A Sermon for Sunday March 18, 2012. The Fourth Sunday of Lent. Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21, 35-36
4 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. 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 poisonousserpents 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 Lordsaid 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. (Numbers 21:4-9, NRSV)
“Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. In the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up; then all those who believe in Him will experience everlasting life. For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life. Here’s the point. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction.No one who believes in Him has to fear condemnation, yet condemnation is already the reality for everyone who refuses to believe. Whoever embraces unbelief swims in a sea of judgment because he chooses to ignore the Voice, and in doing so, he rejects the name of the only Son of God. Why does God allow for judgment and condemnation? Because the Light, sent from God, pierced the world’s darkness to expose ill motives, hatred, gossip, greed, violence, and the like. Still some people preferred the darkness over the light because their actions were dark. Some of humankind hated the light and so avoided it’s warm glow. They scampered hurriedly back into the darkness where vices thrive and wickedness flourishes. Those who abandon deceit and embrace what is true, they will enter into the light where it will be clear that all their deeds come from God…The Father loves the Son and withholds nothing from Him. Those who believe in the Son will bask in eternal life, but those who disobey the Son will never experience life. They will only know God’s lingering wrath.” (John 3:14-21, 35-36, The Voice)
Whenever I study scripture or think about a sermon or discuss matters of faith, scenes from well-known movies and TV shows suddenly pop in my brain and they are often hard to ignore. Like all good stories, these visual illustrations from our culture usually guide me further into the world of the Bible and this mysterious and amazing story about the relationship between God and humanity—God and us.
So when I recently read this bizarre tale about Moses and snakes in the Book of Numbers, it was hard not to recall (much less show) a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which also happens to be about Moses and snakes—the moment where the heroic Indiana Jones turns pale with fear upon discovering that the sacred Ark of the Covenant is protected by hundreds of venomous cobras. “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” he moans to his Egyptian friend Sallah.
Similarly, I also turned pale with fear upon discovering the content of the appointed texts for this fourth Sunday of Lent, the one from Numbers 21 and the passage from The Gospel of John where Jesus makes a reference to the Old Testament story. Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes, I moaned to myself before looking up at the ceiling.
Of all the scriptures to preach about during Lent, why’d it have to be the one where You send poisonous snakes to bite the Israelites and then ask Moses to create a bronze snake to heal them?
And of all the things Jesus says and does in the gospels, why O God does it have to be the passage where Jesus says he will be lifted up like Moses’ bronze snake and then talks about belief and unbelief, judgment and condemnation….Ugggh. This is so uncomfortable and scary, I don’t want to preach about these things. Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes? Ugghhhh.
After groaning about my predicament for a few minutes, I realized that, like Indiana Jones, I had to face my fear and discomfort with preaching such difficult and precarious texts. I had to “jump into the pit” if I was going to get a deeper understanding of the holiness of God.
So down I went and as of today, I haven’t left. I’m still in the pit looking for the meaning of it all. But just as Indy needed Sallah to go with him into the snake pit to help retrieve the sacred Ark of the Covenant, I need each of you to accompany me on this journey to discover what God is saying through these serpent images to 21st century Christians in this Lenten season.
Let us delve into matters by first observing what the snake symbolizes for people from ancient biblical times to the present. In several cultures, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through molting, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing.
For some religious traditions, serpents were viewed as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces because when threatened, a cobra or rattlesnake will frequently hold and defend their ground. And the snake’s venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness (and as some believe, immortality) through divine intoxication.
Today, the snake is most commonly viewed as a symbol of modern medicine and science. Both the images of the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, and the staff of Hermes, the Greek god of protection—adopted long ago as logos by The American Medical Association, The U.S Army Medical Corps and other scientific organizations—adorn hospitals and ambulances world-wide.
Of course, the snake is also linked to frightening images and stories that plague our innermost beings more often than the creature’s more positive characteristics. The snake is seen through many religion and cultures, including the Judeo-Christian tradition and scriptures, as a symbol of great evil, deception, destruction and death. The best adventure, action, sci-fi and fantasy films are never complete without a snake either crawling out of a human skull, consuming passengers on an airplane, slinking alongside the terrifying sorcerer or glaring from a menacing tattoo on the arm of a heartless pirate.
And while the snake’s role as an evil force is debatable, the natural truth that many snakes are dangerous and deadly predators doesn’t help boost their image much. Snakes continue to rank high on a lot of people’s fear lists according to notable research polls like Harris and Gallup. But the reptiles are no longer the number one fear. Do a Google search and it seems that the fear of terrorist attacks, job layoffs, homelessness and crime are doing a lot more damage to a human being’s psyches than a varmint with no legs.
As if those legitimate worries weren’t enough, there are the news media outlets, talk show hosts, politicians and religious and civic groups who unnecessarily tell folks to be in a constant state of dread about everything:
gays and lesbians
And the more the fear mongers spew hate and judgment-filled exaggerations, the more the fear of the new, the challenging, the different, and the other makes a tighter grip around people’s hearts and minds. The fear can be so consuming that people will act in selfish and unloving ways toward God and neighbor by:
- desperately using all of their power and prestige to verbally and physically abuse and oppress another human being
- remaining silent about the abuse and oppression of another human being because they don’t want to lose their comfortable position and status in life
- complaining and whining incessantly about how their suffering and inconvenience is much worse than anyone else’s, especially those who are actually hurting from abuse and oppression.
The Israelites in the text from the Book of Numbers embody the last action perfectly. They are huge complainers, even though they are receiving all that they need. Recently freed by God through Moses from horrendous slavery and torture under the rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh, the Israelites whine day and night as they wander through the wilderness toward Promised Land—all the time chanting, “Let’s go back to Egypt! Let’s go back to Egypt!” They speak harshly to God and 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.’” And essentially what they’re saying is that being a slave in Egypt—where they were abused, oppressed and denied their humanity—was much better than being set free to roam the wilderness as human beings, trusting in the love of their Creator to provide every need.
The Israelites’ constant complaining reminds me of the TV evangelists who harp relentlessly about how we need to return to good ole American family values that existed in the 40s and 50s. And what they are basically saying is that being a citizen in America during that time period—when women, minorities, Jews gays and lesbians were abused, oppressed and denied their humanity—was much better than being a member of a society where all are free to be human beings, trusting in the love of their Creator to provide every need.
Sadly, there are many people—good and faithful Christians, even members of the Presbyterian Church (USA)—who believe the fear mongers and help spread their venomous message. And unfortunately I know this all too well from personal experience. As a child living in post-segregated Birmingham, Alabama, I grew up in a loving Christian-Presbyterian household where fear mongering was a daily reality.
I certainly didn’t lack for anything. I had an abundance of blessings—clothes, toys, food, shelter, education, love, care, support and an opportunity to learn about God’s love in a church community. But I also had a lot of fear passed onto me by my father, my paternal grandparents, my maternal great-grandmother as well as other adults and peers in life. I was told that I shouldn’t’ swim in the same pool as African-Americans because the water was dirty. And I was often taught that there was a vast difference between a black man like the comedian Bill Cosby and an ignorant black like the guy standing on the street corner in downtown Birmingham. Interracial marriage, according to my great-grandmother and paternal grandfather, was a disgusting practice. People who lived in the Middle East were the American equivalent of an ignorant black, a “dune coon” as my dad liked to say. He also expressed the view that anyone living in any other country, especially Latin American and Caribbean nations, were all murderous drug dealers. And gays and lesbians were considered by my dad and other relatives to be weirdoes, deviants, and abominations. My maternal grandmother still holds dearly to that notion.
It was only through the persistent love and grace of God, friends and other family members that my fears subsided as I became a teenager and young adult in my 20s. At 36, those old fears still have a tendency to reach out and grab me from behind, but I try mightily to shake them off my back. I’m ever vigilant that I will not let that fear of the other consume me nor attempt to devour my own child. It’s a daily choice I have to make each and every day I roll out of bed. I can’t afford to do otherwise I will suffer as my dad has from an eventual mental breakdown because of the ravaging fear that consumed most of his life.
When we make the choice to allow fear, hate, prejudice, and mistrust take control…
We as a people invite our own calamity.
We welcome the vipers to come and poison our blood.
We embrace “ill motives, hatred, gossip, greed, violence.”
We dwell in darkness “where vices thrive and wickedness flourishes.”
We disobey Christ and choose to not experience a life of love and grace.
But not God. God expressed His love for the world in this way: God didn’t send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction.”
The entire biblical cannon, from Genesis to Revelation, can be summed up as God’s love story for the world. 
Love that stirs God’s heart to hear the cries of the oppressed.
Love that offers the people guidance and security.
Love that calls prophets to declare God’s desire for compassion
Love that sent Jesus—God incarnate—in the world to teach that grace is meant for those like us and those unlike us, even our enemies and those who persecute us.
Love that stirred first-century Jewish-Christians to open the doors of the Church to the Gentiles as well as the poor and the sick.
Love that stirred 20th and 21st-century Christians to open the doors of the Church to people regardless of age or race, nationality or creed, gender or sexual orientation.
Love that stirs the members of this congregation to daily pray, teach, serve and worship together with all of God’s people.
Love that transformed the image of fear, a poisonous snake, into an instrument of salvation for the Israelites in the wilderness.
Love that transformed the image of a death machine into an empty cross of salvation for the world.
Love that carries us through the difficult season of Lent—
a time when we reflect on the suffering of Jesus and humanity’s role in the agony that was caused then and ever since.
Love that carries us in all our fear, hate, pain and brokenness toward everlasting hope and trust in God.
 Raiders of The Lost Ark directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford as the adventurer Indian Jones. 1981. Parmount Pictures.
 Adapted from Craig Kocher’s pastoral perspective essay, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press.