enough – I’ll remind you who is in charge in this relationship!
This view of God the Father stands in stark contrast with the God we read about in today’s Gospel reading from John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (We’ll come back to the Gospel in a bit – the connections between these two lessons are interesting.)
Well, the Israelites are terrified. That’s easy to understand, isn’t it? A recent Harris poll on “What We Are Afraid Of” discovered that 36 percent of all adults in the United States list snakes as their number one fear.[ii] I could probably fall into that group. Growing up in Texas, there were plenty of snakes around to be afraid of. We were always cautioned to be on the lookout for snakes, and were taught the telltale signs of poisonous snakes. (Sadly, I’m not entirely sure I remember all of them now.)
I especially remember our occasionally finding snakes in the country farmhouse that was our family getaway—I recall one evening when we were getting beds together for the various family members who were visiting, and found a rattlesnake curled up on a pile of folded blankets under a couch!
(In fact, snakes were abundant in my early years. My high school’s mascot was the Rattler – and our fighting words of encouragement to the football team were “fang ‘em!”)
The Israelites feared snakes too, I guess. Of course, they were not only very real, very dangerous animals, but were also the symbol of fallen-ness from the creation story.
The complainers immediately understand that these snakes are being sent by God, so they repent and implore Moses (their intermediary) to speak to God. In response, God calls on Moses to create that bronze snake on a pole with the odd instructions that those who are bitten will be cured simply by gazing upon that bronze serpent.
What in the world is that about? It is tempting to think that the bronze serpent was magical—that the story is as simple as it reads. But I’m uncomfortable with that idea. It reminds me too much of those who hang on to a lucky shirt, or even to prayer to a beloved saint, as the cause of good fortune. As a mystical good luck charm.
What if, instead, the serpent was a reminder to the Israelites of the power of God, and thus gazing upon it was the antidote for the mumbling and complaining that had been going on—a reminder that God is in charge, and that, even if we don’t understand or like the places that God takes us or the nourishment that God provides, God is trustworthy? I think that a symbol like the bronze serpent can serve to refocus us on the nature of God and of God’s relationship to us. So these things have power, to be sure, but only as they remind us of the power of God and right relationships with God and others to help us along the pathway of life. I think that is the power of the symbol of the cross for us.
The use of a snake to cure a snakebite also makes me think of venom and antivenom. Wikipedia says that, “Antivenom is created by milking venom from the desired snake, spider or insect. The venom is then diluted and injected into a horse, sheep or goat. The subject animal will undergo an immune response to the venom, producing antibodies against the venom’s active molecule which can then be harvested from the animal’s blood and used to treat the effects of [a poisonous bite].”[iii]
Venom itself helps to counteract the effects of venom. As one theologian said, in the story of the Israelites and the snakes, “we are reminded that things intended for one purpose can be turned to another.”[iv]
I wonder what we might take away from that understanding? Are there ways that the difficult moments in our lives can sometimes become the very things that give us life? That something that seems impossibly bad can lead to good? I don’t want to lead us down an errant path here; there are bad things that happen in life that have no redeeming qualities. Nor do I believe that everything that happens in our life occurs for some divine reason. But I do think that we can sometimes repurpose the disappointments, the hurts, the sad moments in our lives. When I reflect on recent events in our nation, like the rash of gun violence, particularly school shootings, I hope that some good can come from them. I am heartened by the way that teenagers and young adults are using these events as a catalyst for change.
This is a good place to bring in the Gospel Lesson. As I’m sure you noticed, today’s pericope (remember, that’s a fancy word for a passage of scripture), today’s pericope begins with, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” John reminds us that the death of the Son of Man is the antidote to the sting of death for us all.
Now in some ways the Gospel lesson is just as much of a pitfall as the story of the Israelites and the snakes—for just as our Old Testament reading may be very unfamiliar, John 3:16 is probably be the most familiar passage in the Bible.
Do you remember, back in the 70s and 80s, if you have memories of those decades, when you couldn’t watch a football game on TV without seeing someone in the end zone with a large poster emblazoned with that Biblical reference: John 3:16? This verse in many ways encapsulates the entire Gospel. And because it is so familiar, it can be easy not to even hear it. But make no mistake, these are powerful words. And they speak to the totality of God’s love for us, from the creation, through the promises to the people of Israel, of course to the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and even beyond to us today. This is God’s love story for the world.[v]
There are of course some interesting contrasts between today’s Old Testament reading and this Gospel passage. I have already mentioned the very different images of God—in the first story God punishes the people by preying on their fears, while in the Gospel, God compassion is demonstrated in giving God’s own son into the hands of death for us.
Note, too, the structural parallels between these two stories and well as the dramatic difference in content: In Numbers the people are to Look at the serpent and live, while in John the instruction is to Believe in the Son of Man and live eternally.
And of course, the most obvious parallel is the one that Jesus makes: Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up by Moses to save from death those who have been bitten, Christ must be lifted on the tree of the cross for our salvation.
The two go together—there can be none of the exaltation of Easter without the humiliation of the cross. Even as we take a bit of a break from the contemplation, the introspection of Lent on this Laetare Sunday, let us not forget that this season is about living into these difficult realities of our faith. Jesus gave himself for us—that we might conquer death. What that means for you may be quite different from my understanding.
But we are called to wrestle with this mystery every year during Holy Week and Easter, and, in fact, every time we come to the communion table.
However we understand this mystery, one thing is clear: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. As we continue our Lenten journey, as we approach the dark days of Holy Week, and even as some of us may be in our own dark days, let us hold on to that assurance of God’s care for each of us, and strive to find its meaning for our own lives. And let us also use that assurance as a catalyst for our action in the name of the risen Christ. Amen.
[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 101.
[iv] March, W. Eugene. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 102.
[v] Shupe, Paul C. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 118.