Three years ago when we last heard today’s assigned lessons, I began my sermon with these words: “This morning we encounter one of most peculiar stories in all the Old Testament.” That statement still seems like a pretty good place to start. The story of the snake bites in the wilderness and healing power of a bronze serpent most likely would have faded into Old Testament obscurity had not Jesus tied his life to it metaphorically – “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” For Jesus, the wilderness story is deeply revealing of the meaning of his own act on the Cross.
Now, I am sure you remember from that sermon three years ago how I brilliantly brought the Old Testament story to life and described every nuance and facet of the text, so I won’t need to go over that again. Well, maybe just the cliff notes:
· The people of Israel spent years wandering in the Sinai wilderness after Moses led them out of Egypt.
· It was a barren land with few resources, yet God gave water to drink and food to eat.
· The ‘eatable’ substance God provided was called ‘manna’ – a Hebrew word meaning “what is it?”
· Aptly named, this flaky, sticky stuff was the only food the people had to eat for years on end.
· When they grew sick of it – literally retching to get it down – they complained bitterly.
· God, like the chef at a fine restaurant, did not take kindly to criticism of the menu.
· The King James Version of the bible says that God send “fiery serpents” among the people who bit them. Other translations just say “venomous snakes”, but there is a real mystery as to what exactly these creatures were… natural snakes or supernatural seraphim.
· Either way, people are dying and they reason it is because they offended God.
· They ask Moses to pray for forgiveness.
Now, this is where the story really gets interesting. God tells Moses to make an image of a serpent and mount it to a pole. Whoever looks at the snake will be healed, God says, and whoever does not will die. Notice that God doesn’t specify what material to use in crafting the image. Moses, as if humored by the absurdity of it all, elects to make the snake out of bronze. Now, he could have chosen any material – wood (easy to chisel), stone (he had already worked with it on the Commandment tablets), but in a word play/pun that Al Reese would surely appreciate, Moses decides to make the snake (nehash in Hebrew) out of bronze (nehoshet). He makes a nehash nehoshet and do you know what, it works!
The instrument of rejection, judgment, and punishment becomes the means of forgiveness, redemption, and healing because God’s power works through it. The people of Israel hung on to that nehash nehoshet for centuries as a sacred reminder of God’s goodness, but destroyed it once people began to believe that it, not God, had mysterious, healing powers. After that, Hebrew theologians became embarrassed by the details of the event and when the poet of today’s psalm set out to write a song of praise, he or she sanitized the story by omitting the weird serpents and snake pole, saying only that the people were afflicted and God spoke a word so they would be healed. Most likely the story would have slipped into obscurity had not Jesus breathed new meaning into it.
The healing process could not have been any simpler, could it. Look at the image and be healed or look away and die. It makes me wonder why anyone would choose to look away. Why would you not turn your gaze to the snake on a pole and be healed?
I want to explore this question by telling you about a strange dream I had last week. I was riding in the backseat of a car down the street where I grew up. As we passed the house where I was raised I saw that it had been stripped down to its structural bones and the new owners were in the process of renovating it. I have a lot of dreams about that house – usually they involve it falling into disrepair or fix-it jobs I had done years ago are now going bad; the roof leaks, the plumbing is shot, the wiring is dangerous – that kind of thing. Over the years I have come to believe that dreams about my childhood house have to do with regret. I regret that something in my real world did not turn out well or has not stood up to the test of time.
As the car drove on the driver turned around to face me. It was my father (who passed away 32 years ago). He was angry, very angry, and he had a gun. He told me his was going to shoot me. In my dream I remembering not caring if he shot me or not, but then I opened the door and ran away. He was firing the gun, but missing. I climbed up on a rooftop and watched as authorities wrestled him to the ground and it was at that point that I woke up.
I thought about the dream for a long time, trying to understand what it was all about. Many of us, if not all, have an inner voice that speaks for the critical parent. This is the voice that is always ready to come to the forefront when we fail at something. For some, it even chimes in to negate the things we do well. There are folks for whom that inner voice literally is the voice of a parent whose over-burdening criticism is never silenced over the course of one’s life. My father was not that way, fortunately, but he still gets to play the part in my dreams from time to time. In my dream world, it is a way for my own internal criticism to come to life as someone else. In some real way, my dream was about me being angry at myself. It was the manifestation of an intense regret for things done or left undone.
Here is the part of the dream I pondered for some time: why did I run away, why did I try to dodge the bullets? An obvious answer is I was afraid, or that I wanted to live. But in my dream I was not afraid. I had no sense of terror. I never pleaded “please don’t shot me.” Here is another possibility… perhaps I ran away because I grew tired of the criticism. That, in fact, is what the gun and the bullets represented, but if this is why I ran away why didn’t I shout something like “Stop shooting at me.”
After pondering all of this for some time, it dawned on me that I ran away because I believed I could be forgiven. It struck me as significant that at some deep, subconscious level there exists within me such a belief and such a hope. I wonder if there are people for whom this is not the case; people who do not believe they can be forgiven?
So why would some people look at the nehash nehoshet while others would not? The answer is as simple as, but as complicated as, some people believed they could be forgiven, others did not. Those who turned away did so not out of arrogance and not because they didn’t believe in a snake on a pole, but because they doubted that their mistakes and failures and regrets could be forgiven.
This morning we hear some of the best-known and best-loved words of Jesus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up the snake, so too will he himself be lifted up on a Cross. The implication is that those who look at him on the Cross will be saved and those who don’t will not.
Jesus then plays out this teaching through a slightly different metaphor of darkness and light. Some, he says, want to hide in the dark because their deeds are evil. Others will come into the light because they are not ashamed for all to see their godly acts. The truth is, we all have those things which we are willing to reveal and we all have those things which we want to hide. The great act of faith and the incredible expression of hope is to look at the Cross, to walk into the light, to believe at the deepest level possible that you are forgiven and you are precious and you are loved.
When Jesus says those who look at the Cross will be saved, he is not saying salvation is the exclusive domain of Christians, and certainly he is not saying that it is the exclusive domain of certain traditions within Christianity whose adherents believe they posses something the rest of us miss. Jesus is saying that salvation, healing, wholeness and fullness of life in this life and the next is open to every one. All you have to do is look and you will find it. All you have to do is face the light and you will be drawn toward it. But if you cower in fear or if you deem yourself too unworthy even to look, then you will suffer an excruciating isolation from God – an isolation you yourself impose.