written and preached by Rev. Natalie Shiras
March 18, 2012 Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
Last week we read about the Ten Commandments as a promise God made to the people to bring them out of slavery into freedom. But the people complained about the hardships of the wilderness. They complained about the bitter water they had to drink. God showed Moses how to sweeten it. They complained that they were hungry. God gave them manna. They complained they had no meat.
God gave them quails. They wanted to return toEgypteven it meant returning to slavery.
In today’s Hebrew scripture the people start to speak against God and speak against Moses. They wish nostalgically for a time in the past rather than following God into a new life and a new direction.
It’s hard to believe that the people would turn against God’s vision of freedom for them. It’s hard to believe that they would want to return to the life that God had just delivered them from.
So God sent serpents to get their attention. These serpents bit them, causing fiery pain, and some of them died. The people cried out in their affliction. So God asked Moses to wrap a serpent around a pole. When the people who had been bitten looked at it, they would be healed. If it does not kill you, it will make you well! The very thing that killed people was ordered by God to be wrapped around a pole in order to heal.
Where have you seen a serpent wrapped around a pole? It is the medical symbol for healing. It is the symbol of the American Medical Association. In Greek mythology the god of medicine is Asclepius, shown holding a staff with a snake on it. In the Sistine Chapel in Rome there is a painting of a snake coiled around a pole. Since ancient times, snakes have been associated with their capacity to either poison or heal. It’s paradoxical. The serpent could stand for wisdom and healing as well as danger or death.
I find it strange that God asked Moses to make a bronze serpent after telling the people through the Ten Commandments to make no idols. But if the people believe that the bronze serpent is responsible for their cure, then the snake is an idol. They were not meant to worship it or consider it some kind of magic. They were merely asked to gaze upon it in order to remember God’s presence and faithfulness. It was meant for their transformation. It was meant for their freedom.
God is taking what is most fearsome, a snake, and transforming it into new life. It is the same way with the cross, instrument of fearsome torture by crucifixion in Roman times. We do not worship the cross. It is a symbol to glorify and lift up Jesus Christ. It is a symbol of transformation. It is a symbol of freedom in Christ. In the gospel reading from John it says, “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.”
Gazing upon the serpent, gazing upon the cross, is an antidote to the deadly bite of sin. Once the people recognize their sin, they are saved. Once they are willing to gaze fully at what they are afraid of, they lift their hearts to God and gain access to God’s healing power. The snake on the pole was a merciful and loving act of God toward the people who had spoken against God.
What are you afraid of? What does that fear do to you? What is God capable of doing with that fear once it is recognized and put upon a pole for you to see clearly? How does God respond to your fear as you gaze upon it on a pole, at the foot of the cross?
Take a moment and gaze now at the serpent on the pole or at the cross, whichever you are drawn to, or both. Invite your fear or burden into the presence of God and the love of Jesus Christ. Sense God’s love for you. Sense Jesus’ healing for you. How is God responding to your fear?
Pain and love mingle together in our own stories, in the stories of those we know, in the stories of those who journeyed through the wilderness, and in the lives of the disciples and Jesus’ followers. Only by facing death can we find new life. Only by facing our fears can love grow, the love of God and the love of Christ and our love for ourselves and for one another. Lift up your eyes to God’s saving grace. Lift up your hearts to Jesus’ warm heart.
God gave you a tender heart, a loving heart. You are a son and daughter of God. You are my brothers and my sisters. We are all brothers and sisters of one another in Christ. Amen.
A Tree You Can Wind Around by Hafiz
“You are like a wisteria vine in a meadow.
You will naturally climb to the highest point
around as soon as you are able, and then offer
your brilliant color and scent to the world the
best you can…sensing some potential of giving and receiving more, achieving your destiny.”
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