Lent 4, Year B
There are over 2,900 species of snakes ranging as far northward as the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia and southward through Australia.Snakes can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They are found in the sea, and as high as 16,000 feet (4,900 m) in the Himalayan Mountains of Asia. They play crucial roles in our ecosystems. They largely prey on rodents and other animals we would consider “pests”, keeping those populations in check. They are an important food source to larger carnivores. Have I made you love them yet?
Ophidiophobia. The irrational fear of snakes. 36% of adults rank fear of snakes as their #1 fear. But is it still ophidiophobia if the snakes really are out to get you?
The Israelites are not having a good day. We are in the middle of Lent – a 40 day journey into self examination. The poor Israelites were in the middle of their 40 year journey – except that they had no idea when their journey would end. This is the last of what is called a “murmuring” story. I love that term. It sounds so very genteel and muted. Really, they are grumbling stories, complaining stories, bitching and moaning stories: There’s no water, no food and the food that we don’t have is horrible. Maybe pharoah wasn’t so bad after all. Then come the snakes. Biting and killing and being snakey all over the place.
They turn back to Moses and to God. And this is the interesting bit – God doesn’t take the snakes away. Why doesn’t God take the snakes away? Instead God prescribes this elaborate plan that the affected person should look up at this super-snake on a stick. If the snakes were punishment, why, once the people repented, why not just take the wiley, wriggly beasts away?
Unless the snakes are not a punishment, now complete, but rather a gift, a revelation – a painfully palpable representation of the snakiness within – that slippery something within each person and within the community of all people that is hurtful.
“Sometimes it really is sin that we commit, and hurt we inflict – intentionally or not, on others, on other forms of life, on the life of Earth itself – all the stuff about our ways of acting and living that we don’t like to look at. And sometimes it’s other kinds of hurt we carry inside us – fears and anxieties, addictions and brokenness, ways we beat ourselves up and feel beat up by others – feelings of inadequacy and anxiety that are like toxin in our psyche and poison our lives from the inside.” Brian Donst
They were saved by looking up, away from the wriggling, insidious objects of their fears; away from self towards the promise God offered. It would be so much simpler if God simply took the dark, snakey things away, created a world that was soft and cuddly and warm and painless and bright. But that is not the promise God makes. “Rather the world inevitably and inescapably is an amalgam of what seems to us light and dark, good and evil, comforting and distressing, and the way of God and of God’s people is to live creatively and compassionately in the face of it.”
Nicodemus was not having a great day either. His didn’t involve snakes, but it was confusing. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, felt compelled to sneak under cover of darkness to see unconventional, rebellious, blasphemous Jesus. For his trouble Jesus tells him impossible stories of spirit and wind and water and being born again. And again that serpent story “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”
Something you should know about that super snake on a stick. Later in Hebrew history, much later, after they had reached the promised land, had an established land and place, that very same symbol was destroyed by King Hezekiah because the people began to attribute Godhood to the object itself. That very staff intended to lift people’s hearts to God as they lifted their eyes to the staff, became an idol.
The same thing can happen with words. John 3:16. It is one of the most widely known bible verses ever, largely due to popular culture. When popular football player Tim Tebow marked John 3:16 into his eye-blacking during a spectacular game, John 3:16 became the most Googled bible verse ever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It is talking about nothing less than salvation. When we take it out of context, when we use it only as a touchstone of reassurance, when we transform it from a promise of relationship to a formula for immortality, it becomes treacherous. This explicit invitation into God’s grace can become instead a stick we use to beat others about the head and shoulders about whether or not they meet the criteria for salvation; or a mantra we repeat like a magic incantation to reassure ourselves that we are safe – the snakes of sin have been eliminated for us so long as we repeat the right words over and over. While it gives us a certain reassurance, it is, as Dietrich Bonhoffer describes, a “cheap grace”. Salvation in our own minds, that need never touch our hearts.
“Salvation”, said Frederick Buechner, “Salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second. Doing the work you’re best at doing and like to do best, hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy—all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in all of them two things happen. (1) you lose yourself, and (2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual.”
God invites us into relationship, saves us from the snakes within, by gathering us closer to God, lifting our hearts and minds to God. The super- snake on a stick, the words of Jesus; ultimately the cross and the resurrection – everything points back to relationship, to transformation.
“The promise in this life is not that God will make the dark go away, but that the dark will not ever completely extinguish nor overcome the light that God gives. The promise is that no matter what may befall, there shall always be room carved out by God and power given by God for love – the fundamental power of the whole cosmos, still to be known and shared” Brian Donst, personal communication, Midrash