The Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Just over halfway through our forty-day journey through the Lenten wilderness, our first reading from Numbers takes us back to the forty-year wilderness journey that the Israelites took. This reading follows a series of “murmuring” stories, in which the Israelites are complaining about how things are and are longing for the past. There isn’t food; the food we have isn’t good enough. There isn’t water; the water we have isn’t good enough. Why did you bring us out here to die? Life was better in Egypt… This has been going on for many chapters, at least half the book up to this point, and this time, they have taken their complaints one step too far, they have pushed on God one time too many. And so we hear that poisonous snakes start biting them.
These snakes are not only dangerous. Snakes instill a particular visceral fear in many, and they invoke a primordial sense of evil in this grand archetypal, mythical way. Think about Medusa and her hair of snakes. Think about Harry Potter, Slytherin, Snape, and Voldemort. Think about St. Patrick kicking those evil snakes right out of Ireland. Think about the Adam and Eve story. It is a snake that tricks them. It is a snake that corrupts the purity of the world. And in punishment, the story says that God put enmity between humanity and snakes. In a story like this, the snake always represents something greater than itself. The snake represents evil.
So these snakes come and bite the people and many die. Knowing that it was their complaining that caused this, the people regret what they have done and ask Moses to intercede. Moses does and God responds, but not in the way that they would have expected, nor probably in the way that we would have expected. Not in a way that God had responded in any of the other murmuring stories. For God does not respond by taking the evil away. God responds by having Moses build the very thing that has been harming them for the people to gaze upon: a snake up on a pole. Evil lifted up on high. When the people looked upon it they were healed.
What God offers is not the removal or absence of evil, but a sign, a symbol of the evil thing for the people to gaze upon, and through looking upon this evil thing, they would be healed. In some ways, this is similar to the way that vaccines, anti-venoms, and immunotherapy work, but not quite. It is not the snake on the pole that saved them. As the Book of Wisdom says when referring to this snake on the pole: “For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all.” This snake is not a medicine or magic talisman, but functions sacramentally – as an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God’s healing action in the midst of the violence and pain and evil of this world.
Jesus plays with this story in our Gospel today, comparing himself to the snake on this pole. Just as the snake was lifted up, so would he. In a beautiful poetic parallel, we hear that just as "that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live," in Jesus' lifting up, "whoever believes in him will live eternally." The word believe here means not intellectual assent to the existence of Jesus or of Jesus' divinity, but trust and confidence in him. And the expression eternal life is not simply an expression of temporal time, but eternal meaning something with strong foundations, foundations that will not perish with time. Eternal life is not a euphemism for the future after death, but true, full life that begins now and whose strength will withstand the ages. "Trust in me and you will find strong, full, complete life that will not perish," Jesus tells them.
Of course, this lifting up of Jesus is onto the pole of the cross. Just like in the desert, God doesn’t remove evil from the world when Jesus is lifted onto the cross. There is still pain and suffering that surpasses our understanding on every side. There are the minor slights in our daily endeavors, and there are the grander horrors that hopefully we only encounter in the news, but too many here have encountered in their own personal experience. Lives lost too young, too painfully, too unfairly. Relationships breaking apart so tragically. Failures that seem insurmountable. And God does not offer a solution that involves taking all of that away; God offers a path forward that involves completely entering into it. Christ on the cross entered the evil of crucifixion, the injustice of the world, the brokenness of humanity, the fear and pride of the powerful, the painful suffering of the innocent. God dwelt in the midst of the evil and nailed it to the cross.
And we are given this sign, this symbol, to gaze upon and see our salvation. In some ways it is a strange symbol of our faith, it is a symbol of violence and death. It is the tool of the state to end life. The way we use the cross as a symbol is the equivalent of putting the electric chair on the top of our buildings, or wearing a picture of a syringe with lethal drugs around around our necks. But that is our symbol, because the cross reminds us of the very illness from which we need healing. The cross not as a magic talisman, but as a sacramental sign of the grace of Christ's presence in the midst of our suffering, a sacramental sign of the grace of Christ's love in the midst of our insecurity, a sacramental sign of the grace of Christ's light in the midst of our darkness. The symbol of the cross placed at the center of our lives together so that we may meet the world's violence and death with the hope of the resurrection we journey toward this season. Amen.