Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lift High the Snake -- A Sermon

I was driving behind an ambulance the other day and noticed what looked like an big blue asterisk on the back.  In the middle was a pole with a snake.  And I start thinking to myself, if I’m having an emergency, do I really want a guy with a snake on his truck to come help me?

But then, you look at your doctor’s office and you see snakes there, too.  In some instances you’ll see two snakes wrapped around a winged staff, in some, just the one like on the ambulance.  That’s because there was some confusion a while back between two Greek gods.  

Hermes used to carry a rod with two snakes called the caduceus, but he was the patron of liars and thieves.  Which is what you might think of when you get your doctor’s bill.  Then there’s the less well known god named Asclepius who carried a rod with just one snake -- and his job was healing.

That’s all fascinating, you say, but what are all those snakes doing in my bible?  Especially, why is God sending fiery snakes to bite his people just because they were complaining (as they always seemed to be)?  

What kind of God kills his people just because they kvetch?  And if this God is so petty, why does Jesus later equate himself with that serpent?

First thing is to remember is that the story in Numbers was written down many generations after the events.  Sort of like you deciding to write down the events of Henry Hudson based solely on oral history handed down through your family.  The details are certain to be hazy.

There’s every reason to believe that there probably were snake bites during Israel’s time in the wilderness, and perhaps there was a bronze serpent on a pole used for healing in some way.  But did it have to happen just as it was written?  We’ll never know.

Still, remember where the people had just fled from -- Egypt.  Not only were Egyptians familiar with Greek gods, but they had their own snake gods.  The pharaoh wore a crown topped by a rearing cobra symbolizing the Egyptian goddess Wadjyt whose job was to spit fiery venom on the pharaoh’s enemies, and thus save him.  For Egyptians, it was simultaneously a symbol of salvation and destruction.

Now, let’s set the scene.  The people aren’t just kvetching.  They are impatient.  They’ve been free from Pharoah for, what, two, three months?  And they STILL haven’t reached the promised land.  What’s more, things aren’t looking good, what with little food and water -- and what food they do have, they don’t like.  Moses was supposed to be some kind of savior for them, but it seems like he’s just made their crisis worse.  It’s almost like reading headlines today.

Anyway, considering they were complaining about how bad things were under Moses and how great they had been under Pharaoh, and because it was fiery snakes that God sent, it wouldn’t be surprising if what God was saying something like, “There’s your Egyptian Wadjyt for you.  Let’s see how well it protects you now.”  Or, more concisely, “Wadjyt is attacking you which means you are now Pharaoh’s enemies, not his friends.  There’s no going back.”

Still, hoisting the snake onto the pole and making the bitten people stare at it to be healed is confusing.  Some scholars say you’re supposed to look at your sin - acknowledge your sin before you can be forgiven or healed.  But the serpents were the agents of punishment, not the sin itself.

All we can say for sure is that the Israelites already recognized the serpent on the pole as a sign of healing, so it made sense to them to use one.  Besides, it acts as a sign that the same God who can destroy them really prefers to heal.  Just as surely as God could bring destruction upon those who despised him, he would also heal those who repented.  Whether we like it or not, Israel saw God as jealous and dangerous as well as loving.  It was for the foolhardy to abandon him.

That still leaves us with Jesus who late at night, alone with a timid believer named Nicodemus, says, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

He equates himself with the bronze serpent lifted high to rescue the people not only from their snakebites but from their lack of faith.  He alludes to his impending crucifixion, of course, but the symbol he uses is the ancient symbol for healing.  The gospel writer wants us to be clear about who Jesus is -- the one who will heal us if only we look to him and trust.

And what does he heal us from?  Our own foolish lack of faith.  Our own mindless wandering away from God who gives us life.  Perhaps our own impatience in our times of crisis --  which we can relate to these days.  Most importantly, he is here to heal the broken relationships between us and God. 

But unlike the bronze snake in the wilderness -- where you just look at it and are instantly healed -- with Jesus, you look TO him, and the healing is inside.  It comes slowly over a lifetime, but it is more powerful than any serum.

His healing is of the soul.  It brings light and calls us to leave the dark behind.  When you look upon a cross, Jesus lifted high upon the cross, it is your renewed chance to embrace that light, embrace that healing, embrace a new life in God’s love.

Because in the end, we know true healing doesn’t come from a serpent or even from an ambulance or a doctor, but from Christ alone.  Amen.