The Fourth Sunday in Lent -- Year B.
John 3: 14 -- 21
Growing up in the northeast I didn't have a lot of exposure to snakes. There may have been a small garter snake or the threat of a dangerous serpent down at Defielees a local pond near our neighborhood. But honestly there wasn't much of a threat of snakes at least that I was aware of to be found in Northern New Jersey. Now Wyoming where I presently reside is a different story. While serving as a consultant for the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming I had the opportunity to visit the North East part of the state. There was a new golf course being built around Sundance, Wyoming and the local cleric who was also an avid golfer wanted to show me the new course. As we drove across the new asphalt road, near the top of the course we saw a large diamondback rattlesnake sunning itself. My friend stopped the car to give us a closer look. I was more than satisfied to stay in the front passenger seat not needing to get out or get closer to the reptile.
St. Mark's in Casper, Wyoming where I have had the privilege of serving since January of 2007 has a stretch of highway for which it is responsible. Every now and then you may notice a sign along the interstate telling who has been responsible for keeping a particular portion of the Highway clean. In Wyoming there are extra cautions in the process of cleaning. The volunteers are invited to wear boots as well as gloves as we go out to the interstate to pick up our section of litter left along the road. We are warned that particularly in the fence line there may be the presence of snakes, rattlesnakes. It certainly is an uncomfortable reality contemplating the possibility of coming across a poisonous serpent.
To have our Lord compared to a snake is not an image that most of us I suspect have spent much time meditating upon. And yet in the Gospel lesson we hear Jesus himself say, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up." He compares Himself to a serpent. The reference our Lord makes is to a time when the people of Israel having escaped Pharaoh were becoming impatient with both God and Moses. They complain to Moses and to God that they had been brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. An amazing and shortsighted complaint when one considers the liberating acts that led to the Israelites freedom. Yet, their memories appeared to be short or at least selective. They didn't seem to remember the misery of their enslavement yet they remembered the food that they had back in the flesh pots of Egypt. They complained to Moses and to God that there was no food and no water and the miraculous food given to them from heaven they detested. The Scriptures tell us the Lord sent poisonous snakes, poisonous serpents among the people and the serpent's bit the people. There were so many poisonous bites that many of the escapees from Egypt were dying. Eventually the people came to Moses and confessed their sin of speaking against the Lord and his servant. Moses prayed for the people and the Lord instructed Moses to, "make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten shall look at it and live." The Scriptures continue telling us that, "Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it on a pole; and when ever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live."
There are many images of our Lord that likely provide us with comfort. Jesus is known as the good Shepherd and we see that image portrayed with our Lord carrying gently upon his shoulders a lost sheep. He is known as the way and the truth and the life. He is known as light, each of these images provides us with a sense of safety and security, each of these images offers us a kind of comfort. Yet to compare Jesus with a snake and for that matter a poisonous serpent is a far more challenging visual metaphor to get our faith behind. Referring to our Lord in the image of a serpent Herbert O'Driscoll says in The Word among Us, (year B. volume 2, page 31) "it depicts utter opposites -- the serpent in the garden at the beginning of creation, and the serpent on the cross in an act of new creation. One seeks to manipulate and corrupt our human nature; the other, to free us and save our human nature. One appeals to our selfish desires; the other, to the very highest in us. One seduces, the other loves. One brings about our banishment from the presence of God; the other draws us into the presence of God. There is a host of rich meanings in this image of the two serpents -- Satan, the serpent of temptation; Jesus, the serpent of salvation."
Using the insights gained in O'Driscoll's meditation we can begin to marvel at the power of transformation that our Lord brings to the usually negative image of a snake. The serpent in the Garden so crafty, so deceptive, so about himself is manifestly different than the one upon the cross who stretches out his arms that he might embrace the whole of creation. Jesus is lifted up and takes the sin of the world upon himself. Jesus takes the poison of our sinful existence upon himself so it is drawn from us, drawn out of us, that the sin which has poisoned our relationship with our Heavenly Father be removed from our existence each time we turn to the saving grace and salvation given to us through the sacrificial lifting up of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The first serpent desired to twist our nature to conform to the twisted nature of those who rebel against God. The first serpent wished to distort our race and fashion it in a way that it would be outside the realm of its creator. The second serpent, our Lord Jesus Christ seeks to offer us a place of healing and the wholeness, a place of salvation and redemption accessed by focusing on him and his action of being lifted up. In his being lifted up and through our acceptance of him, humanity has an opportunity to be healed and restored to the fullness of the relationship that God always intended for us. The first serpent seeks his own will and invites humanity to join him in this selfish endeavors, while the second serpent seeks only his Father's will and offers a way for all humanity to be restored to the good graces of the Almighty God. Following the path of the first servant only separates us from God and God's blessings. Following the path of the first servant also separates us from the true nature that was placed within us at the beginning of creation. Following the second serpent, following our Lord Jesus Christ draws us into the presence of God as well as drawing us back to the intention of God in creation before we sinned against him. As O'Driscoll has said, Satan is the serpent of temptation while Jesus is the serpent of salvation.
The bronze serpent that Moses held above the people inviting them to look upon it was an instrument of healing for those who humbled themselves in this way. To look upon the serpent for them was an action that suggested and pointed to their need for God for wholeness. We have the cross and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we are caught in sin, when our life is full of complaints and dissatisfaction and grumbling against God and his servants we too have one whom we can look upon for forgiveness and healing. One who is far greater than a statue of a serpent made of bronze. Our Lord is lifted up so that the whole world might be drawn unto him. John 3:16 tells us God loves the world. Jesus being lifted up is a sign that God loves the world not only in the days of our Lord but God loves the world today. Not only were the sins of those in Jesus day forgiven them, but every one of us who gazes upon the crucified and risen Lord with faith and gratitude is offered healing, restoration and salvation today.
The fact that God loves the world deserves our attention. God does not simply love the part of the world that is obedient to him. God does not simply love the part of the world that is down on its knees and devoted to him. God does not only love the part of the world that has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. No, God loves the whole world including the broken world in which we live. God loves the world which is divided and torn apart by misguided understandings that lead to violence and war. God loves the world that is still full of immorality, greed and selfishness. God loves the world before it is saved and redeemed. God loves it so much that he was and still is willing to give his only son to a world that will reject him, to a world that will wreak havoc upon him, to a world that will cause his own son to experience the deepest almost unimaginable suffering, God loves the world so much that he's willing to give his son to a world that will crucify him putting him to death.
Do you suppose that we who know the saving embrace of our Lord Jesus Christ are also to love the world which rejects us and rejects God's mercy and kindness? Absolutely yes! We who have the privilege of knowing our Lord Jesus Christ, we who are lifted up with him, we who know the joy of having our sins forgiven, washed away, we are asked to be part of the saving embrace of God to a still broken world. It would be easy for the saved, to act as if we have no responsibility for the world today. Yet to do so would be to dishonor our Lord's intention. If we are to follow our Lord, if we are to share in his ministry, then it is only logical for us to share in the father's love for the world even when it is broken. Too often the church falls under the temptation to love only itself. The first serpent is still at work whispering into our ears to judge others in their bad decisions, and there immoral choices, in their reprehensible lives. Yet Jesus was one who hung around with the most vulnerable in society. The example of our Lord invites us not only to sacrificial behavior but to the Ministry of healing. We have been lifted up with him and hopefully we will not forget that each day we are being forgiven our sins and therefore have a mandate to remember that we are not different from those who have not yet discovered the wonderful forgiveness that our Lord has given us. In fact it may be that we who have been forgiven and lifted up with Christ have more responsibility in the world. Knowing Jesus we know the cost the invitation to share in the Ministry of God.
The Gospel passage concludes with a stirring remark that those who do what is true come to the light. The first serpent, the one who does evil will face the consequences of its deeds of destruction. Its actions will be exposed, its manipulations will be revealed, its evil will be named and though the evil serpent may seek to hide in the darkness there will be no escaping the light of God.
There is not one of us who deserves the grace and mercy of our Lord. There is not one of us who can earn the favor of God through our own efforts. If we find ourselves believing today that we are above those who have not yet discovered the light then I suggest we are still in darkness. At the heart of God we see a sacrificial power that is willing to take upon himself the sin of the world that everyone might come within the reach of our Lord’s saving embrace. Let us pray that the heart of God and the sacrificial nature of our Lord Jesus Christ will be found in each of us and that we will demonstrate God’s love for this sinful and broken world, offering the good news of the lifted up resurrected Lord while also pointing to the healing and forgiving power of the cross.