March 18, 2012

A Snake on a Pole

Passage: Numbers 21:9, John 3:14-15

So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

At the beginning of this winter Jenny Merkin, writing in Psychology Today, cited a study that calls into question our common belief of the impact weather has on how we feel.  “As the temperature chills and the days grow shorter, it’s easy to chalk up your gloom to dreary weather.  But a recent paper in Psychiatry Research suggests you find a new scapegoat for your bad mood.”  ‘There is literally no association between weather and how people feel that day,’ says lead researcher Marcus J.H. Huibers of Maastricht University. Mr. Huibers’s team monitored more than 14,000 subjects’ day-to-day affect for several years and found that daily variations in temperature, sunshine and rainfall had no measurable effects.

I note that Maastricht University is in the Netherlands; I wonder if Dr. Huibers’s team had monitored 14,000 Canadians if the results would have been the same?  It is my experience that we Canadians do love to complain about the weather; I am not sure if this is unique to Canadians.  In the fourth century Saint Basil—one of the great teachers of the church known as the Cappadocian Fathers— said: “Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows that it brings abundance to drive away hunger.”

It is telling that we can have a closet full of clothes yet “nothing to wear”; a refrigerator filled with food yet “nothing to eat”.  “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”  The complaining of the Israelites had bubbled to the surface again.  This incident (Numbers 21) was the last recorded of what seemed a regular routine for Israel ever since their emancipation from slavery in Egypt.  On various occasions they complained that the water was bitter, of food hard to find, of inadequate water supply, that a water source was not immediately obvious, and that their diet lacked meat.  Here they are complaining again; though they have manna every morning provided by God they say they have no food and, by the way, the manna is miserable food.  (We need some chocolate!?).

But this time there is a difference in their complaining.  Prior to this they grumbled against Moses and Aaron; or against no one in particular—just sounding off to anyone who would listen.  But this time “the people spoke against God and against Moses”.  Indeed, a complaining spirit is to live life in a self-imposed prison.  It didn’t seem to matter how many times they grumbled to Moses—God then providing what they desired though they whined to get it—yet they were still captive to this complaining heart.

Complaining is one thing, but doubting the goodness of God is the pathway to death, as these Israelites found.  The story of the fall of humanity from the garden of Eden—in the day you eat of it your will surely die; the fall and death that ensured eventuated because of human sin that, at its core, was to doubt the goodness of God.  They doubted that God had marked off certain things as out of bounds because these things destroy humanity; they listened to the lie that God was withholding things from them.

Now about the Lord sending poisonous snakes and many Israelites dying of snakebites; some accuse God of being vindictive.  I offer you a couple of brief observations.  God chastising his people—even in this way—is never God throwing his people overboard.  It is never God singling out some and saying you aren’t mine anymore.  His chastisement is because they are his.  Further, there are—biblically speaking—worse things that dying.  (If you want an extended discussion of this topic come to Lenten Study)

I invite you to turn your attention to the cure—a serpent on a pole.  In John’s gospel Jesus said that the meaning of his passion is illuminated in this story “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”.

1. According to an article at Live Science timber rattlesnakes have a social life.  The article began: “Though often regarded as loners, rattlesnakes may be relatively social, cuddling up with their relatives, a finding that suggests serpents may have more complex social lives than currently appreciated, researchers say.” I don’t suppose that many of you lose much sleep worrying about the social life of snakes.  Snakes are not, generally speaking, mammals that we fell warm and fuzzy about; we are more likely to think caution even fear.  “Ophidiophobia” is the clinical term for the abnormal fear of snakes.

Biblically speaking, the snake is associated with the temptation in the story of the sin of the first humans and there is no attempt to rehabilitate that image.  Snakes are considered dangerous as in this wilderness story of Israel.  On the other hand, you may have noted that the image of a snake wrapped around a walking stick is used as the logo for some medical associations; this comes from Asclepius, Greco-Roman god of medicine, who is depicted with a snake wrapped around a walking stick in his hand.  Notwithstanding medical association logos, snakes generally carry a negative image among us—caution, dislike, and danger readily come to mind.

When it comes to God’s remedy for snakebites why does God propose that people look at an image of the dreaded snake?  Why does the remedy ask these people to look at what they are afraid of?  Why doesn’t God remove the snakes; after all God sent them in the first place?  We could reflect that the presence of some animals—though dangerous to us—can keep other predators at bay.  Rattle snakes eat small rodents; rodents that can carry disease.  Perhaps the bronze serpent also served as an ongoing warning of sinful distrust of God’s goodness.

We could propose a number of reasons but there remains inscrutability in this cure.  It is hardly anything that we would propose as a cure or propose that God offer as a cure.  Let’s face it; there is something simply odd to us about it even though it points us in helpful things; such as to trust in God for his cure.  If someone asked you if you actually believed that these Israelite people were cured of snakebite by looking at a bronze serpent on a pole, what would you say?  We have discomfort with the details of this cure. This is not a story we talk with our neighbours about; we are not likely to bring it up in conversation.  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”, said our Lord.  Jesus broaches the subject with us—“so must the Son of Man be lifted up”.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death”, said the Apostle. (1 Corinthians 15:26)  He was talking of the reign of Christ and all the enemies of life to be put under his feet.  “In the day you eat of it you will surely die” said God to Adam and Eve of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  "Good-and-evil" (virtually one word) is a semitism, a Hebrew expression meaning "everything, the sum total of human possibilities, everything that we can imagine."  To know, in Hebrew is to have intimate acquaintance with, to experience.  In forbidding us to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil God is warning us against intimate acquaintance with the sum total of everything that we can imagine. Clearly God shudders at the prospect of death, the outcome of our “knowing good and evil”.

Just as the lifting up the serpent in the wilderness was the cure so they wouldn’t die of poisonous snakebite, so the Son of Man lifted up in the cure for sin and death. “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Why does God ask us to look at a dying man on a cross as sin’s cure?  How is it that a man dying wretchedly on a cross by cruel crucifixion is the remedy for our dying?  Why does the remedy call us to look at that which we are afraid, namely at death.  Furthermore, at the death of the one who did nothing to deserve dying?  Why doesn’t God just remove death and decay from the world?  Clearly, it is no remedy we would imagine—our sin having blinded us to the fact of the poison within us.

When we speak of the cross as our salvation there is inscrutability in this cure.  Yet it is where God calls us to look—just as God called Israel to look at the serpent lifted up.  Christians are so familiar with the cross of Jesus Christ and it is so precious to us we sometimes forget what an offence it can be to others—how incredible, even bizarre, it sounds to those without faith.  The image of a bronze snake on a pole being the cure for poisonous snakebite is not so familiar to us so we can identify more readily that it seems odd.  Perhaps it helps us to hear how others view our fondness for the cross.  I remember a Jewish Rabbi asking me why Christians wore crosses; an image of a despicable means of capital punishment.

Indeed, why does God make the dying Saviour the remedy for death?

2.  I wonder what it was like for Jesus to make this connection: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”.  The snake on the pole was made of bronze; the Son of Man on the cross would be very much alive.

The Older Testament—the Bible Jesus knew—is crucial to understanding his teaching.  When he says “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” the words used indicate that he is making an allusion to Isaiah’s prophesy regarding the coming suffering servant.  The “suffering servant” prophesies of Isaiah and the “Son of Man” prophesies of Daniel were both believed to speak of the coming messiah.
The text is Isaiah 52:13: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.”  It sounds glorious; the portent of good things.  But Jesus knew the context of the saying.  Here is what the next verse says: “ Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—so he shall startle many nations.

Jesus withholds nothing of himself when it comes to his love for us.  What Jesus will endure for our sakes shows us the folly of doubting the goodness of God.

3.  We have reflected on how God renders the enemy—the poisonous snake in the case of Israel and death in the case of Jesus with respect to the sin of the world—the vehicle for a cure.  We acknowledge that there is mystery here as to why God acts in this way—our thoughts are obviously not God’s thoughts.  A further question is: how are these remedies a cure for the disease?  Again we are confronted with mystery that resides deep in the heart of God.  How does looking at a bronze snake on a pole cure?  How is it that in the death of our Saviour the alienation between God and me created by my sin is reconciled; I am set in right relationship with God?  We do not perceive what sin means to God or the power of God.

Here is a great wonder.  Our lack of understanding is no barrier to embracing the cure.  At some point we realize that we have come to the end of ourselves and we simply must trust God and his word (which includes God’s understanding that undergirds and frames that word).  Imagine the Israelite who hears of this remedy and thinks it preposterous because it sounds so—well—implausible.  All she has to do—now stricken with the poison of snakebite—is believe God and look.  It is the look of faith.  Can you imagine that someone would refuse so simple a cure?  Perhaps it sounds too good to be true.

It is any different when people hear the good news of Christ dying for our sins—that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  It sounds way too simple—only believe.  The cure is far from simple, however; it was anything but simple for the one who is the remedy and took our sins upon himself on the cross.  The cure is far from simplistic; somehow the evil of this world is defeated in him along with death and all things are reconciled in him.  Yes, justice will prevail and in the end we will agree with God that in the Son justice has been done.  That we cannot explain how the cure works is no barrier to experiencing the cure.

One of the things humans feel is guilt; and we have tried to rationalize it away—assuring ourselves there is nothing to be guilty about; we have tried to psychologise it away—your upbringing needs to be expunged from you memory.  The gospel tells us that we feel guilty because we are; our sin is real and alienation from God is felt though we don’t know that this is our problem.  The believer in Christ experiences a freedom from guilt—the Apostle Paul tells us.  This is not to say that we don’t feel badly about wrong we have done but we are freed from its grip.  God’s cure is a great marvel and we may not know how it is that we are freed from sin’s guilt yet God makes this known in the freedom of heart we experience.

4.  About 500 years after this wilderness experience when the bronze snake was lifted, after Israel had taken up residence in the promised land, a great spiritual revival was underway in Judah under the leadership of King Hezekiah.  He had undertaken sweeping reforms in which the altars to idols were removed from the land and in that purging we are told “he broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made” because “the people of Israel had made offerings to it.”
It would appear that people though there was some sort of power in the object to bring good.  They lost sight of the God who was their cure.

What altars in our land have been built that indicate where we have placed our trust.  At one time churches dominated the skyline of Toronto; it is bank buildings that dominate today.  Is it not an indication that we believe that our affluence is the source of the good we experience; that it is the source of real life?

God points us to the Son of Man lifted up as the place to look that we might experience the one true good that preserves for everlasting life.  “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”