Snakes and Love

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Our gospel passage for this morning always makes me think of the committed souls who take John 3:16 signs to sporting events.  I've often wondered what exactly the intention of that was, and if it ever worked.  Preach the gospel in any way you can, I suppose.  But you know what you never see at a sporting event, or for that matter, on Christian motivational posters, or t-shirts, or any other Jesusy paraphernalia?  John 3:14.  You never see And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, lovingly stenciled, or delicately cross-stitched.  Because even though 3:16 is a bit weird out of context (a sign that says just "John 3:16" assumes an awful lot of background knowledge--like, for instance, what a John 3:16 is and where somebody might find one, if they were inclined to), 3:14 is pretty weird even in context.

I want to sit in that verse a bit today, because I think it helps us to better hear some of the more familiar parts of this very familiar passage.  That's how Jesus uses this image of Moses and the serpent.  He's trying to explain to Nicodemus, a religious leader, a Pharisee, just what he's about.  Nicodemus has come to Jesus, under the cover of night, for reasons that are not entirely clear.  He begins by saying that Jesus is clearly a godly man, because no one could do the things that he's doing apart from God's presence.  And Jesus, master of holy non sequiturs, responds: Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.  We can appreciate that Nicodemus might have been confused by this.  I'm not sure it gets better.  What follows is a swirling conversation, in which Jesus suggests that anyone mixed up with the Spirit of God doesn't know whether they're coming or going, and being born from above turns out to be an earthly problem.  And then, out of nowhere, we get this allusion to the very strange story from the twenty-first chapter of Numbers.

I think there's something important, something instructive in the suddenness and strangeness of this image.  We can't really move forward, we can't really understand what comes next, except that we go back to the wilderness, and meditate on that story that both Jesus and Nicodemus would have known well. 

But before we do, let's pray: Lord, help us to hear you well and freshly, this morning.  Open our hearts to your word; open our lives to your love.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds, be acceptable in your sight, true to who you are.  In Jesus' name: Amen!

On the surface, it's clear cut.  This is another instance of the Israelites griping about the current wilderness situation.  We've seen this before.  Just a moment ago they were smiting Canaanites, confident of the LORD's presence and provision, moving surely towards the Promised Land.  And now, because they've had to take (another) detour, they're fed up and complaining.  Why did you bring us out here, if you're just going to let us die?  It's become a familiar tune. 

On the other hand, this story stands out a bit, among the complaining stories, because in the past, the people have restricted their irritation to Moses (and sometimes Aaron).  But this time they're complaining "against God and against Moses."  Here, they remember that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, where at least they knew what was what, and they weren't stuck eating manna. Every. Single. Day.

It's significant that suddenly this isn't just Moses' fault, but God's, too.  What's happening is the king of Edom won't let them pass through his lands, and so they have to take the long way around, and why won't God just fix the problem?  If God can take care of Pharaoh's army, and Canaanite armies, why isn't something being done about the king of Edom, who's being a total jerk?  Why do we have to make the trip longer?  Why are we stuck with no food, except this food that we don't want?  Why won't God just fix the problem? 

It's kind of a good question, one I've certainly grumbled myself.  God has dealt with bigger roadblocks than the Edomite army.  So, I have to wonder if what we're seeing, right from the beginning of the story, is the truth that we're once again in the company of the God whose ways and thoughts aren't ours.  This God won't be used for our satisfaction.  I think that one of the truly remarkable things about the Hebrew Scriptures is that this stuff made the final cut.  This story, in which people are at odds with their God--who doesn't have much patience for their griping--could easily have been left out, or doctored to make everyone come out a little better. 

But I think there's an honesty in the telling.  There's a built-in reminder that people committed to living according to the purposes of God, are always going to be dealing with One whom they don't quite understand, whose ways and means are other than ours.  There's a reminder in this story, from the get-go, that faithfulness isn't about certainty or understanding, but trust: trust that the God who brought us out of slavery will, in fact, get us to where God wants us to be; that God will shape us in God-wrought freedom, as God has promised to do.  When we get back to the gospel, it's probably worth bearing in mind that Jesus chooses to tell Nicodemus that what he's about is sort of like a story in which the distance between our ways and God's is revealed in sharp relief.   

So, the story has us on uncertain ground, even before the snakes show up.  But that's a particularly strange moment.  Some scholars argue that there may be some artistic story-telling happening here, and I'm inclined to agree.  The very mention of serpents--poisonous or otherwise--sends a biblical imagination backwards, to Eden, where the wilderness story really began.  In Eden, the serpent signals the beginning of our sin-separation from God, our impulse to choose our ways over God's: our desire to be as gods for ourselves and the inevitable messes that follow, when it turns out we're not as cut out for the job as we'd thought.  The arrival of serpents is a visual reminder of the consequences of unfaithfulness, of going against God's purposes.  The wages of sin is death! Paul will preach, way down the road.  The result of being separated from, out of sync with the Maker and Sustainer of life is inevitable.  And though I instinctively find this part of the story a bit heavy-handed, it's hard to avoid the reality that a very great deal is at stake.  We're talking about God's dream for the world!  There's an urgency, a seriousness to this story that shouldn't be brushed aside, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We should let it have its full effect.

There's urgency and severity and, as seems to happen in our story with God, in the end, there's a grace in the story that should capture our imaginations; a grace that overwhelms and undergirds the whole thing.  The story doesn't end with the people grumbling, or dying, or even repenting.  The story ends in life.  God's desire for a people who will be a living, here-and-now reminder of who and how this saving, redeeming, and (dare we hope it) resurrection God is, with and for the world, is not just dependent upon the peoples' faithfulness, but is rooted and grounded in God's faithfulness and mercy. Grace wins.

But, again, I think there's something that we need to take back to the gospel story at this point.  It's an unexpected kind of grace, isn't it?  It's a strange grace.  It's not a kind of cheap grace that shrugs and wipes the slate clean and sends the people on their merry way.  God doesn't wave a magic wand, or just call off the snakes.  This is a grace that reminds and shapes and moves--it reminds the people of the God they're involved with: not the God who leads them out into wilderness to die, but who will lead them out of slavery and into life; this grace shapes them as a people oriented not simply to their present circumstances, or their sin, but to the God who saves and leads them through death's valley into a holy lushness; this grace moves them into an active relationship, an active, lived response to what's been given.  There's something significant about the fact that there's a physical action that is part of the saved life--whoever looked at the bronze serpent, lived.  I have to imagine that they never saw quite the same way again.

There's one more thing I want to pay attention to, before we go to the gospel reading.  When God tells Moses to make a serpent and stick it on a pole, Moses decides to make the serpent out of bronze.  And there's a bit of word play here, the kind the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures seem to love.  The word "bronze," and the word "serpent" are very similar in Hebrew.  The phrase is nakhash nekhoshet.  In Hebrew, when a word is doubled (or nearly so), it means the thing we're talking about is really, really that thing.  This thing that Moses makes is the snakiest of snakes, the serpentiest of serpents!  The peoples' healing, the peoples' salvation, in a very odd twist, will come from looking at the thing that is most vividly the thing that is killing them.  As if things weren't strange enough.


I'm not sure we've exactly meditated on the bronze serpent story; there's a lot that I haven't talked about.  I'd encourage you to risk spending some prayerful time in the story, on your own.  But for now, I want to take these three pieces (we're dealing with the God who is other, whose ways and thoughts aren't ours; we're in the thick of the reality of sin and the unexpectedness of an animating grace; and the nakhash nekhoshet twist), and bring them back, briefly, to the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.

First, I think it would be good to bring the kind of holy uncertainty that permeates the Numbers story, to this passage that seems to be so easy to quote, or write in permanent marker, or print on posters, without demanding very much of us.  I mean, John 3:16 is, I think, unquestionably beautiful.  It draws us in to the height and depth and length and width of God's love in Christ, for us and for this world, for the cosmos.  It seems that there is nothing that will be withheld on God's part.  But there's a kind of danger in talking about "love," especially God's love, uncritically.  We risk overlaying our ideas of what love is. 

My problem, which seems to be fairly common, is a tendency to domesticate God's love, to tame the fierceness, the wildness out of it; to use God-words like hope and peace and joy and love, as though what they really describe is a pleasant Saturday afternoon, when the sun is shining and all is right with the world, and not a world-inverting power and presence.  And while I think that spiritual anxiety is clearly the enemy of the gospel (all you who are weary and heavy laden, come to me, and I will give you rest), there's a problem with setting aside the kind of urgency that the wilderness story can conjure up.  As soon as Jesus brings up the desert serpent, we are reminded that we're not dealing with the gods of our creation, the gods we would be for ourselves, but the God whose presence and action, whose call and command is decidedly more than any other. 

In the company of this God, the love we're being drawn into is the kind of thing that is both sweeter than honey, better than all the riches in the world, and demands, compels an unflinching concern--not just concern, love--for our enemies, for those who mistreat us; the love we experience in this God will move us to an irrational care for those who can give nothing back to us, and even those who wouldn't if they could. The love of God undoes our comfortable assumptions. The way that God loves the world defies easy answers; it can obliterate our comfort zones, and drag us places we don't want to go; the love of God doesn't just make us feel good: it redeems the world!  It overcomes death!  It lights up impenetrable darkness!  The love of God is serious stuff, wildly good.  When we stand in the love of God, when we learn to live and move and have our being in the love of God, there is no way to avoid the reality that we are in the presence of One who is utterly other than us. 

That's the One who joins us in the mess and wonder of the world.  That's the One who deals with us, with whom we are all mixed up, in the conditions of sin and grace.  The wilderness scene reminds us again that sin is fundamentally a relationship problem.  When the people set themselves against God and Moses, is that not at root a failure to love God and neighbor, commands that summarize the whole Holy Nation project?  The failure to love and to trust God has a cascading effect in that story, and the same is true in the gospel passage.  To live contrary to the purposes of God who so loves the world births all manner of brokenness.

I do think we need to remember our holy uncertainty when we get to troublesome lines like "those who do not believe are condemned already."  By chapter 12, Jesus says that when he's lifted up he'll draw all people to himself, which should probably temper our attempts to decide who's in and who's out.  God's measures aren't ours; heaven's logistics are notoriously confounding.  Nevertheless, we are deeply aware that things are not right in the world, that people are trapped in brokenness, that our collective failures to love God and neighbor with anything like all that we've got, are lethal as snakebite.

And yet, in the company of this God--as in the wilderness, so here and now--healing grace seems to be relentless.  Perhaps the oddest part of the whole thing is both the most beautiful and least explainable.  Jesus says, in a twist that we couldn't have seen coming, that Nicodemus couldn't have understood until he found himself improbably at the foot of the cross, that he will become like the nakhash nekhoshet; Jesus will become most vividly the thing that kills us, the thing that destroys God's dream for us and for the world: he will become God-separated, he will be broken, he will be a staggering vision of our failure to love our neighbors.  For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  St. Paul says that with what sounds like unflagging certainty, but I think can only truly be wonder.  Those logistics don't quite make human sense. 

And though the truth defies our attempts to boil it down, as we look we're drawn in.  We're drawn into a grace that reveals how beautifully God's ways are not ours, thanks be.  We're drawn into a love that refuses to see us strewn across the wilderness, but raises us to new life: unexpectedly, unimaginably healed.  As we look to the cross, we're drawn into a wonder that reminds us of the lengths to which God will go to be with us and for us.  We're drawn into a hope that shapes us in life that is truly life--the righteousness of God!--a life perfectly free to love God and neighbor with everything we've got, here and now and forever.  As we look, we're drawn into a beautiful truth that pulls us out of the dust and into the path lit up by the One who leads us in the wild, untameable hope, peace, joy and love of God, for us and for this world.

As we make our way to the cross, God give us eyes to see--and never see the same again.