“Serpent Insights”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
11 March, 2018
Lent 4B

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:1-17

Sometimes there are things that don’t feel safe to talk about in the broad light of day.  Sometimes, there are things we’re curious about that we don’t want anyone else to know we’re interested in, so we explore in secret, hoping we’ll never feel exposed.  Because vulnerability is scary stuff for most of us.  We’d prefer to be in control of the situation (or at least feel we are), and if that means doing what we have to do in the dark, then so be it—even though it usually stunts our growth.

That’s what was going on for Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under cover of darkness.  He was a leader of the Jews, we’re told: a “teacher of Israel” so stuck in his ways of thinking and seeing the world that, although he glimpsed God in Jesus, he simply couldn’t figure out how to move to the light of Jesus’ way of being.

He had heard Jesus teaching in the Temple, and he’d witnessed the signs—the ways that everywhere Jesus went, healing happened: people became stronger, lives were transformed, changed for the better.  Nicodemus knew enough to recognize that Jesus was from God—because, as he himself acknowledged, “no one does these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”[1]  But he was locked into his certain way of thinking and being; it was terrifying to imagine things any other way.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he didn’t want anyone else to know what he was up to; that could potentially have cost him something.  He was afraid of all he stood to lose if any of his friends or family found out—his status, his friends, his habits, his worldview, his loyalties.  And that felt like too much to change or sacrifice.

So, poor Nicodemus was condemning himself to skulking for meaning and truth in the dark.  And it was killing him. His soul was shriveling, dying, and he sensed it—as surely as he sensed that Jesus had the answers that could heal him.  But he didn’t dare talk about what was eating his spirit in a time or place where others could recognize him.  Nor could he bring himself to trust what Jesus was teaching and embodying, any more than the Israelites under Moses’ leadership trusted God’s faithfulness and assurances through the prophet.

The people of Israel were thrilled at first, when God heard and responded to their enslaved groaning and wailing in Egypt—when God moved through Moses and Aaron to liberate them from their human oppressors.  But as they journeyed through the wilderness, a committee formed (some say there’s one in every church): the “let’s go back to Egypt committee.”  You know what I’m talking about—it’s the group that resists change mostly because it’s change, even though the old ways have long since stopped working.  They’re the ones who prefer to polish the past more eagerly than realizing God’s unfolding future.  They tend to be characterized more by fear than by faith or hope.

So, with each that week passed without any greater sense that they were in control of their own destiny, the committee of complainers and fear-peddlers among the wilderness-wandering Israelites grew.  And with them, the accusations grew louder and larger: Moses should have warned them that the journey would be difficult.  He should have given them a choice—they didn’t have a choice, did they, because surely if they’d had a choice they never would have opted to wander in the desert and wilderness for years on end!  In fact, Moses probably knew that they’d be wandering endlessly, and he just wanted them to suffer—that was his plan, all along!  He didn’t actually care about the people—all he cared about was getting out of Egypt himself!  (They forgot that God had called Moses back to Egypt from his own self-imposed exile, in order to respond to the cries of the people for liberation.)  As the people worked themselves up, they convinced themselves that Moses was depriving them of the security they had known before.  At least as slaves back in Egypt, they knew where they’d be sleeping each night, and they knew there would be food on the table!

They failed to see how they had become slaves to certain patterns of thought, increasingly confined to narrow, fear-filled ways of viewing the world as they longed for a life that looked like “the rest of the world.”  They were in the wilderness so that, having been freed from their physical bondage, they might also be released from their spiritual captivity by learning to trust in God’s presence with them through the good and the bad.  But, like human beings from the beginning of time, they indulged the wrong idea that when things were good, then God was with them.  And when things weren’t easy, God had abandoned them.  They failed to see that they were placing their trust and confidence in the broken, fallible ways of the world—forgetting that God’s ways are not our ways, nor is God’s wisdom anything like human wisdom.

Not long before the scene we heard described this morning, after complaining over a lack of water, God had instructed Moses to strike a rock—and the people received the fresh, sweet water that flowed from it.  And before that, they’d complained of hunger, so they’d been receiving daily allotments of food called manna—just enough to suffice for each day, so that no one could hoard it.  But they weren’t learning.

Finally, in today’s reading, after numerous episodes of the people complaining against Moses and Aaron for poor leadership, they cried out not only against their human leaders, but also against God: “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.” (How many of you have ever looked through the stocked pantry and fridge before complaining loudly, “There’s nothing to eat!”?  See—it’s been happening for thousands of years!)

God was fed up with their refusal to turn from self-centered narratives and notions about where their ultimate security came from.  And, the story suggests, “the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” (Num. 21:7)

It took something drastic and tragic to shake the people from their self-absorption and self-pity to recognize their need to trust that the One who was looking out for them had, indeed, been looking out for them all along.  “Sometimes, suffering is the only path to redemption,” observes Craig Kocher, University Chaplain at the University of Richmond, “and often the road to healing and light runs straight through darkness and pain.  It may not be a comforting message, but it is a truthful one.”[2]

“The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.’  So Moses prayed for the people.”(Numbers 21:7b)  What followed was an invitation by God for the people to demonstrate that they trusted God, that they put their deepest faith not in themselves, or Moses, or any other human being or power, but in God alone.  God’s instruction to Moses was to mount a serpent on a pole and raise it up in front of the people: if they were bitten by a serpent, all they had to do was to look upon the serpent on the pole with faith in God’s ability to save them, and they would not die.

Very few of us worry about being bitten by a serpent these days, at least not here in Hollis.  But the deeper insight or lesson for us today is this: we need to lift up what it is that terrifies us and robs us of life, take a good hard look at what’s killing us—and trust that God alone has the power to save us in any meaningful way.  Only then can we be healed.

To the rest of the world, the image of a snake on a pole might have inspired fear, anxiety, or revulsion.  In Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, representations of snakes were frequently used as symbols for dangerous deities.  So, the idea of looking up to something that most would prefer to avoid was counter-intuitive.  “Sometimes,” Kocher continues in his reflection, “when you go to the hospital, they have to hurt you before they can heal you.  Danger frequently paves the way to new life.  Often an image of ugliness and death can be the means to wholeness.  In this way, the Numbers story echoes the larger story of salvation.  Jesus’ violent death on the cross is the moment of God’s redemption in the reconciliation between God and creation . . . .  Seen through the eyes of the church, the image of death lifted high on a pole is not that of a serpent, but that of God in Christ lifted high on the cross.” [3]

It’s ironic, isn’t it?  It’s completely contrary to the world’s ways and reasons for raising up images of pain and suffering.  The powers of this world use such images for purposes of domination through fear and intimidation.  I’m persuaded that God really likes irony, though.  And paradox.  With God, the serpent and the cross represent divine mercy and healing—and there’s an unflinching acknowledgement that there is pain, ugliness, and sometimes even death as part of that healing—because these things bring about new life.  Some might say it’s scandalous.  And it is.  That the Creator of all life should choose to die a hideous death for an unfaithful people in order to demonstrate divine devotion … it’s scandalous.  But not as scandalous as rejecting the invitation to accept that divine love, to deny reconciliation with the One who has given everything for our greatest wellbeing, which is what we do when we choose the world’s ways over the ways of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, was desperately afraid of being “outed” as a possible follower of Jesus—the radical, nonconformist Jew who was re-visioning the world by embodying for us all what God’s love looks like in person and in action.  That love turned the tables on worldly status-quo notions of power and authority, of leadership and servanthood.  And it threatened a whole lot of people with earthly power and prestige, even if they recognized something profoundly true and compelling about Jesus’ way.  People like Nicodemus.  Which is why he approached the Son of God under the cloak of nighttime—this became symbolic of the shroudedness, the captivity of his spiritual existence, his fear of what the light might reveal about him.

During the Season of Lent—and we’re now deep into it—it’s worth reflecting on what we are most afraid of, and what that fear does to us as individuals, as a community, as a people.  What are the things that put us so ill at ease that we’d rather not talk about it in the full light of day, lest our vulnerabilities be visible to the world and we might find ourselves dying a hideous death in front of everyone around us?  What specific things might we focus on that epitomize our fear as individuals, or as a culture—and how might these things become idols that keep our fear in place?  Is it drugs?  People unlike ourselves?  Guns or certain “rights”?  A political ideology?  Immigrants and a changing cultural complexion?  Some particular expression of religion?  These are just a few.

Friends, we have to lift up what it is that terrifies us and robs us of life—take a good hard look at what’s killing us spiritually.  And then we need to reflect on how God responds to our fear—how God is trying to liberate us from every fear, every obsession, whether in the wilderness of our Lenten sojourn, or our life-long journey.  The truth revealed in our scripture lessons

today is not complicated, though it can be hard to get our minds around: The path to redemption is paved in suffering; the cure for human life is one man’s death; the cure for death is God’s own submission to death—because it revealed that love is more powerful still than that which we fear most.  Death does not win.

Therefore, lift up your eyes to the cross, that scandalous pole on which the love of God was raised up and poured out for the whole world through the Son, and trust in the light and embrace of God’s redeeming grace.  Amen.

[1] John 3:2.

[2] Rev. Dr. Craig Kocher, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 98.

[3] Ibid., p. 100.

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