Benediction Online

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Snakes that Bite Us

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10

This is one of the few Sundays in the year when we can see a clear relationship between the first lesson and the gospel reading. Jesus clearly refers back to the curious incident of the poisonous snakes which was described in the first reading from Numbers.  Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible and is the culmination of the story of Israel's exodus from oppression in Egypt and their journey to take possession of the land God promised to their forebears. We only read from the book of Numbers four times in our three year cycle of readings.

In this short passage, the Israelites, despite having great military victories against the Canaanites, begin to grumble. And suddenly they are faced with something much more vicious than bad food – poisonous snakes. These snakes bite them and many of them die. So they pray for help, and Yahweh tells Moses to make a statue of a poisonous snake on a pole.  All who look at it survive their snake bites and live. It is a curious tale.
And now we have Jesus drawing a parallel of some kind between himself and the bronze serpent. So let’s think a little more about how we might understand the original story. When they looked at what was biting them, when it was brought out into the light, the Israelites were healed. Sounds a bit like psychotherapy doesn’t it? When we look at what is biting us, non-judgmentally and with compassion, we can find healing.

Earlier in the week, I was up in the Sequoia National Park where there are many beautiful sequoia trees which are thousands of years old. In the museum, an exhibit explained how the trees create burls around injuries caused by fire or lightening or by branches breaking. The exhibit told us that a mature sequoia will have healed from many wounds. The same can be said for the mature human. We all have wounds, and while we nurse them and keep checking on them they continue to be causes of pain, and often opportunities for sin, as they keep us stuck in resentments and old patterns. But when we look at them and offer them to God for healing they can become places of growth and new life.

There’s an English expression, a nest of vipers, which is used to describe a group of iniquitous people gathered together. We find it in Matthew’s gospel where John the Baptizer calls the Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers.” Maybe the plague of poisonous snakes in Numbers is a reflection of the Israelites themselves – in their grumbling and complaining they were behaving like a nest of vipers and in creating the model snake, Moses was holding up a mirror to them. Often it is difficult for us to see our shadow sides- it takes others to let us know where we are falling down. Families do that – and so do faith communities. As well as seeing God’s love expressed in each other, we may see our shadow sides reflected, and that can be very hard. Only when we see our shadow side, only when we acknowledge our shortcomings in the light of God’s compassionate love, can we heal those places in us which prevent us from being compassionate and Christ-like ourselves.

Now let’s look at Jesus’ statement. Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and a Jewish leader, came to Jesus under cover of darkness and admitted that he saw Jesus as a teacher sent from God. In their conversation Jesus talks about his role as the Son of God; 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.” Now we know that the serpent Moses lifted up represented the thing that was biting the people; so how does Jesus represent what is biting us?

Jesus’ life shows us what we might be – we too are daughters and sons of God, we are imitators of Christ. The end of his earthly life also represents what we most fear; being shunned by friends, publicly shamed, wrongfully accused, tortured, stripped naked, horribly killed and dying. That just about covers the gamut of our worst fears.  His death also represents the worst that we humans can do to each other, so as we look on the cross we have to admit that we too can get caught up in scapegoating and violence. Our violence toward one another is kept in check by our civilization but it seems to boil just below the surface until and unless it is redeemed and transformed by Jesus’ redemptive power. As the reading from Ephesians said, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

Because that was the amazing thing about Jesus. He wasn’t violent. In his very refusal to engage in violence he held a mirror up to the Jewish leaders and they didn’t like the reflection they saw. They didn’t like seeing that in their religious zeal they were oppressing others and even keeping them from God. Jesus’ ministry brought him into direct confrontation with the religious authorities.

So when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he was representing what bites us; our basically violent natures and our deepest fears of each other’s violence. In looking at the cross we see that which is hidden from us… that those whom we blame are not the cause of our distress. The cause of our distress is our own human nature.

But, as the writer to the Ephesians says, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Or to put it in other words, “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.”

Healing is available. Healing is available from whatever is biting you. Your snakes may be inner ones – fear of growing old, of being a failure, of having never achieved much, of not being able to make a living, of not having enough to survive – or they may be outer ones. When you lift these things up into the light of God’s love healing happens. I hasten to add that that does not mean that you will be rich and prosperous – we only have to look at Jesus’ life to know that healing does not mean an end to struggle. But healing does mean inner peace and serenity.

Because when we are healed we know the truth of God’s love deep down in our innermost selves. We know that we too have been raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. That is our reality as the children of God. When we are able to live in that reality, the problems of this life take their rightful place not as disasters, not as things that bite and kill us, but as nuisances which we can use to bring us closer to God. Our reality is that snake bites are just snake bites because our life comes through the unconditional and eternal love of God.


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