Sunday, March 10, 2024

Fourth Sunday in Lent

“Snakes Everywhere”
– Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Numbers 21:4-9, CEB)
Gospel Reading (John 3:14-21, NRSVUE)

In today’s first reading, from the book of Numbers, the Israelites are understandably pretty fed up with wandering around aimlessly in the desert, eating nothing but manna, and being attacked by their enemies. So they do what people in such situations often do — they complain.

The problem is that they decide to let loose not only on Moses (which they’ve already done five times in this book alone), but also on God (which they haven’t done before — and, after this, probably won’t ever do again).

Let’s just say that whining about God doesn’t work out too great for the Isrealites at first. In response to the people’s lack of trust and faith, God sends a bunch of snakes to bite and kill them (which makes perfect sense). And so the people ask Moses to intervene with God on their behalf, to pray so that God will take the snakes away.

Now, God doesn’t get rid of the snakes, but God does tell Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. The people who are bitten by the actual snakes that God sent are supposed to look up at the sculpture of a snake that Moses made at God’s request, and, if they do this, they will live (which also makes perfect sense).

In our second reading, from John’s Gospel, Jesus invokes the imagery from this story in Numbers to explain who he is to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. John depicts Jesus comparing himself on the cross to that aforementioned bronze snake on a pole (incidentally, John is the only gospel writer who shares this story). And John does this in order to show that Jesus is the life-giver par excellence. In other words, while looking at that metal snake restored bite victims to life, believing in Jesus (who will soon give his life up on the cross) will enable people to live forever — and that’s even better.

John sums all of this up with one of the Bible’s best-known verses: “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” (which, when you stop and think about it, is perfectly logical too).

Okay, so now that I’ve sketched out the basic contours of these two related stories, it’ll only take me a few more minutes to explain fully the meaning behind them. I should have you out of here shortly so that you can go down to Bistro and enjoy some coffee and snacks before you head out to begin your Sunday afternoon.

I’m kidding, of course; I couldn’t explain these stories to you if you gave me all the time in the world, becuase they don’t make sense. And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about the weird one with the snakes (real and fake) from Numbers; I’m talking about the one from John’s Gospel too.

We’ve heard the verse of John 3:16 so many times that it’s familiarity has probably dulled us to the incredible strangeness of what it actually says: God loves us so much that God decides to join us here on Earth (as God’s own Son), to live as one of us, to die a violent and scandalous death, in order to give us eternal life. What? Think how crazy this sounds when you say it out loud.

It may seem like an obvious question to ask, but I’ll ask it anyway: If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why does God need to do any of this in order to ensure that human life endures and thrives? I mean, couldn’t God simply snap God’s fingers (assuming, of course, that God actually has fingers) and make that happen? And, in both of these stories, death — the opposite of life — seems to be a kind of precondition to life, but why? I have no idea.

In the case of the Numbers story at least, one could say that God is angry — in this case, at the people for their lack of faith — and maybe, the reaction of God to the ungrateful Israelites, after all that God has done for them, makes some sense, even though God admittedly seems harsh and vengeful, which isn’t so great.

In fairness, though, it may not be too far-fetched because we already know that God is jealous. And, to be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that about God, I’m just quoting what God said about God in last week’s reading from Exodus (you know, the one with the Ten Commandments). And I quote: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that it is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, or worship them; for I the Lord, your God, am a jealous God.” Okay, but this makes God’s command to Moses to make a metal snake and put it on a stick and have the people gaze up at it in order to be healed seem even more weird. I mean, doesn’t that kind of sound like idol worship?

And, while we don’t learn this in today’s story, here’s a fun fact for you: the Israelites end up hanging on to this bronze reptile for like five hundred years; heck, they actually gave it a name (Nehushtan) put it in the Jerusalem Templeand made offerings to it. In the second book of Kings, the reformer Hezekiah will have it destroyed because, you guessed it, the people were idolizing it. Color me shocked.

The parallels between this story from Numbers and the one from John’s Gospel are pretty obivous, and they’re obvious becuase John actually puts the words of comparison in Jesus’s own mouth: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” is what he says. Okay, but the metal snake, unlike Jesus, isn’t actually a living being; and the snake is, in no sense, sacrified for the people’s transgressions.

And so how do we make all of this make sense? Maybe we don’t; maybe we can’t; maybe we should embrace the fact that God often acts in mysterious ways; maybe we should accept that God is God, and we are not. Why do we always want to be in control of everything? What are we afraid of?

Well, I’ll tell you this: if there’s two things that a whole lot of people tend to fear, it’s death and snakes, and there’s no shortage of either in today’s two stories. So even if we can’t necessarily figure out the meaning behind every single detail in these stories, maybe spending a few moments with those two that we typically try to steer clear of might point us towards some greater truth.

Way back in the days of Numbers, when the Israelites were trudging around the desert, there were no hospital emergency rooms stocked with antivenom to stave off the effects of a snakebite. If a poisonous snake managed to sink its teeth into you, you died; so people were rightfully scared of snakes, and this made them a very powerful image for the readers and listeners of that time. Their presence here definitely would have gotten people’s attention.

As the story goes, the people’s lack of trust and faith in God is what leads God to dispatch the snakes to wreak havoc among them (again, I don’t know why God would choose to do this). The people confess the error of their ways to Moses, who follows God’s orders and makes a metal snake upon which the people are told to focus their attention (because that’s just what you do, apparently) — and that which they feared suddenly becomes the means by which they are saved. How did this happen? Again, I have no idea. Was it some kind of magic? Yeah, maybe. Or was it simply another manifestation of the idea that all things are possible with God?

As the saying goes, there’s no athiests in foxholes; and it’s seems like there’s none out there in the snake-infested first-century desert either. And I have to tell you, if I were hiking up in Millcreek Canyon alone and found myself on the wrong end of a rattlesnake with no help in sight, I’d sure be looking up to see if there might just be a bronze snake imbued with God’s healing power sitting on top of a pole. Would it work? I hope so. Then again, what else could I do at that point but trust in God? There is, it seems, often a fine line between desparation and faith. I don’t know why that is either.

But two thousand years later, we still find ourselves looking up at that cross amidst this complete mess of a world, hoping and believing that death just might not have the final word,

because of God’s abiding faithfulness to the covenant between God and God’s people;

because of this wild story of a poor Jewish laborer born to unwed parents on the wrong side of town named Jesus the Christ, who also happened to be Emmanuel, God-with-us;

because of those completely unbelievable, totally unfathomable words that Jesus shared with Nicodemus: Whoever believes in [me[ may have eternal life;

because of the God who always somehow manages to bring life out of death.

Improbable? Sure. Impossible? Do you really want to bet against God?

God so loved the world that ________.  Fill in the blank. Because apparently there’s nothing that God won’t do, there’s nothing that God can’t do, because of that love. And maybe that’s all we really need to know.