Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Snake on a pole

John 3:14-21, Lent 4 B, March 15, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

For centuries, snakes have been the caricature of evil. From the serpent in the Garden of Eden to the Loch Ness monster, people have considered them dangerous. Maybe it is because they don’t have legs. Maybe it is how they stick out their tongues, or maybe their dark beady eyes.

Yet today, what interaction do we have with snakes? Pythons and boa constrictors are safely locked away behind glass in zoos. The occasional garter snake in your backyard is harmless. Even a poisonous snake bite is cured with a simple shot of antivenin. For most of us, the modern snake poses no threat. But a member of my internship site would beg to differ.

Lake Gaston

I served in a congregation in North Carolina that was on a man-made lake. There were some poisonous snakes who were native to the dry land before the lake was put in. Water moccasins and diamondbacks also found their way to the area after the lake was built. Because of the property values and the remote location, almost everyone in the congregation was rich and retired.
Susan was no exception. Susan was in her seventies and also recently widowed. She still had a lot of energy for life, and kept busy during the day. But when she was home alone at night, she only had her dog Bella to comfort her. This dog was a peculiar mix of hound and terrier. Everyone else thought that Bella was odd looking, but Susan thought she was truly beautiful. They were the best companions. 

Then one evening after letting Bella out into the yard before bed, Susan heard a hiss followed by a growl. Running barefoot in the dark onto the grassy lawn, Susan found Bella unconscious with two puncture wounds on her face. 

Unsure what to do, Susan called her vet. The recording said that the nearest emergency pet clinic was fifty miles away. So Susan laid Bella in her car and drove to the clinic. The entire time, she was shaking with fear. Could the vet save her dog?

By the time they arrived, Bella’s face was swollen beyond belief. She could barely breathe. Bella was near death but could be saved. Then Susan was faced with the hard decision - would she pay over $500 for the antivenin that might cure her dog or risk losing her dog without it? Thankfully, Susan had the means to pay for that large veterinary bill. She saved her dog that day, but Bella remained sluggish for weeks as she continued to heal from that snake bite. 

Before humans had discovered antivenin, poisonous snake bites were almost certainly fatal. This continues to be true in third world countries, and it was true for biblical times, too.

We hear in the first lesson of the Israelites in the wilderness after the Exodus. Once again, they are complaining about, well, everything. They do not understand why boring manna in the barren wilderness is somehow substantially better than slavery in Egypt. The Lord is so sick of hearing their complaining that he sends poisonous snakes to attack them. 

As their family members are dying of snake bites, the Israelites go to Moses and admit how sinfully wrong they are. “Please Moses,” they cry, “plead to the Lord on our behalf. Have the Lord take away these serpents!” Moses does so. The Lord responds, but not quite how Moses expects. The Lord tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze and set it high on a pole so that all who see it will live.

Is this the solution they were looking for? Not quite. The Israelites asked the Lord to remove the poisonous snakes, but he doesn’t. Yes, the Lord provides a means so they will not die, but the Lord does not remove the cause of their agony. I wonder why?

Certainly if the Lord can provide poisonous serpents out of nowhere, then the Lord can take them away too. Why didn’t the Lord? Was he feeling vindictive? Or were the Israelites not truly repentant? Or was it something else? Scripture doesn't say. 

A lot had changed by the time that Jesus came into the world, and a lot had stayed the same, too. No longer did the Lord resort to sending poisonous serpents to torture the Lord’s people. Yet the people were no less likely to do sinful things and say sinful words. Even so, the Lord devised the perfect final solution. 

The Gospel of John states, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up." (John 3:14 NRSV) Jesus is the solution, and his death on the cross is what gives us life. Just as the Israelites were healed when they looked at the bronze serpent, so also does the Lord heal our bodies and souls because Christ died for us. 

Brian Stoffregen considers what the Lord heals us from. He writes, “If the solution in Numbers was a snake raised up on a pole -- because the problem was poisonous serpents on the ground; so in John if the solution is a human (the Word made flesh) on a pole, the problem must be the humans on the ground. Our problem is that we are human, so a human-being had to be lifted up on the pole (and Christ's divinity makes the effect last for eternity), so that we might look at him and live -- as the ancient Israelites look to the serpent on the pole and were cured from their poisonous bites.” http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john3x14.htm

Jesus is the ultimate solution. His death was for all, not just those who literally witnessed him on the cross.  Because Jesus died for us, the Lord heals us of a lot more than just snake venom. Instead, the Lord heals us of much more serious venomous things, like greed and envy. The Lord forgives us of our sins and makes us whole again. The Lord restores us to our best, most considerate selves. 

Yet the most important venom that the Lord heals us from is death. Because Christ was lifted upon the cross and then raised to new life, we will never experience the terror of death. Yes, someday we will die, but death will be peaceful. We will then be united with the Lord. What can be better than that?

So, we live on this earth waiting for that day to come. But we are not just biding our time.  

Remember how the Israelites made the Lord grouchy because they complained so much? The least we can do is love the Lord enough to appreciate the abundance that the Lord has given to us. For we are not stuck in a barren wasteland with only stale bread to eat. The Lord has blessed us greatly. The least that we can do is share our abundance with others. 

Jesus offered himself on that cross so that we might live.  When we are bit by the metaphorical venomous snakes in our lives, we only need to look to the cross. The Lord will heal us and strengthen us for the way ahead. And when the end does come, we trust that Jesus will be there to bring us home. Amen.  

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