Facing the Snakes (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

Sermons on YouTube…

There are many stories in the Bible that seem kind of strange to us. But every once in a while, you come across a story that makes even biblical scholars wonder why it ever got included in the Bible. After all, writing things down on paper was expensive and time consuming. And so if it was convenient to forget a story, it would be easy to decide simply not to include it.

The story of God telling Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole so that people could look at it and be healed from their snakebites is one of those stories. Even for the Bible, the serpent story is a strange story to be remembered and written down because:

  • in the Bible, serpents always have negative connotations … (from the very beginning, the serpent is the agent of rebellion against God; and unlike in Greek mythology, serpents are never a symbol of healing, except in this story …)
  • making a graven image is otherwise expressly forbidden by God … (remember the 10 Commandments last in last week’s reading! And here, God is breaking his own rule …)
  • as the centuries rolled on, the ancient Israelites did, in fact, begin to worship the bronze serpent after it was set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. So eventually, King Hezekiah had to have it destroyed … cf. 2 Kings 18:4. That alone, would have been a good reason to forget about this story…!

In fact, Christians would probably never read this story in Church if it wasn’t for the fact that Jesus made reference to this story in the Gospel reading we just read.   So what is it about this story? Why is it remembered, in spite of its strangeness and in spite of the problems it caused later on? And why was it so important that Jesus himself made reference to it in relation to God’s ultimate plan of salvation?

Well, maybe it’s because, for as strange and difficult as this story is, it helped people to remember in a very powerful way, that God’s help and healing were possible, despite all the odds, when people were willing to:

  • face what they were afraid of … (to look at the snake – the very symbol of death; the first part of healing was to face head-on the most difficult things in their lives – even the very symbol of death; that’s also what the Cross was, and often we gloss over that…)
  • trust God in the face of things they couldn’t control … (the ancient Israelites couldn’t control the snakes; and in fact, God doesn’t take away the snakes. The people kept getting bitten; and looking at the bronze serpent as a cure made no more sense to them than it does to us; but when people were willing to trust God in spite of their skepticism, they got healed; and that was a lesson they needed to remember, because the desert would continue to be full of snakes, as well as other nasty stuff…)
  • expect God to give them a future beyond their pain and fear… (after all, the people were looking towards the promised land, not simply a day without snakes. And part of that meant trusting that their healing wasn’t just for today – it was to empower them to keep looking forward and moving towards the future that God had promised them…)

And I think Jesus mentioned this story because it illustrates what it means to follow God and to be faithful in any time and place. We may not live in a wilderness surrounded by snakes. But life has a way of seeming like that sometimes.  There are all kinds of “snakes” around us, and sometimes they bite.  And, honestly, if you’re like me – or even the ancient Israelites – your reaction is probably to simply ask God to take away the snakes so we don’t have to deal with them anymore…

But that doesn’t always happen. And following Jesus in a world in which we’re often surrounded by “snakes” means being people who are willing to:

  • face the things that scare us the most – like the ancient Israelites, you can’t move forward in any journey of life by living in denial or by simply waiting for the snakes to go away. And sometimes, I get stuck, and maybe you do, too, when I feel like I can’t move forward until things look better out there…; But faithful journeying often means being willing to face head on the things that make us wonder, “will this kill me emotionally or financially or physically?” Jesus’ call to look to the Cross is a call to face everything that scares us head on – even death – not because it’s fun or even edifying, but because it’s often only through facing those difficult challenges that Jesus brings us out of death and into new life…)
  • trust God in the face of things we can’t control, even and especially when we don’t have all the answers and when God’s answers don’t make intuitive sense; I think one of the problems we face as modern people is that we’ve been able to “fix” so many problems our forebearers faced, that we often believe we can “fix” anything. And when we can’t fix it, we wonder what went wrong or who should be blamed. But there are just too many things in life that we can’t fix or change, no matter how hard we try. And faithful journeying means being willing to continue on in the midst of the snakes, instead of just trying to figure out how to make the snakes go away. (One of our presenters at my recent continuing ed event was a preaching professor who’s done a lot of work on preaching through trauma… And one of the points she made was that very often the biblical stories point us to new life that comes by living through the trauma, rather than hoping for “everything to be just like it used to be” or “as though it never happened” … (with the “weeds”, or even in the midst of the “snakes”…)
  • expect God to give us a future beyond our fear and confusion … Jesus called his first disciples not simply to expect a future in heaven after they suffered snakebites on earth, but also to be people who looked forward to the mission Jesus called them to after the Resurrection; and that journey, also, would come with snakebites. Yet, the snakebites wouldn’t win in the end. And faithful journeying means seeing meaning and purpose in what God calls us to do right now, in spite of the snakes, and in spite of sometimes getting bitten…

This story of Moses and the bronze serpent is a strange one. But in fact, it reminds us of some fundamental truths about journeying with God and following Jesus.  And that’s because this story reminds us that following Jesus always requires us to face the things that scare us, and to trust God in spite of our pain, and to look forward to God’s future. 

But even more than that, the story reminds us that God is always working in our lives to heal us and give us hope. This story reminds us that God is always with us, even in the midst of the things that scare us and bite us. And this story reminds us that God is always looking to give us a future, even when the present moment seems really scary.