4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The 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. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
John 3: 14-21
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16″For 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. 17″Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
When I drive to Corpus Christi I usually stop at a little rest area alongside interstate 37 about 85 miles north of Corpus. As you exit the interstate and follow the ramp up to the rest area one of the first things you notice are two signs that say, “Watch for snakes.” It is a warning that there are dangerous things out there that can bite you, hurt you, maybe even kill you. So we are told to avoid the snakes and if you see one get away.
That makes sense. It’s good advice. It is, I suspect, how most of us try to live our daily lives. And it’s not just about the snakes that crawl on the ground. We live that way with regard to the snakes of life. We avoid those things we fear, the things that hurt us and cause pain – not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually.
So we avoid dealing with our addictions and attachments. We ignore broken relationships. We put off doing the hard work of life. We turn away from our difficulties. We repress painful memories. We don’t acknowledge our fear, resentments, or anger. We refuse to think or talk about our own death. We deny the things we have done and left undone. After all isn’t that what the sign says? If you see a snake get away.
What if there was a different sign? What if the sign said, “If you see a snake look him straight in the eyes. Stare him down. See who blinks first.” It sounds kind of crazy but at some level that’s exactly what God told the Israelites to do.
Their impatience in the wilderness, their fear of dying, living with an uncertain future and an unknown destination, the emptiness, thirst and hunger, the difficulty of life – all manifested themselves as snakes in the wilderness; snakes that would bite, wound, and kill them. They would have to face the reality of their snakes.
It seems like a smart Israelite would turn and run. But when the Israelites tried that they died. We are not saved from our snakes by running away. God offers a different option. Instead of turning away, the salvation God offered the Israelites was that they were to stare at the very thing they feared. God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s logic often seems foolishness.
Somehow authentic life involves facing and looking at the reality of death – not only our own physical death but also the many ways we die each day. The daily deaths happen in various ways – in our disappointments, failures, and shattered dreams; in our regrets and sorrows; our anger, fear, and resentment; the losses and broken relationships we experience; the separation and isolation caused by sin.
God’s remedy reveals that the wilderness serpent is both the agent of death and the agent of healing. The cross of death is now the cross of life. God says, “Look at it. Look at the very thing you fear, the thing that bites, terrorizes, and kills you.” Those are the places in which Jesus Christ stands victorious. God does not remove the dangers and difficulties of life. Instead, God offers a remedy and a way forward. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
In the person of Jesus, God became flesh to stand with us in the snaky places, to heal us, to make us alive, and lift us to the heavenly places. In Christ:
- The place of fear becomes the place of courage.
- The place of sin becomes the place of forgiveness.
- The place of wounding becomes the place of healing.
- The place of death becomes the place of life.
- The place of falling down becomes the place of rising up.
The very things that destroy life in the human world are in God’s world the instruments of healing and salvation. In God’s world the cure for snakes is a snake, the cure for human life is God’s incarnate life, and the cure for death is death.
Those who are willing to look into the snaky places of their life will see the Son of Man being lifted up; the healing and transformation of this world and life. Christ says to each one of us, “Look on me, believe on me, and live. Turn your gaze and you will be saved by the God who sent me. I have not come to condemn the world but to love the world into salvation.”
This holy season of Lent asks us to discover and name the snakes of our life. And then decide. Will we turn and run or will we turn and gaze? Lifting our eyes to meet the gaze of love, the gaze of Christ?
Very well put, brother. I love your analogy of how we tend to avoid facing our pet sins when we really need to face them and allow Christ’s light to do its work.
I always marvel that, as many as they were, the wandering Israelites carried with them the technology and means to make that scandalous golden calf and the bronze snake. That takes time and a lot of resources!
This whole section, to me, is strange. The people whine, they get birds and then a lot of them die because God gets angry. The people become impatient and whiney and God sends snakes to bite them – maybe it is metaphorical? Maybe a grumbling spirit attracts its own evil? I don’t know, I have no expertise. Maybe it’s all a part of the winnowing process, refining his holy people?
Love your blog.
Thank you for your comment and kind words about the blog. I think you are right in that we may need to see this as metaphorical – not as a way of ignoring or denying the story’s historicity but as a way of moving to a deeper understanding.
“Maybe a grumbling spirit attracts its own evil?” I think you are on to something here. I wonder if in some way the snakes become the manifestation or personification of the Israelites’ interior condition. God simply sent them the reality they were already living in and then used that same reality to heal them if they would face that reality. Seems as if the snakes in my life bite when I ignore, deny, or turn my back on them.
“Seems as if the snakes in my life bite when I ignore, deny, or turn my back on them.”
Isn’t that the truth!