Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
2 From 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. 5 The 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.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 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. 8 And 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.” 9 So 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.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that 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. 18 Those 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. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But 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.
Sermon Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?
NOTE: For the scripture reading, I wore a rainbow-colored clown wig. I kept the wig on during the introduction to the sermon. In that intro, one of the congregation members “interrupted” me, with the following dialogue.
PASTOR: Good morning.
SAM: Pastor, what are you doing?
PASTOR: I’m preaching the sermon, Sam.
SAM: I know that. What’s that thing on your head?
PASTOR: It’s a rainbow wig, Sam.
SAM: I can see it’s a rainbow wig! What’s wrong with you? Why are you wearing that God-awful thing?
PASTOR: Do you remember, back in the 80s…
SAM: You don’t mean, Rainbow man?
PASTOR: So, you remember him?
SAM: I’m from the 80s, too. Of course, I remember him. But still, why?
PASTOR: I wanted a visual reminder of that weird attempt at evangelism.
PASTOR: For those of you who don’t remember Rainbow man, he was this guy who made it his mission to go to sporting events, wear a rainbow wig, and when the TV cameras turned to him, he’d hold up a sign that said “John 3:16.” He believed that he would lead people to Christ by wearing that wig and holding that sign.
SAM: You mean, he thought that people would look at him, grab a Bible, read John 3:16, and decide to change their lives because of one single Bible verse?
PASTOR: I guess.
SAM: That’s ridiculous. And you’re ridiculous for wearing that wig. Take it off.
PASTOR: You think?
SAM: Yes. Take it off. It’s ridiculous. It’s even more ridiculous than that story I read—about the snake on the pole.
PASTOR: Yeah, that is a weird story. Thanks, Sam!
Our reading from Numbers is one of the weirdest stories from the Old Testament. It’s weird on a couple of levels. First, it seems like the Israelites are really whiny. God just released them from slavery in Egypt, and now they’re complaining about the food. Something’s wrong with this picture.
So, God punishes them for complaining by sending venomous snakes to bite the Israelites. But if the snakes are poisonous, the Israelites will die. It seems like a self-defeating punishment. Remember, the Israelites ate manna while they wandered through the wilderness; they gathered that manna every morning and it was enough food to last through the day. Call me crazy—or ridiculous—but wouldn’t it have made more sense for God to withhold the manna for a day or two? That seems like a reasonable punishment for complaining about the food. Right?
Instead, God sends venomous serpents. That doesn’t make sense. It’s self-defeating. It could actually kill off the Israelites. So, instead of crafting a more appropriate punishment, God tells Moses to make an image of a snake, put it on a pole, and then, when the Israelites get bitten, they can look at the image of the snake and be healed.
That’s really weird. And complicated.
It sounds like magic.
This story takes place after the Israelites have received the Ten Commandments. They’ve heard God tell them: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath.” How is an image of a snake, raised up on a pole—how is that NOT an idol? Moses didn’t even ask God why that was okay.
It’s weird, right? It gets your attention. But it’s like a dude wearing a rainbow wig, holding up a sign that reads “John 3:16.” It gets our attention but we don’t know what to make of it. We walk away from the story scratching out heads and wondering why it’s in the Bible in the first place.
I won’t get into the full academic explanation of this story—it’s too long for a sermon. Suffice it to say that the image of a snake is not an idol because God commanded Moses to make it. It’s a visible symbol of God’s love and care for the Israelites—even if it seems a bit overly complicated.
The deeper theological problem in this story is that the Israelites can’t let go of their old reality. They have trouble trusting in God, trusting that God will provide something better, because their current reality is an endless wandering in the wilderness, the physical and spiritual desert. It’s so difficult that a lot of people wonder if they were better off back in Egypt. Sure, they were slaves, but at least they had enough to eat.
As weird as this story is, it speaks to me in this time of pandemic, because I believe we, too, are wandering in a spiritual desert. We’ve been isolated from one another. Yes, it was for a good reason. Keeping our distance has been a way to remain safe. But it’s so very easy to remain focused on the way things used to be; we want to return to normal, whatever that was.
We want normal, even when normal wasn’t always healthy. And we have to wait just a little bit longer for that, too. It’s like weather. This past Thursday and Friday were beautiful and warm. Today, it’s not as nice. We have a vaccine, but it will be a few months before everyone who wants the vaccine can get it. Flowers are springing up, but there could still be another snow.
And if we’re really honest with ourselves, we don’t want to go back to the way church was right before the pandemic. We want to go back to the way things were twenty or thirty years ago. It was a time of lower anxieties. We want easy answers, easy solutions. We want ten-point plans for church growth and we want guaranteed results.
We’re like the Israelites. What we have now is difficult, even painful at times. The place that we just left wasn’t comfortable, but it was predictable. It’s easy to believe in things we can see, or in things we remember. It’s a lot harder to believe there’s a better future out there, a better way of being the church. But nostalgia is deadly. Things that worked in the past don’t always work in the present or in the future.
It’s hard to draw a good answer from the story in Numbers. It seems a little bit too easy to say, look to God and everything will be okay. That’s trite and it lacks a clear way forward. I mean, yeah, the Israelites could look at that image of a serpent on a pole and be healed, and in doing so, they were reminded of God’s love for them and God’s plan for them.
Long after the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land; long after David was anointed, and later became king; long after Solomon became king and built the first temple in Jerusalem; long after David’s kingdom of Israel split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah; long after that, some people continued to look to the image of the serpent. It became an idol, and people worshiped that idol.
In 722 BCE, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. In the south, in Judah, King Hezekiah saw this and decided that the people of Judah needed to rededicate themselves to God. Hezekiah ordered that the image of serpent be destroyed—even though it was made by Moses, at the command of God. Hezekiah decided that the bronze serpent no longer served the people or God; it was a distraction, at best; an idol at worst.
The name Hezekiah means “God is my strength.” Instead of trusting in an idol, King Hezekiah put his trust in the Lord and he succeeded. The Assyrians invaded Judah, but Hezekiah’s forces prevailed; the kingdom was saved. He didn’t look to an idol for help; he looked to God. Things that worked in the past don’t always work in the present or in the future.
Jesus says something similar; he says, “whoever believes in him will have eternal life.” Whoever believes in Jesus will be saved. I think we have trouble hearing that. We have trouble believing in things we can’t see and in things we haven’t seen before. We haven’t seen what the church might look like in the future. And sometimes the call to believe in Jesus seems overly simplistic or trite.
In this time of uncertainty and anxiety, I think it’s a good idea to spend more time studying the scriptures. Study is a wonderful discipline for Lent. Study is an opportunity to dig deeper, to move beyond that single verse we all love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son….”
Yes, that’s a wonderful verse, but the story is so much deeper, so much richer than that one verse. Jesus is speaking to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a religious leader. We have to pay attention to the immediate context of that verse, so that we don’t miss the bigger picture.
Nicodemus is a learned man and he gets that Jesus is special. He’s seen some of the signs that Jesus has performed, but he can’t wrap his head around a Messiah that doesn’t fit his expectations. To put it another way, Nicodemus wants to understand Jesus intellectually.
This dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus begins at Chapter 3, verse 1. The conversation takes place at night, under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus doesn’t want the other Pharisees to know that he’s meeting with Jesus, that Nicodemus is entering into a dialogue with Jesus.
The Pharisees had a rigid understanding of the law of Moses. To them, faith was obeying the law, absolutely. Like many of the other factions within Judaism at the time, they expected the Messiah to be a military and political leader, someone like King David, who might drive the Romans out. Maybe the Pharisees would have liked another King Hezekiah, who purified Jewish religious practices.
Each of the religious factions within Judaism were expecting a human Messiah—a fully human Messiah. None of them could conceive of a Messiah who was fully human and fully God at the same time. No one expected God to dwell with humanity as a person. No one could wrap their heads around that idea.
One of the major themes in the Gospel of John is what it means for us that God is in a direct relationship with humanity. Even God’s chosen people, Israel, couldn’t conceive what that meant. Other than Abraham, Jacob, and a few of the prophets, no one had that direct experience. That is, until Jesus entered the world.
Nicodemus seeks a dialogue with Jesus. He wants to understand how Jesus performs the miracles, the signs that point to the presence of God in the world. He wants knowledge. Instead, Jesus offers relationship. And through that relationship, he offers eternal life. Still, Nicodemus doesn’t get it.
This encounter takes place at night, under the cover of darkness. The darkness represents Nicodemus’s ignorance. The darkness also symbolizes the lack of relationship. At this point in the story, Nicodemus is unwilling to enter into relationship with Jesus.
If Nicodemus were to enter into relationship with Jesus, he probably would have lost his standing among the Pharisees. Nicodemus probably didn’t like the status quo in Jerusalem, but he couldn’t see a new way of being, he couldn’t quite believe in Jesus, at that point in the story. Nicodemus wasn’t evil, but he was comfortable in the darkness; he probably liked his place in Jewish society. He had made his peace with the darkness.
Jesus shows the way forward by entering into that dialogue with Nicodemus. Instead of writing off Nicodemus or rebuking him, he has a conversation with him. Jesus is present with him, even though Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus. Yes, he challenges Nicodemus’ understanding, while he’s sitting down with him. The conversation between them is a sacred space. Jesus makes the time and space for the conversation with Nicodemus.
That’s what we have to do, too, if we want to move forward. If we want to move forward into a future that’s better than the present, we have to carve out these sacred spaces for conversation—with people inside of this congregation and with people who are outside of our walls. We have to go beyond the surface, beyond the superficial.
This starts with the scriptures. We need to spend more time with these stories from the Bible, including the weird stories, like the bronze serpent on a pole. We have to spend time with the weirdness. We also have to dig deeper with the familiar texts, like John 3:16.
We need to study them and discuss them with our church family and other loved ones who are equipped for the conversation. In other words, don’t put on a rainbow wig, stand on a bench in front of the Hall of Records, and hold up a sign that reads John 3:16. And when you study the scriptures, try reading them in different ways. For instance, in this reading from the Gospel of John, the word “believe” appears five times in this passage. Go home and reread the passage. But when you reread it, substitute the word “trust” for “believe.”
How does that change the way you read the passage? What do you take away from it when you read the word trust? After you’ve spent some time thinking about that, talk to someone else about it, too.
Don’t worry about getting it right—this isn’t just about knowledge—especially the first time. The gospels are filled with stories of people who only get things partially right, the first time. Think of the story we heard about Peter a couple weeks ago. Today’s reading is also a good example. In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is responsible for taking Jesus’ broken body down from the cross. Nicodemus buys the spices that are necessary to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus starts with a desire for intellectual understanding, and then he moves to a relational understanding.
We all need to understand these stories intellectually and relationally. We have to trust that God has prepared something better for us and we have to prepare for that new thing. Part of that preparation is studying the scriptures. Another part is carving out the space for conversations—not with the aim of converting people who don’t believe in our message or don’t trust in our message. The goal is simply to practice relationship. When we do that well, people will ask us questions, questions that we’re prepared to answer through knowledge and relationship. That’s how we turn our belief into trust and our trust into action. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember to make space for sacred conversations. Prepare yourself for these conversations by studying the scriptures and practicing relationship. Then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!