Numbers 21:4-9; John 3: 14-21
I enjoy Gary Larson’s take on “intensive exposure therapy,” and I included his cartoon about dealing with the fear of heights, snakes, and the dark in your bulletin. It does not appear to be working, but it’s an intriguing idea and it offers us an entrée into this strange and disturbing reading from the Book of Numbers. The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness and they are complaining, which is not unusual. And they are unreasonable in their complaining, which is also not unusual: “We have no food, and the food we don’t have tastes terrible!” But after that, the story gets weirder. It tells us that the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the people. What’s that about? It doesn’t say that God did it to punish people for complaining; we could infer that, except that we know better: Jesus tells us on numerous occasions that God does not do such things. Or it could just be that the Israelites at that point believed that anything which happened, good or bad, must be caused by God: if there are snakes, God must have sent them. That is a primitive theology, but it is present in parts of the Old Testament. But what is most bizarre is what happens when Moses intercedes for the people. The LORD tells him to make this bronze serpent and set it up on a pole for people to look at in order to cure their snake bites, which of course we know doesn’t work. Right?
But beneath all the strangeness there may be a deep wisdom embedded in this passage. You will notice that when Moses prays, God doesn’t make the snakes go away: they’re still there, and they still bite people. Instead he makes people look at an image of a snake, and doing that heals them. Put in basic terms, the LORD does not make their problem go away: he literally makes them look at it and confront it head on. It may not be “intensive exposure therapy,” but there’s something significant going on here.
And John’s Gospel gets it. And doesn’t just get it, but connects it with the work of Christ and the truth of God’s love: And 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 (12:32) . In John, the moment Christ is lifted up on the cross is the critical moment. In chapter twelve, Jesus says, And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw the whole world to myself. And right after Jesus dies on the cross, John quotes the book of Zechariah: They will look on the one they have pierced (Zech. 12:10). The Israelites have to look at that snake on a pole, and it heals them. The Gospel tells us that we have to look at Christ on the cross, and it saves us. In the Greek, the word for salvation is the same word for healing. Eternal life doesn’t just happen after we die: it begins now, as we look at Christ and allow him to heal us and make us whole.
Why? Jesus is an icon of us: we look at him on the cross, and see the full effects of our selfishness, our greed, our violence, our indifference to others. And the cross does not just reflect our individual brokenness but the pain of our whole world: the systemic racism that afflicts our country, millions of people without health insurance, the abuse of our natural environment, and the huge and unjust disparities between the rich and the poor. They’re all there. When we see the body of Jesus hanging on the cross, we truly are seeing ourselves: our flawed, broken, and hurting selves — not being judged, but being embraced by the unconditional love of God.
For God so loved the world . . . The Gospel, the Good News, is absolutely clear: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. When we confess our sins, we do not so in order t0 feel guilt or shame: we do so in order to be healed.
But how does that actually work? How will that actually change our lives? Well, we can see a great example of that in 12 Step programs, which are inherently spiritual and reflect Gospel truth even when the participants are not Christians. The first step: “We admitted that we are powerless over alcohol or drugs or gambling or food or whatever it is that we are addicted to, that our lives have become unmanageable.” And the second step: “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” The rest of the steps simply outline a way of looking directly at the problem and seeing it within the light of God’s healing power. A snake on a pole. Christ on the cross.
And if you’ve never tried this, then Lent is an excellent time to start. Think of one of your besetting sins, a behavior or habit that hurts you and hurts others. Say, for example, you have lots of resentments. You don’t let go of anger easily but instead resent people and think badly of them, so much so that it eats away at you. I know a lot of people struggle with this. You could just say, “I’m so terrible. I really stink.” Or you could look at Christ on the cross, and see him embracing you with all your anger and resentment, and loving you. That would allow you to lay guilt and shame aside and look more closely. Why do you get angry so much? Why do you hold onto resentment? What old hurts do you carry? What insecurities cripple you? When can’t you forgive? How can God help you and heal you? Remember, Christ crucified is God loving us as we are so that we can be set free. Jesus died to save us. The goal of looking at the cross and seeing ourselves in the light of the cross is not condemnation: it is transformation.
I don’t know why God made a world where snakes can hurt people. I don’t know why God made a world where people can hurt people. We can speculate all we want, but God never gives us an answer to that question. Having faith does not mean explaining away the snakes: having faith means letting God heal the snake bites. Our salvation may not be fully realized until the Kingdom of God is fully realized, but it begins now. It begins the moment we look to Christ and say yes to his love, his forgiveness, and the healing he offers. For God so loved the world.