Snakes! The word literally crawls with poetic sound. Snakes! They eat their prey whole. Snakes! They don’t have legs or wings…they just move. Snakes! They feel so cold. Snakes! They lend themselves so easily to evil. What with their forked tongues, the sometimes-venomous fangs, their silent, mysterious movement…the embodiment of evil.
From the original satanic serpent in the Garden, to the fictional snakes like Rudyard Kipling’s cobras, Nag and Nagaina, or Harry Potter’s slithering nemesis, Voldemort, the snake is the enemy, the villain. In Greek mythology, Medusa’s snake-hair turns her victims into stone. Movie characters are terrorized by them. Mad scientists turn people into them. Why, even the common garter snake sends some people into a panic. Snakes!
The fear of snakes and their bite has produced one side effect: the snake-bite remedy! Whether it’s the humorous remedy that comes in a bottle or the legendary remedy provided by an Irish saint, or the more serious remedy of cutting open the bite and sucking out the venom-laced blood…where there are snakes, there’s talk of snake-bite remedies!
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” In our Gospel Reading today Jesus alludes to an event out of Israel’s past and He gives it a twist. He refers to the episode of the poisonous snakes which we heard from the reading in Numbers. The Israelites, fresh from battle, are traveling around Edom, on their way to the Promised Land. And as we meet them in the reading, they’re doing what they do so very well: complaining. Moses writes that the people grew impatient and spoke out against him and the Lord. Their complaint? It’s the same old song: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”
The Lord had just delivered them from the Canaanite king of Arad, and here they are grumbling again. “There is no meat and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” Never mind that God had miraculously given the Israelites water from a rock (an event that cost Moses his entry visa into the Promised Land)! Never mind that God had miraculously given Israel flocks of quail to eat.
Never mind that the Lord provided manna—something that sounds a lot like baklava, wafer thin layers tasting of honey—manna six mornings a week since the day they crossed the Red Sea a long time before. And never mind that the last time they got this worked up, God sent fire down from heaven to consume some of them. Never mind all of that…it’s time to grumble once again! “O poor us,” they whine, “we were better off in Egypt!”
So the Almighty, like a kindly old grandfather, gives the spoiled kids what they want, right? Not exactly. He sends snakes. Not just a few, but lots and lots of them. Fiery snakes. Poisonous, venomous snakes. Snakes whose bite seared the victim like flames. Veni. Mori. Caedi. They came. They bit. They killed.
Fear and panic seize the camp…as people scramble to defend themselves from the snakes, to find some sort of snake-bite remedy…while people are dropping dead all around them. Realizing their sin, they come to Moses. “We have sinned!” They plead once again for Moses to go and talk with the Lord and remove the curse. So Moses prayed. And the Lord provided a remedy.
So what would it be? Maybe the Lord will send fire to consume the snakes. Maybe He will open up the earth and swallow them all up. Maybe Moses will take his famous rod, and St. Patrick like, drive all the snakes away. Well…if they were thinking along those lines, they were in for a rude awakening!
The Lord tells Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole. Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”
“That’s it? A bronze snake on a pole? Just look at it and you’ll live? Are you nuts, Moses? We need snake bite remedies, not sculpture! Do something!”
But that was it. And as we read in Numbers Moses did exactly what God told him. He made that snake statue and stuck it up in the air on a pole. “And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Some commentators get all squirmy over this episode because for them it smacks of magic…as if the bronze statue somehow cured everyone. Those commentators need to go back read about Abraham again. It’s not the statue…it’s God’s promise. God promised, “Whoever looks at it, will be saved.” And those Israelites who said, “Yeah, right!” went off to die. And those who believed the promise looked up…and lived. No magic. Just another episode in the saga of life with God.
Now this whole curious little episode would have remained but one of many curious little episodes in the Old Testament…except that Jesus snatches it out of obscurity and uses it to say something about Himself. “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.”
But isn’t that rather odd? Moses lifted up the bronze snake as a model of what was killing the Israelites. That serpent was the image of God’s judgment on His whiney, grumbling people. But Jesus talks about Himself being lifted up! Clearly it’s a reference to His crucifixion, but does He mean that on the cross He becomes the image of God’s judgment? On the cross, He is the very thing that is killing the human race? That’s exactly what He means!
Strung up to die on that pole, Jesus did not look like the glorious Son of God. He was regarded as a snake, not even that, a worm, the unworthy menace of the entire world. And as God did in the wilderness so here, He heaped a world’s sin on this crucified head. God judged this Son lifted up on the pole. Despised, like the serpent in Paradise. Condemned like the world in which He walked. The venom of sin tearing at His body, piercing Him with flaming agony and death.
And after three days, He was lifted up once again. Not to die, but to live. No longer the snake of judgment, but the Giver of life. As God promised, behold, the remedy. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God did not put His Son upon that pole to condemn the world, but to save us. God did not make His Son into the image of a snake to condemn us in our serpentine ways, but to save us. And all who look to that crucified Son shall live. It’s a promise.
And here once again emerges the theme that has followed us through Lent this year…of how God always sets His promise within the challenges of faith. This is why we Lutherans have always valued a crucifix as a devotional aid, rather than a plain old bare cross. It is why John 3:16 is so more profound than the popular cliché it has become, plastered on poster boards at athletic events.
The Israelites were invited to look upon the crucified serpent. Yes, to do so was their rescue, but at the same time they looked upon their judgment and their sin! How hard it must have been!
So we look upon the Son of God, lifted up on a cross. Yes, indeed, as God has promised, He is our rescue. To look is our life-everlasting. And yet…at the same time, to look upon this crucified serpent, Jesus, is to look upon the sin that bites us, the venom that courses in our veins, the judgment that condemns us.
To look upon the cross of Jesus is to see both…always both, always together. The poison and the pardon, the snake and the Savior, our judgment and our redemption, our death and our life. For some it is too ridiculous to look, and they do not. Even for a person of faith it is hard. But to look…as hard as it may be…and to live. Ah, that is God’s remedy, the promise of God, in Christ, to us!