|The Brazen Serpent (Mt. Nebo) – Giovanni Fantoni|
When I read the Old Testament passages for Lent, I envisioned a sermon series on the biblical covenants. After all, Disciples use covenant language to define our existence as a people. It’s even more appropriate because the congregation, Region, General Church, as well as the church at large is in a season of transition. Every reading from the Old Testament fit perfectly, except for today’s reading. Nevertheless, I decided to stretch the definition of covenant so I could speak about the “Healing Covenant.” Whether I succeed in this is yet to be determined.
This story is challenging because it features poisonous snakes sent by God to bite the people of Israel because they had spoken against God and Moses. There was an additional challenge, and that had to do with the symbols we’ve been using to set the Table. Pastor Rick let me know that if I was going to put live snakes on the Table he would stay home. I assured Rick and will assure you that no live snakes have been used in this worship service. Therefore, Pastor Rick will be at the Table!
You might be wondering why a story about snakes appears in the lectionary. Well, the reason is that it pairs nicely with today’s Gospel reading from John 3. In John’s Gospel Jesus has a conversation about the path to salvation in which he appeals to this story. He tells Nicodemus that “just 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 3:14-15).
While Jesus’ reference to this event provides the background for today’s reading, before we get to Jesus we need to see what the author of Numbers has to say to us without reference to Jesus.
The passage begins with the people of Israel wandering in the desert. They’re trying to stay clear of their enemies, but they’re tired and hungry. They’ve gotten rather impatient. Since this is the anniversary date of our shutdown for COVID, you might be able to identify with their impatience. So, they begin to complain. Actually, they’ve been complaining for some time, since this is the fifth and final complaint story in the Book of Numbers. They asked God and Moses why they had been led out into the desert to die. They complained first that they didn’t have any food or water, and then they complained about the miserable food they detested.
It’s at this point in the story that God has had enough with the complaining. So, God pushed back and sent poisonous snakes to bite them. This got their attention because they came to Moses to repent of their behavior. They ask him to pray for their deliverance. So Moses prayed and God directed him to make a bronze serpent so that anyone who looked upon it would live. In other words, they would be healed or receive salvation, which is the interpretation John gives. So Moses made a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and invited people to look at it. All is well that ends well!
There is a caveat to this story. It seems that over time this symbol of God’s healing covenant became an idol the people worshiped. They weren’t alone in this. Many of their neighbors also worshiped snakes. So, according to the story in 2 Kings, Hezekiah decided to destroy the pole because this sign of God’s healing covenant had become a graven image and magic amulet. (2 Kings 18:1-5)
It’s good to remember, as Doug Bratt suggests, “the bronze serpent has the power to heal only because God graciously gives it that power.” [Center for Excellence in Ministry]. The power resides in God, just like with the elements of bread and juice we take during communion. They’re not magical, they’re signs of God’s grace and love that come to us through Jesus. These elements are sacred signs to be held with honor, but they’re not idols to be worshiped. The same is true here with the Bronze serpent. Perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor is correct in her suggestion that what Moses is doing here is making “it possible for them to gaze upon what they are afraid of,” and in doing so, “they gain access to its healing power” [Feasting on the Word, p. 103]. The important thing to remember is that the healing power of the covenant is rooted in God’s grace which we experience as an act of faith.
If we understand this premise then we can address the challenge idols pose. That’s because even signs of grace can become idols. Therefore, the Lord’s Table, a church building, or a style of worship can become an idol that distracts us from the God who brings healing and salvation to us and to the world at large. So, perhaps this story invites us to hold fast to the one who truly brings healing to our lives.
Now, about those snakes, while I don’t believe that God sends fiery snakes to bite people, life experiences, including perhaps snake bites can serve as a wake-up call. Perhaps that’s what this pandemic has done for us. While it has turned our lives upside down, and many lives have been affected, it’s clear that things will never “get back to normal.” Things have changed. We’ve changed. Just to give an example: Who would have thought a year ago that we would willingly wear masks when we go out in public? Might we do this in future years when there’s a flu outbreak? I’m seeing people on Facebook and Twitter ask about what we will take from this experience into the future. Even as the people of Israel left behind their wandering ways, so we will also leave behind the pandemic. The question for us is: has this experience led us closer to the covenant-making God or not?
This question takes us back to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. In pointing back to the story of the Bronze serpent, Jesus tells us that when we look upon the cross, which is a sign of the brokenness of this world, we will see in the cross a sign that light has come into the world so that we might live. Therefore, let us lift high the cross of Jesus.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 14, 2021