March 15, 2015

The Serpent in the Wilderness

Passage: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
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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.

Comedian Jay Leno once conducted a "man-on-the-street" interview by asking random people to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most common response was something that wasn't even on God's original list—"God helps those who help themselves." That phrase is often attributed to the Bible. Is it in the Bible?

A seventeenth century French poet Jean De La Fontaine once said "Help yourself and Heaven will help you too." But it was the seventeenth century English thinker Algernon Sidney who has been credited with the now familiar wording, "God helps those who help themselves." Benjamin Franklin later used it in his Poor Richard's Almanac (1736) and it has been widely quoted ever since. But that phrase never appears in the Bible.

Some might say that Jesus said something similar when he said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8) But Jesus was promoting God-reliance, because “your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11) The saying that “God helps those who help themselves” is spoken to promote self-reliance. These are two very different approaches to life. The gospel is ever calling us to see things differently from the world’s self-understanding.

1. “God helps those who help themselves” would, in some measure, be the default position of the Pharisee Nicodemus—he couldn’t understand Jesus’ talk of being born again. It is impossible for someone to do this—no one can enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born! “Precisely,” said Jesus, “it is something God does!” “Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:7-8) Jesus is speaking of the Spirit of God’s work in our lives.

In their conversation the point that got Nicodemus’ attention was when Jesus said that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus insists that there is a work of God necessary for our lives that he describes as being “born from above” (or born again). The Apostle Paul describes the human condition before God as spiritually dead; “you were dead through the trespasses and sins …”. (Ephesians 2:1) We need to be given life, spiritually speaking—this is the nature of the new birth of which Jesus speaks.
Jesus goes on to say to Nicodemus that this work that God needs to do in us is grounded on something God does for us. Jesus makes this point with Nicodemus through the imagery of a story that every Jew would know, particularly a devout Pharisee like Nicodemus. It would have had the kind of familiarity that Christmas does among us Christians where the whole story is evoked in our imaginations by the simple phrase “a child born in a stable.” The story Jesus referenced is that of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. “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,” said our Lord.

We read this story in our older testament lesson today (Numbers 21:4-9). The Israelite people that God has rescued from slavery in Egypt are on the move in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. The people have grown impatient and are accusing God of bringing them from Egypt to simply die in the wilderness; water is scarce and they hate the manna (food God have each morning). We are told that “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” The cure that God provided was for Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Jesus tells Nicodemus of another cure that God will provide; this is how Jesus describes what God will do for us. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. A bronze serpent on pole in the wildness; there will be another pole, so to speak, but this time it will be the Son of man on it. A just as the people in the wilderness would believe God by looking to his provision would find protection from the poison of snake bite, the cure for our sin would be available for any who would look to the Son of Man (Jesus) lifted up and believe; “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Nicodemus knew that Jesus was inviting him to believe. But it was hard to give up on his default position that God would help him help himself. Nicodemus is not alone in this. People find Jesus’ message hard to take. Perhaps we can move from “I can do this for myself” to “ok God I can accept a little help from you”. But the leap to “nothing in my hand I bring, only to the cross I cling” (Son of Man lifted up), well that is a leap and a big one at that. Still, Jesus does not soften it for Nicodemus. “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Notice the word “must”. It is necessary—only God can do this for us.

2. According to Nielsen Company tracking, an estimated 114.4 million people watched the NFL’s 2015 Super Bowl, making it the fifth time in six years that a Super Bowl game has set a record as the most-watched event in U.S. television history. Because so many people watch, it has driven another phenomenon known as the Super Bowl Ads. Companies put their best and most creative efforts to work to advertise their products unveiling new ones for the Super Bowl. So much so that some people watch just to see the ads. These companies expend gargantuan effort—focus groups, polling, etc.—to try to understand what will resonate with the culture so their ads will have maximum impact. Watching these ads will tell you a lot about what advertisers think is going on in our culture.

Consider, for example, Coca-Cola's Super Bowl 2015 ad. It begins with a montage of the cruel and hateful ways that people use technology today—from nasty online comments to bullying text messages. Then, it breaks to a scene in a computer server room filled with wires, where a worker accidentally spills his Coke onto "the internet." What happens? A red (happy) surge of energy flows through the world's connections, replacing the blue (suspiciously Pepsi-colored) of hatred, cruelty, and just-plain-meanness. All around the world, the power of Coke renews and rejuvenates, bringing happiness! As the ad draws to its conclusion a sentence appears: “The world is what we make it.” And this sentence gives way to a bottle of Coca Cola with the #MakeItHappy.

I don’t believe that anyone at Coca-Cola actually thinks that drinking Coca-Cola has the potential for healing human ills. But I do believe that the people at Coca-Cola think that, culturally speaking, people are longing for something—some power, some elixir, some uniting force—to appear that will turn this global mess of human ills around. Further it is believed that “the world is what we make it.” So it is within our power to fix, to make it happy. “God helps those who help themselves” expresses a very similar sentiment to “the world is what we make it.”

Now, please do not misunderstand Jesus or the gospel. I think Jesus would be all for the promotion of civility, of blessing others—“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” presumes as much. The Apostle Paul wrote “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) But these are never held out as a cure for what Jesus believes ails humanity. “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.”

It isn’t Coca-Cola spilled over the internet that will cure; it is the Son of Man lifted up. And it isn’t the internet that will deliver the cure; according to Jesus it is faith that will—“whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The word translated “eternal” here means indeterminate as to duration. We tend to think of eternal life as something only in the future. But the promise of the gospel is that life in Christ begins here and now by faith. Jesus said he came that we might have life and that abundantly. (John 10:10)

3. I understand how the image of Coca-Cola spilled over the internet resonates with a culture connected to electronic devices. If we would simply all agree to spread happy, positive, encouraging thoughts and images we can make this world a great place for everybody. Such an idea works well in a postmodern culture where people are thought able to create their own identity, create meaning for themselves.

The message of the Son of Man lifted up as God’s cure for the sinfulness of the human heart like the serpent in the wilderness was cure for poison does not resonate so well. It certainly wasn’t something Nicodemus would have anticipated—and he was among the devout of Israel, among the theologically engaged of his society. The story of Jesus on the cross as the remedy for the dis-ease that is within us runs counter to what passes for common sense. And that the cure is embraced by looking and believing runs counter to the common conviction that we humans can fix this if we just try.

Some of you will know the name Fredrick Nietzsche. If you took an introductory philosophy course in a first year university arts programme you likely encountered this philosophers writing. In the twentieth century Nietzsche was the most widely read philosopher and is considered by many to be the thinker who underlies Postmodernism. His famous pronouncement, “God is dead, and we have killed him,” is familiar to many who are unaware that this “death” wasn’t something over which Nietzsche rejoiced.

Christianity was one of Nietzsche’s preoccupations of which he was very critical. Jesus’ pronouncement to Nicodemus of the necessity for “the Son of Man (to) be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” brings us to the heart of the doctrine of justification by faith. In essence this doctrine says that those in the wrong with God are set right with him by trusting in the guilt-bearing Crucified Saviour. Nietzsche regarded this doctrine as disgusting self-excuse on the part of those who fail to practise what they claim to uphold.

We need a brief detour here to consider the crucial difference between excusing and forgiving. If a behaviour we find offensive can be excused, then it is only reasonable to excuse it: no forgiveness is needed. When one spouse makes coffee and coffee grinds seem to have a way of littering the counter; this we excuse. What is excusable we excuse; what is not and never will be excusable we can only forgive. In other words, we excuse the excusable and forgive the inexcusable. To be forgiven by anyone, human or divine, means we have been judged utterly inexcusable.

Back to Nietzsche’s criticism of justification by faith. He would be correct that this doctrine was “disgusting self-excuse” if justification by faith pertained to the merely excusable. If, on the other hand, justification by faith pertains to what God can never tolerate or excuse, Nietzsche’s understanding is defective. To say that God forgives us is then to say that God has already judged us and condemned us as intolerable, and yet visits us with his mercy. This is what John gets at when he says—“but those who do not believe are condemned already.” The believer welcomes God pronouncement of judgement because it comes to us as part of the cure; we become acquainted with our need of God’s forgiveness as we are made the beneficiary of that forgiveness procured when “the Son of Man was lifted up.”

4. Mt Nebo is located in the modern day country of Jordon. It is close to the place known as Bethany-beyond-Jordon where Jesus was baptized in the river Jordon. It was from the top of this mountain that God showed Moses the Promised Land and where Moses died. (Deuteronomy 34:1-5) There is a Franciscan Archeology site there today where the ruins of a fourth century church have been found; the remnants of the mosaic floor show it to have been a beautiful work of art.

On top of the mountain is a serpentine cross structure (see picture) known as the Brazen Serpent Monument, created by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni. You can see the serpent and the cross. The monument was created to capture this saying of Jesus: “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.” If you were standing there looking over the Jordon valley about forty-six kilometers due west is another mount. It is the mount on which Jerusalem was built; and just outside one its gates was the place Golgotha—the place where another pole would stand.

I note that in the story of the serpent on the pole that the cure was in the image of the source of the poison. Similarly, when Jesus says that the son of man must be lifted up it shows that the poison of sin in in the human; that humans are complicit in the mess of the world because of our sinfulness. The wonder of God’s remedy is that the one who knew no sin was made sin for us; Jesus knows this even as he speaks to Nicodemus and utters this sentence—it is astonishing to consider he love for us. This is no arm chair theological discussion for Jesus. AS I reflect on what this means for Jesus I am again brought to that place of wonder at the height and depth and length and breadth of the knowledge surpassing love of Christ.

Somehow Nicodemus comes to know that what Jesus will do will be for him. John tells us that it was Nicodemus who brought the spices that were used in the wrapping of the body of Jesus as he was buried. This too was for us as well; hear it from Jesus’ own lips.

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.