March 14, 2021 Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 Snakes and a cross.
Another bizarre story in the Book of numbers. Yes, the Book of Numbers has some strange stories about a blossoming rod that bore ripe almonds, water gushing from a rock, and a talking donkey are a few ones that come to mind. My least favorite one is the one we read this morning: It is about fiery serpents, or more correctly flying serpents.
The OT story is strange and disturbing because it plays on our very primal fear of snakes. Apparently, there was an ancient legend of the desert as a place of vicious and dangerous serpents. In particular flying serpents. In Isaiah 30:6 we read about an oracle of a viper and a flying serpent and in Isaiah 14:29 we read the following: “from the root of the snake will come forth an adder and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent!” There is only one thing more terrifying than a snake – a flying serpent.
The author connects ancient Israel’s impatience and disobedience with God sending poisonous snakes. These serpents are wreaking havoc, causing many casualties. The Israelites approach Moses with a confession: “we sinned against God and against you. Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us”. Moses prays and does what God tells him to do: He makes a poisonous snake out of bronze, and puts it on a pole. When people look at the snake on the pole they live, even after being bit by these vicious reptiles.
End of story? Not quite. The bronze snake on a pole makes a reappearance in 2 Kings. King Hezekiah succeeded King Ahaz of Judah. He was a good king who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. One of the things he did was to remove the high places (places where Baals were worshiped). He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made – “for until those days the people of Israel made offerings to it” (2 Kings 18:4). So, Israel really did not learn at all!
Instead of being distracted by strange stories about serpents, and questions about the nature of God who punishes people, let us rather focus on two major theological points in the text:
- Moses intercedes for his people in spite of the harsh punishment, and
- the solution is surprisingly simple and easy – they had to simply look at the bronze snake on the pole and they would live!
As one theologian says: “Moses intercedes and God’s sovereign power extents over the dangerous and sinister character of the desert!”
It is not surprising that this story has been seen as a foreshadow of what happened to Jesus in the New Testament. For both theological lines are picked up in the New Testament: In his Gospel, John picks up the story about the bronze serpent on the pole and apply this to a much more significant event, namely Jesus being on the cross. John furthermore, builds on the story in Numbers and says that Jesus being lifted up on the cross leads to life, eternal life.
And then immediately after connecting the bronze serpent who saved the lives of those in the desert, John writes what has become the most memorable sentence for all time: “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.”
The reason why God sent the Son is so well-known that the meaning is often taken for granted – God sending the Son stems from God’s incomprehensible love for the world, that is for humankind!
God bridges the chasm caused by humankind’s sin! The Apostle Paul calls this act of God “reconciliation.”
From the time of Moses, through Paul and John, we see that human existence has always been a balancing act between life and death. But John and Paul both go deeper into this theme by saying that the life that Christ gives is eternal. In other words, the life that Christ gives is not limited by death, or anything that has the ability to diminish the life God has in mind. Paul says that we pass from death to life. This new life, through reconciliation is free, it is gift of God, it is grace!
John who emphasizes God’s love of the World, and Paul, who emphasizes God’s mercy and God’s great love of us.
God loves humankind! Every generation needs to hear this for we are a people with short memories. Furthermore, we like to think that we are worthy of God’s love. We think that we deserve God’s mercy and grace.
All of us know the expression “context is everything.” This is also true for this best-known verse in the Bible. People often quote John 3:16 and focus on the second part of the sentence: “so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And when one focuses on the second part, one makes God’s love conditional.
In other words, so the argument goes, God’s love of human kind is conditional on whether people believe in Christ or not. Or said in a different way, God’s love is dormant until it is activated by our faith. This of course would make our faith an accomplishment, a good deed that would pay for salvation. Our intuitive response is that our faith is needed for salvation.
However, when you think about it carefully, you would see that if this were to be true, then the eternal truth that we are saved, or we are set right with God as an act of grace and not because of our own doing, this truth would become obsolete. It is then “my faith” that would force God’s love to be activated. If this were true, then we would be back to the time before Christ where we have to work out our salvation through our good deeds!
Verse 17 as a matter of fact reinforce the reason why God sent the Son into the world: “…not to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” New Testament scholars point out that at the time when John wrote this, a movement called Gnosticism was very active. Gnostics believed that salvation was meant only for those who are able and capable of receiving it through gnosis, that is esoteric knowledge. So, Gnostics back then believed that God’s love was conditional on my ability to understand through esoteric knowledge. John makes it very clear that God does not want the destruction of humankind, but the wellbeing of all of human kind and not just that of a privileged section!
Now you may say, but what about verse 18? “Those who believe in him are not condemned but those who do not believe are condemned already.” NT scholar Rudolph Schnackenburg is correct when he says: “The thought of verse 17 remains dominant throughout. God has no desire to judge, God’s desire is to save. Unbelief is therefore self-condemnation.”
It would be the same as those people who were in the desert, bitten by poisonous snakes who refuse to look at the bronze serpent and then suffer the consequences.
As you can see, theology is nuanced and often it is easier to simply say, God judge people who don’t believe. This view puts us on the right side and those who don’t believe on the wrong side. The theological truth however is more articulate. God wants the world, all of humankind to be set right with God!
And if this is God’s desire, then we, as people of faith who love God, should always approach everyone, friend and enemy, as the objects of God’s divine love! How would it be if every single person that crosses our path, is seen as someone who is loved by God? If we are reminded: God loves her unconditionally, so much so that God sent the Son for her. How can I not love her as well?
As Moses interceded for those in the desert, and as Jesus intercedes for us, we also need to intercede for other, friends and foes alike. That is why Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for them!”
This theology is of course not unique in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul says it very eloquently in Ephesians 2:4: “But God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -by grace you have been saved.” And in verse 8 again: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God -not the results of works, so that no one may boast.”
By grace, by the gift of God, not the results of works so that not one may boast! Simple and straight forward words. And yet so difficult to live by! The temptation is always great to see faith as my faith, or my faith that is bigger than yours as if it is my accomplishment! This view leads to arrogance even in the church. I may compare my faith with your faith. I may consider my faith more or bigger than your faith. Therefore I may think that because of my big faith, God must love me a bit more! It is a dangerous slope and we have to be constantly aware of this danger!
There is one more important aspect: Christian faith in fact is really simple: We are set right with God by God’s doing. It is almost like simply looking at the bronze serpent, not an accomplishment, and not very hard. And yet, it calls for a lot of courage: Can you imagine looking at the bronze snake, keeping your eyes on it in spite of these vicious vipers biting you, hanging on your leg, distracting you? So, it calls for courage to walk in faith, knowing that I am set right by God because of God’s doing. Why?
Because our natural inclination is to value things that are hard to accomplish, things that we work hard for to earn. We are raised and indoctrinated that everything that is worth anything needs to be earned. We need to work hard to deserve it! And the Gospel teaches us that the most precious gift, the love of God and the Son of God cannot be earned. It is given, for free! And this divine gift enables us to live without fear, prejudice, and hate. When we receive this divine gift, we want to respond with deep gratitude, serving God, loving others with joy and kindness. When you think about it, it is not that complicated.
And it is a real comfort knowing that God loves me, on days when my faith feels strong as well as days when I have more doubt than faith. God loves me on days when I feel on top of the world and God loves me when I am down, wrestling with the meaning of life. When we embrace this divine truth of God’s love of us, we will never give in to the temptation to worship bronze serpents or golden calves, or any other idols that present themselves to us as the solution to life’s problems! Amen.