Just as Moses Lifted up the Serpent – A Sermon for March 14

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

A comedian imagines a sinner coming to confession, saying, “Bless me father for I have done an original sin. I poked a badger with a spoon.” To which the priest replies, “Well, yes, I’ve never heard of that one before.” We do love originality. So it’s not terribly hard to follow the comic Eddie Izard here and imagine congratulating someone for such creativity, even if it involves sin. That’s assuming it is a sin to poke a badger with a spoon, which it may not be.

Now, as you probably recognize, creativity is not what we really mean by the term “original sin.” Original sin is better understood as the reality that each of us is born into a world where sin is unavoidable. Even if we’re born as blank slates, we don’t stay blank for long. We cannot help but be both victims of sin and collaborators with it. The world is not as just or as free as it should be. We know this. Yet, try as we might, the situation, the machinery, is bigger than any of us. This is what we mean when we say sin is “original.”

Given that, it’s sometimes curious that we’re hesitant to use the word—sin. But I admit that I share this hesitancy. Knowing how many communities have used the term ‘sin’ to control their members and used it to enforce cultural idiosyncrasies, I find it a hard word to use. When I hear others use the term, I sometimes worry that I’m hearing unhelpful self-flagellation or, when it’s directed outward, an attempt to control others. Surely, if we’re not having much fun in life, one way to make ourselves feel better is to say that others are committing a sin. Surely the critics are not making that up.     

So sin is a hard word to use. Using it is fraught with risk. Yet this is not entirely new. The early church had to navigate challenges that came differences between the so-called “weak” and the “strong.” Some thought it was okay to eat meat that came from pagan temples, others thought it was wrong. Sin is and always has been a risky term of art.

And yet, whether we use the word itself or not, surely the basic concept is indispensable. There are actions and social arrangements that break shalom, that destroy peace, that victimize the vulnerable. Surely we must not look away from this. Poking badgers with spoons is not our only temptation.

Our first reading today comes from Numbers chapter 21. The lectionary does not often point us toward the book of Numbers—only three times, I think. (But to put that into perspective, that means we read from Numbers three more times than do churches who don’t use the lectionary.)

Do you remember the situation here? The children of Israel have been liberated from slavery in the empire. They have escaped into the wilderness. In Numbers 21 we read that some of them had been kidnapped by other militias, but there too, God had freed them. And yet the people complained.

They spoke against God and against Moses. They complained about their accommodations and about their food. And so, strange as it seems, God sent venomous snakes to administer justice. The older translations called them “fiery serpents.” But it’s a strange sort of judgment, no doubt about it. Though  at this time of year, I can imagine a desperate middle school teacher wishing for just such powers.

Perhaps the point was that the snakes embodied the poison of the people’s complaints. Maybe the presence of the snakes showed them the toxicity of their dissatisfaction. Or maybe the snakes simply showed them that things could be much worse. Either way, the people came to their senses. They took ownership of their complaints.

But it is the path forward that draws our attention today. The path forward, the way of salvation, was not to put misdeeds too quickly behind them, but to look upon a symbol of the act itself. And so God tells Moses to craft a bronze serpent and to place it on a pole. Those who looked upon that serpent were saved. We might say that it was those who did not look away from the symbol of their destructive choices that found God’s salvation.

The image of the serpent on the pole remains a symbol of healing to this day. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada still uses it. Jesus made use of the symbol as well.

Our gospel reading from John 3 began midway through the chapter. If we look at the opening sentences, we are reminded that what we’ve read is part of a conversation between Jesus and a fellow named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a student of the Hebrew scriptures and a cultural leader. He recognized the power of Jesus’ teaching. He recognized that Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and the disabled was a certification of God’s blessing on his ministry. Nicodemus wanted to know more.

Part of the explanation that Jesus gave was to refer to the symbol of the serpent on a pole. Jesus says (v. 14), “[J]ust 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.”

John wants us, his readers, to anticipate the crucifixion. John wants us to see that, although God is doing a new thing through Jesus, it fits with what God has done before. Through the voluntary suffering and death of the innocent Jesus, we must look upon our own sin. Jesus will be placed upon a pole, showing the gravity of the human condition. Jesus will be placed upon a pole, showing the even more consequential love of God. God liberates. God sets free. God heals. But this is not without cost.

Remember how Jesus put it (John 3:16): “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.” Salvation does not come through a write-off. It is grace, but it is a costly grace. It is love, but it is a love actuated through self-offering.

Two Christian luminaries, Reinhold Niebuhr and G.K. Chesterton, have each made the observation that sin is the only Christian teaching that can be verified empirically. Of course, that’s not quite right. Sin is label, and labels are self-referential not empirical. Even so, the general idea is surely correct. We can all look around and see things that aren’t right in our world. We have all experienced treatment from someone else that we know is not appropriate. And we have all done things that know are not right either. Things are not as they should be. We don’t need the Bible to see that.  

Furthermore, in John 3 Jesus says: “[A]ll who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” We open a news site and we see this too. There is a legitimate cry throughout our world for transparency and accountability. The ministry of Jesus pointed to this need two millennia ago.

But we must notice something else about what Jesus says to Nicodemus. Catch this (v. 17): Jesus says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.” God is not after condemnation, but salvation.

Some time ago I overheard a conversation between a couple of graduate students, the sort of thing you can’t help but overhear on public transit. Both of them were bemoaning the difficulty of establishing a professional profile online. One’s problem was that there were a few videos of his drunken younger self that couldn’t be expunged from the internet. The other had once been interviewed about her time as a soldier. In the interview she happened to express disappointment with not seeing enough “action” overseas. When either one of them applied for a job, the prospective employer would look them up online and quickly move on to another resume.

Our world needs transparency and accountability. We can say that without any hesitation. But it also needs salvation and restoration. Critical judgment is necessary, but so is the difficult work of reconciliation and re-creation. This is what we hear from Jesus in John chapter 3. Please don’t hear me saying that people who abuse trust and power should get their positions back or have their careers restored. I don’t think that sort of flippancy is what Jesus envisions here.  

What Jesus envisions, what the Bible envisions as a whole, is the restoration of relationships: right relationship with ourselves, with God, with other people, and right relationship with the world God has created. Not condemnation, but salvation.

Jesus’ own life gives us a picture of what this looks like. Remember how Jesus loved his friends? How he wept at the death of Lazarus. Remember how Jesus went out of his way to care for the vulnerable. Remember how Jesus took time to pray in solitude. Remember how Jesus took note of the birds and how he saw the land around him as a picture of God’s gracious relationship to all things. And remember how Jesus embraced voluntary poverty—knowing when enough was enough. Not condemnation, but salvation!

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