Serpents in the wilderness. Everyone, it seems, has a story about a serpent in the wilderness…or at least the backyard.
As it happens, my most memorable story was from less than two years ago. On the way back from visiting the youth group while they were at the Kairos event at Roanoke College I stopped briefly at the Humpback Rocks parking lot to do some birding. I wandered off the path for a little bit over by the old homestead area, not realizing there were clear signs warning people to stay on it. As I was honing in on something in front of me I wanted to see close-up, paying no attention to my immediate vicinity, I began to hear a little whispering that sounded like a tiny baby’s rattle. I had never heard the sound of a real-live rattlesnake before, but it took my autonomic nervous system about 1.2 seconds to figure out that was what I was hearing. I froze in my tracks and looked down.
There, plain as can be, in the exact spot where I would have put my next step, was a 4-foot long Timber Rattler. And I was wearing sandals.
What likely saved me, I quickly discovered, was that it already had something in its mouth. A lifeless rodent of some sort was wedged in its jaws. However, as cool as my inner Steve Irwin might have thought it was, I didn’t want to tempt fate, so I very, very slowly and cautiously backed up from him and made my way back to the trail. What I noticed though, as I was doing this, was that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Literally—to look away, even for an instant, meant I could get seriously hurt and maybe die. The snake could change his mind in the blink of an eye, decide a protective strike against me was worth dropping his meal, and sink those venomous fangs in my foot before I knew it. I’m not sure I could have reacted fast enough if he had tried that, but I wasn’t going to look anywhere else. I kept staring at him like my life depended on it.
|Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Esteban March)|
Indeed, their life does depend on it. According to the way that God has arranged this peculiar little lesson, that’s how they will live. They have to look straight at the very thing that is causing them to die. In order to be saved, they can’t take their eyes of the result of their sin, which are those awful snakes that God first sent as a judgment against their impatience. Their salvation involves coming to terms with---looking in the eye of---the very problem in their midst.
That’s how I think this country feels now about the racism in its midst, and, quite honestly, about any number of problems that we fight and that fight us, biting us on our foolishly-sandaled feet. The videotape that emerged this week of some college students singing a racist chant on a bus on the way to a party was difficult to watch, especially if you’ve ever been or known a college student going to a party. The reports of more shootings of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, are difficult to hear and see, especially if you’re one who has ever denounced those who serve in law enforcement.
|Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Augustus John)|
Theologian and church historian Leonard Sweet says, “What is wrong with humanity cannot be fixed simply by what is right with humanity.” Oh, it’s so tempting to think it can be, to think that the goodness within ourselves will overcome the bad on its own, to believe that we’ll eventually drag our foolishness out into the light of judgment more times than not. But everyone has a story of serpents in the wilderness, and we know, deep-down, we aren’t able to outrun, outsmart, or out-serpent them. God is going to have to get involved. God is going to have to send the way of life that comes through looking at death.
As peculiar as we think the story about Moses and the bronze pole is, it turns out to be the perfect story for the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come in the dark. He’s drawn to Jesus, interested in what he is teaching, but he’s afraid of what others may think of him for seeking out knowledge from him. He fears the judgment that would come by doing such a thing in the daylight. Jesus welcomes him, engages his question and his quest for knowledge. However, Jesus informs him, rescue for the world will not come from seeking more knowledge or gaining a more enlightened perspective, simply nurturing what is good about humanity. It will come only when the Son of Man is lifted up. Rescue for humankind will only come when the Son of Man is hoisted on a cross, for then we will see the full result of our sin. When Jesus dies that death, we will see that the endgame of all our inner and outer brokenness spells despair and death. We will remember that humans can be given the way out of slavery—right through to the Promised Land—and will still wander away, will still find cause to be ungrateful about it. We will see the Son of Man dying and realize this is where all our paths in the wilderness will ultimately lead unless God gets involved.
here’s the good news, for Nicodemus and for us. This isn’t solely about our
judgment. The verse goes God so loves the world “that he sends his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him—“everyone
who looks at him hoisted on the cross”—may
not perish but may have eternal life.” The line that follows is perhaps even
more important, “Indeed God did not send
the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
|Crucifixion (Bartolome Esteban Murillo)|
You heard that right: God’s judgment of the world is to save it, to love it…not hate it or despise it, reject or abandon it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s judgment of sin and also God’s victory over it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s act of hauling out into the light all the things that are wrong with humanity that we need to see, and also God’s pronouncement of love for humanity anyway. God’s lifting up of his Son in death is God’s way of lifting us to eternal life.
One danger, of course, is interpreting this message as if it’s a once-and-done deal. It’s easy to fall into that trap. To this way of thinking, it’s like we get one chance: we either accept it or we don’t…we either respond or we reject. We either have faith…or we doubt. In this view, believe that Christ died on the cross for you and it’s like somewhere in heaven your name is moved over from the “condemned” column to the “saved” column. Then we are prone to turn this view on others: are they one of the saved or one of the condemned?
To take Jesus at his word here, however, this interpretation does not sound quite correct. If we must believe God is keeping columns or lists, it’s more proper to think that God has one column. That column is labelled “loved,” and you either realize you’re name is already in it, or you don’t. Your name is already in it because Jesus has been lifted up. Your name is already loved because God has sent his Son. That, my friends, is once-and-done. Looking to the cross to remember that love, to ponder it, and wonder it? That must and will happen over and over and over again. “The hour I first believed?” If we’re truly honest with ourselves, that hour comes again almost every single day.
Everyone has a story about a serpent in the wilderness, and if you don’t yet then pay attention, because it’s bound to happen at some point. They’re all around us! And when you do, here’s something to keep in mind: no matter how far you’ve wandered off the path, no matter how deep you find yourself in the wilderness with nothing but sandals on your feet, no matter how much of a nightmare life feels like, you may always look at the cross of Christ, lifted high, and remember you—you and this world of darkness that so often runs from the light— you are loved.
Don’t take your eyes off of it.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.