The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 11, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
I read a story this week about a woman who was so afraid of snakes that she had not left her home alone for over 10 years, on the off chance that she might see a snake – in Westchester County, not known for snakes. She entered exposure therapy to deal with this phobia, and gradually worked her way from reading about snakes to holding a toy snake to looking at snakes up close at the zoo. By the end of eight weeks, she was handling snakes, and demonstrating them in a nature center. Pretty effective therapy. Anyone here afraid of snakes? Some of you might know that some Christian churches practice snake-handling, seeing it as a demonstration of faith. Ten weeks from now is Pentecost, which would be a fine time for snake-handling here at St Michael’s. You can make this your new Lenten goal. (I’ll plan to be away that day.)
But you might also know that St Patrick, whose day will be celebrated this week, is known among other things for driving the snakes out of Ireland (a country that has no native snakes to this very day, so it must be true). Actually, many Christian saints drove snakes out of various places, according to legend, all across Europe – in Gaul, Germany, Malta, Iona, and elsewhere. Some think that’s all a metaphor for driving out the pagan religions. And yet one of the enduring symbols in Celtic Christianity is the snake, often wrapped around a cross. Snakes symbolized resurrection and healing, because they lose their skins regularly and yet keep on living anew. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, carried a staff with a serpent wrapped around it, still the symbol of medicine today.
But despite this, I’d guess that most people don’t like snakes. So it’s a distressing set of readings today, snakes coming out to attack the Israelites in the wilderness and the Son of Man compared to a serpent on the cross. It’s imagery that feels pretty far removed from our lives – one of those times when Scripture seems totally arcane and strange. Your rector says, hey, read the Bible! It’s great! Everybody here is doing it! And then you open it and find stuff like this…
But one rule of Scripture study is that passages that make us squirm are always a sign that we have to wade in a bit further. There’s something in this for us, but it takes work to get to it. So here goes – let’s handle some snakes.
The reading from Numbers is most difficult, of course. What’s happened is that the king of Edom has prohibited the Israelites from going through his land on their way into Canaan, so they have to go the long way around. They’re so close to the Promised Land, and yet still so far. They’ve survived for 40 years on manna and a few quail, but now the prospect of better food in Canaan makes them sick of what they’ve got. This is not the first time they have complained and acted out. The worst of it was the golden calf, making a visible god for themselves to worship instead of the great YHWH who brought them out of Egypt, cloaked with fire and cloud. Many of their rebellions have brought a swift and terrible response from God, followed by repentance by the people and a restart to the relationship. Despite numerous cycles of this, the people complain yet again, stupidly, about the food. ‘There’s not any food to eat and besides, we hate this food!’ God responds by sending poisonous snakes to bite them all. Those bitten by the snakes die. The people immediately repent and beg Moses for help. So Moses makes a bronze serpent and puts it on a pole, and when the bitten person looks at the image of the serpent, they are healed. It’s exposure therapy to the nth degree. God doesn’t take away the snakes, but at least they can live with them now.
Many generations later, the king Hezekiah, zealously cleansing the land of Israel of heresy and idolatry, breaks up that bronze serpent on a pole. The people had begun to pray to it, and named it Nehushtan. That fact says more than anything else about our relationship with God, I think, but leave that there for now.
That might just all be a story that fades into the strange past except that John the evangelist picks up that snake on a pole again as an image, and connects it to the cross. And then we hear that almost too-familiar scripture verse, 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. A verse that far too often has been lifted out as a one-line summary of the whole gospel message, but interpreted in the inverse: whoever does not believe in him will perish. The snake comes up to bite us again.
Now, I bet there are some questions in your minds about all this. God sent snakes to bite people because they complained? What kind of a God is that? Why is God in the Old Testament always doing things like this? And asking these questions, you find yourself highly suspicious of John 3:16. You’ve seen that waved at televised football games, and something about the way it’s waved makes you think there’s not joy and welcome in it, but judgment. Or maybe that’s just the way I take it – every time I saw that guy with the sign at the Olympics that read Jesus = Heaven/ No Jesus = Hell, I didn’t think, ah, how nice, a fellow believer! This is the stuff that makes it really hard to get Episcopalians excited about evangelism.
And yet, John goes on to say, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ But that’s not the part we usually hear.
It makes me think that all that wandering in the wilderness wasn’t so good for us. Ernie Cortes, my favorite community organizer with the IAF, likes to say that it took God one day to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but 40 years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. But maybe we’re still trying to get Egypt out of us. Somehow, in our collective bones, we stick to the belief that God is out to get us. You can see it in the stories of those Israelites wandering the desert, coming to believe that they were better off without God, or with a god of their own making instead. That they would have done it better, stayed in Egypt where things were good, had better food, picked better people to lead them. Somehow they forgot that God risked everything to get them out of Egypt, out of slavery. Somehow we forget that God risks everything to get us out of our own mess of sin and pain, and bring us into life. We forget about the love part.
And in that state, we look at the cross and see judgment – judgment of others, who don’t believe or act or live or look the way we do. Judgment of ourselves, for all the ways we fail to get it right. Judgment that says that God, if there is one, is ready to strike us for doing wrong – instead of being ready to love us into doing right.
And the cross has been used as that kind of symbol. In its origin, the cross was a common mechanism of shameful death. It was like lynching in the South, a public display of violence meant to intimidate and strike fear into the hearts of the people. The Romans crucified thousands and thousands of people, by the roadside usually, for crimes and petty offenses and sometimes just as a spectacle and show of power. Behold the cross, and see the power of the state, the power of evil, the sign of death and destruction. It’s not too far a step to transfer that power to the church, to the spiritual authorities, to God’s very self – as if judgment and destruction were the main point of the story.
But one of those thousands crucified was Jesus of Nazareth. His death was horrible and shameful as any other; nothing about his crucifixion was any different, right down to the jeering, indifferent soldiers. Except that Jesus had already lived differently, showing himself to be a sign of God’s love and healing, walking around in the world. And then, even more wonderful, Jesus’ body, broken by that torture, was no longer in the tomb a few days later. Instead, Jesus, God’s love and light made manifest, was risen. Behold that cross, and see the power of life, and of healing. Of love and forgiveness beyond all bounds.
As a pastor blog-writer I follow says, ‘Those who believe that God is love are saved; they look to the One lifted up for healing. Those who cannot imagine that God comes bringing love rather than punishment are lost, lost to their despair, sin, and confusion.’
I find that I too often fall into that pit of snakes the Israelites fell into. I can do a little complaining inside about what I have and don’t have. I can get pretty judgy about other people and even judgier about myself. I can grab the wheel and try hard to steer myself without any help, usually off in the wrong direction. I get bit by the poison of what is happening in the world. Those poisonous snakes are all around me and many of them are inside of me, and they don’t make me well. Sometimes the very last thing I want to do is look at all of it openly – it’s just too painful, too embarrassing and shameful.
But that’s what the practice of confession does. That’s one of the gifts of this season of Lent. We begin our service each week with confession first of all, laying out together what we have done and left undone, the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf. We don’t name it all specifically out loud, but inside, quietly, we can do so – name the poison we drank this week, the ways we treated others, the ways we failed to respond to God’s love and mercy. And then we hear absolution spoken by the priest – which is not the priest forgiving us, but speaking aloud the words so we can hear God forgiving us. Looking at the cross, the serpent that bit us, the instrument of shame and death, we see God’s love pour through it. Right into all the broken, toxic places in our own souls – healing us and making us whole. And next week, we do it again, and again and again. (Some people find that getting more specific in private confession helps even more – if that sounds good to you, talk to me or Leigh about it.)
There’s a reason for a penitential season, in other words – and it’s not to make us feel bad. It’s to help us see more clearly the love and forgiveness God has for us – to look upon the mess we’ve made and the hurt we’re in, hold it up, and see it turned into redemption and healing. To look upon the serpent and be healed of the poison, to see in a symbol of death and judgment the gift of life. It means we can know ourselves to be forgiven and so forgive others. It means we can start anew and allow others to start anew. We all need this, so very much.
If you got here too late for the opening prayer of confession, I suggest you take time saying it later at some quiet point in the service. Or if you did say it, but maybe not wholeheartedly, say it again. Offer up to God what needs healing in you. Name what’s broken. Acknowledge it. And then hear the words God speaks to you:
May the Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.