Snakes, Shadows, and Salvation

Sunday, March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent “Pictures of Jesus” Sermon Series
Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

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I’m not a fan of snakes, and, it seems to me, neither is the Bible. Now, I haven’t had many run-ins with snakes. Living on an island in Georgia brought on more encounters than at any other time in my life, but despite seven venomous varieties making their home on St. Simons Island, I rarely saw any snakes who could do me harm. (Although that harmless yet three-foot-long green snake on our back porch right after we moved there did cause my very suburban mother-in-law to shout out, “Where are you living?”)  Still, snakes have a bad reputation in the Bible. It is a serpent whose smooth words convince Eve and Adam to rebel against God’s law in Genesis 3. Jumping to Moses, he shows his God-given authority by having some mastery over snakes, including turning his staff into a snake before Pharaoh. Decades later, Moses is leading the Hebrews in the wilderness after the exodus and on their way to the Promised Land. Understandably, the people are growing impatient with their wandering in the wilderness. For what must seem to Moses like the millionth time, the people grumble. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” they pester, like a child who is sick of the road trip.  This time it seems that God has had enough. Despite God’s ongoing protection and provision, the people complain, but instead of God promising them a treat to shut them up (kind of like I would do with a promise to stop at the next Starbucks), this time God summons snakes who slithered their way through the camp biting people. Lovely, right? It’s the biblical version of the movie Snakes on a Plane, only this time Samuel L. Jackson is playing Moses. (By the way, I swear I was on a flight once where Snakes on a Plane was the movie option. Could there be a worse movie to show when confined in a metal tube in the sky?) Understandably, the people come to Moses and ask him to ask God to send the snakes away. God instead chooses a different means of eradication. It’s an art project for Moses. Like we’ve been asking you through this Lenten season, God puts Moses to the task of responding to this story through art.  William Blake, who was both a poet and an artist, produced one of the wildest pictures I’ve ever seen about this story. There is such chaos in this picture. There are eleven people in the drawing swarmed by just as many snakes that make anacondas look small. What is more, they can go airborne and shoot fire from their mouths. Just look at some of the details in this art. There are people held in the air by snakes. See the fear on their faces. Now, take a look at Moses, who is wearing a snake like a toga. He’s staring up at his art project with a look of utter bewilderment on his face. It’s like he’s wondering if this will even work. And, of course, we have the snake on the pole itself, draped on what could be interpreted as a cross, just like our cross draped in purple for Lent. It’s quite an interpretation of this passage. I wonder how you’d draw this passage. How would you enter into this story with your imagination? So, why does God instruct Moses to make this snake on a pole to deal this infestation of snakes? I think Neal Plantinga interprets this well. It is an instance of like curing like. The snake is what gets rid of the snakes in this story and allows the Hebrews to get back on their way toward the Promised Land. It’s as though the snake functioned the way we have learned vaccines work today. With many vaccines the idea is that like cures like. God has made our bodies so wonderfully that they can learn what is harmful to them from small doses of that harmful thing and then offer protection. What a relevant example for this time, isn’t it? After a year of slogging through this pandemic, vaccines are what are restoring life to the community. It’s been a joy for me to see so many in our congregation get vaccinated and now to see it making its way into our staff. I finished my vaccine course about a month ago, and knowing that I can once again do parts of my pastoral calling that I’ve set aside for a year has been a gift. I am so grateful that like cures like and that vaccines are setting us back on our way to what feels to me like the Promised Land. I hope you are too. What’s really interesting to me is that the snake on a pole has been connected to medicine for thousands of years. Today we still see it on ambulances, for instance. In Jesus’ day this snake on a stick as this symbol of healing was common because of Greek and Roman mythology. It is the staff of Asclepios, who was the Greek demigod of healing. There were temples of healing connected to Asclepios that were very popular, where non-venomous snakes had their home and freely crawled among those who came there to seek healing. Sounds great, right? Be very thankful for our advancements in medicine! It is into this world that Jesus and Nicodemus meet in the shadows of night. This encounter in John 3 is one of the pivotal passages of the Bible. Remember, we are on the heels of Jesus clearing the Temple. Nicodemus is part of the religious elite of Jerusalem, so he’s clearly intrigued and confused by Jesus – hence the secret meeting in the shadows. Nicodemus sees the signs of the power of God in Jesus, so he wants to know more. “Who are you and what are you doing?” Nicodemus asks Jesus, and right before the most famous verse in the Bible, Jesus makes a reference back to this odd text from Numbers. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus responds, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  In other words, like cures like. Jesus has come to heal what has ailed the world ever since the first serpent-human encounter in Eden. Just like the snake is what cured the snakes in Numbers, so now Jesus is saying that the Word made flesh is what will be the double cure for humanity – both bringing a foretaste of God’s reign into lives now but also bringing about salvation for eternity. But, just like the serpent, Jesus knows that he will be lifted up on a pole for all to see – Good Friday on the way to Easter Sunday. I wonder how you picture this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, this combination of shadows and salvation.  John keeps bringing Nicodemus back in his gospel because what Jesus says and does sticks with Nicodemus. I think it’s helpful for us to remember that, more often than not, change is incremental. Yes, Saul had his life flipped on its head on the road to Damascus, but most of humanity moves one step at a time. Nicodemus is a great example of a life haunted by Jesus, moving incrementally from curiosity towards belief. Nicodemus leaves the shadowy meeting with Jesus thinking but not particularly changed. Three years later Nicodemus sees Jesus lifted up on the cross, and I wonder if he remembered his conversation with Jesus. I wonder if he had an “Aha!” moment making that connection between what Jesus said and what is happening. I wonder if those words we know as John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” – I wonder if he came to believe too. What we do know is that Nicodemus was there for the crucifixion and its aftermath. In John’s gospel, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea with preparing Jesus’ body for burial. He’s still there, emerging from the shadows into the marvelous light of God’s salvation at work through Jesus.  The gospel message is this – like cures like. What God has done in Jesus is unique and brings an offer of eternal life for all who will cast their gaze on the one who died and rose again for them. Sometimes we are like Nicodemus – intrigued but unsure enough about Jesus that we want to hang back in the shadows. But, like Nicodemus, my prayer is that we move step-by-step from the shadows and into salvation. Jesus has the cure for what ails us. Look to him.