On Snakes and Salvation

Sermon preached at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA
March 26, 2006

The people spoke against God and against Moses,
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

In the name of the one who was, and is, and will be for ever. Amen. •

The night has long been my time for writing.  Whether it’s term papers due the next day – or sermons, the stillness and mystery of the night slow my mind and open my heart. It was during the night that I wrestled with God about my vocation. The night is a time of secrecy, danger, and unexpected encounters … like the one between Jesus and Nicodemus – the setting for our lesson from John.

John 3:16 – It’s one of the most-quoted verses of the Bible.  For some, it’s a summary of salvation.  I remember the King James Version from Sunday School:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  It seems so simple then: believe in Jesus, and you will live forever; don’t believe, and you will die.

Many of us, for good reason, cringe when we hear things like this. Perhaps we remember the sermons of our childhood, knowing too well the damage these teachings have done to so many who fall outside the narrow bounds of what certain people think it means to be saved. We may have friends and family of other faiths, and find it impossible to stomach the destructive claim that salvation belongs to Christians alone.

Many of us come to St. Bartholomew’s looking for a different kind of Christian faith, one that involves more than confessing Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.  It is tempting to tiptoe around words like “salvation,” sticking to more familiar territory like service and justice and love and inclusion.

But today, our Scriptures place in our midst two classic texts about salvation: John 3:16, and Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, where the Protestant reformers found their theological gem: “by grace you have been saved through faith, this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”

As Episcopalians, we do accept Jesus as Savior and Lord in our baptismal covenant, and to offer a compelling message of the Christian gospel – one that is truly good-news for our world today – we need to learn, again, how to speak, in different ways, words like “salvation.”

One admittedly unlikely place to begin is today’s reading from Numbers.

The Bible’s fourth book, Numbers is nestled between Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Its lists of strange-sounding names from the census of Israel (from which we get the title “numbers”) can be hard to make sense of. But if we press on, we have a lot to learn from this text that is called, in Hebrew, Bemidbar – meaning, “in the wilderness.”

Numbers is about those years the Israelites wandered through the desert on their way to the Promised Land: after the dramatic deliverance from slavery in Egypt, after the Law at Sinai, but before they arrived at their final home.  It is an in-between time, marked by doubt and detours, conflicts and confusion, but a time also of learning how to be the people of God, learning what it means live in the middle of the process of salvation.

Today is the one and only time in our three-year cycle of readings that we actually hear a story from the Book of Numbers.  And, of all things, it’s a story about snakes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of snakes. Even when they’re safely behind glass windows, my stomach goes a little crazy.

In today’s reading, God sends snakes when the people, once again, complain about the wilderness. This isn’t the first instance of complaining. Over and over, it’s the same groaning. You can almost hear it, as if from the back seat of a minivan:  “Moses, are we there yet?”  What were you thinking? We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. We’re still not to Canaan. It’s like you brought us out here to die. We were better off in Egypt.

This time, the people curse God, too – frustrated because they were so close to Canaan but got turned away by the people of Edom, descendents of Esau, who refused to allow them safe passage through their land.  So they had to take the scenic route, all the way around Edom, adding more and more time to the journey. You can understand why they’re mad.

But God is not impressed and sends snakes to bite them. The people cry out for God to save them (just like in Egypt), and God answers them again. Not by taking the snakes away, but establishing a means for healing, a bronze snake on a pole: look at the snake, and the bites won’t kill you, refuse to look, and you will die.

In a paradoxical method (known as sympathetic healing), you look at the object of your poisoning and find a cure.  Snakes, in the ancient world, were associated with death and with healing, with evil and with life.

John’s Gospel connects this bronze snake with the cross of Christ. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.”

Note that the people of Israel needed to look the snake in the eye if they wanted to be healed, to face the sin that was poisoning them and come out into the open. They had to admit their fears and frustrations, and individually claim the forgiveness and cure that God offered. The healing was a free gift, but it did not work automatically.  It had to be received … over and over again.

Like the snake on the pole, the cross is an ambivalent symbol, one of unspeakable cruelty and death, but also a source of salvation. If we continue connecting John’s words about Jesus being lifted up, with the snake on the pole, we discover that the cross does not heal automatically either, but only as we look at it.

A couple of years ago, when the movie The Passion of The Christ was released, the controversy about the film centered not only on its anti-Jewish elements, but also on its brutality, the sadistic lashings, the paralyzed onlookers, the ruthless imperial government, and what seemed like hours of relentless suffering.

For some, these scenes were too much to watch. For others, watching this suffering energized their faith, as they saw Christ take on the punishment that they thought God demanded of them.  Now, I don’t believe that Jesus’ suffering fulfilled a need by God for a blood sacrifice, for surely God could forgive freely, with no strings attached.

But looking at the cross, with Jesus’ suffering body hanging on it, does do something important for us. It exposes and confronts us with the violence of this world, a violence that destroyed even the anointed one of God, whose way of justice, compassion, and peace we follow. It shows us the violence that infects our lives, the ways we are caught up in webs of exploitation, in desires that poison others … and ourselves.

As we look at the cross, we bring out into the open the wounds we bear and the wounds we inflict on others; the fears we experience and the terrors we cause.  As we look at the cross, we are brought, face to face, with what Paul describes as the cosmic conflict between the demonic course of this world, and the grace and good works which God desires for us.

For sure, Paul and John present salvation as an either/or enterprise: dark or light, evil or good, condemned or saved … and believing in Christ means moving from one side to the other.

But if we step back from these theological soundbites, a more complicated story emerges. Remember that in John, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus at night. Yes, he tells Nicodemus to bring our lives into the light, rather than hide in the darkness … but he gives this teaching while still in the dark.  We hear about the fullness of salvation, but experience it only in part. For now, his relationship with Jesus happens only in the protective cover of the night.

Many of us find ourselves in a similar place … somewhere “in between,” in places like the darkness, like the wilderness.

For the people of Israel, their decisive moment of salvation came in their deliverance from captivity in Egypt. In one sense, they were already saved. But the other part of salvation was to live in the Promised Land.  And to get there, they had to walk through the wilderness.  It was a long way: three and a half books of the Bible, including that little-read book of Numbers.

We like to make salvation instantaneous, retelling the “mighty acts” of power, like the Flood and the Red Sea and the Covenant … as we’ll do at the Easter Vigil (in the dark) a few weeks from now.

We talk about the Resurrection, too, as if it’s the end of the story – the powers of death sin and death conquered, once and for all.  That’s sort of true, the way that the Israelites were sort of free, after they were released from slavery. But in another sense, the mighty acts of salvation are only the beginning of the story.

Sometimes, in our lives, we do experience big moments of salvation, when everything changes, once and for all. But most of the time, encounter what Latin American theologian Ivone Gebara calls a “fragile redemption” – a true change, but one which marks a new stage on an unfolding journey … and which requires us to set out into unfamiliar territory, again.

Remember the complaint that brought the snakes in the first place – “why did you bring us out here, Moses, we would be better off in Egypt.”  Better off? In slavery?

For them, and for us, freedom is scary, sometimes even more scary than the familiar patterns of life that we know are destroying us, killing us, poisoning us from the inside.

That is what Paul means when he says we were dead through our trespasses and sin, as we are just “going-with-the-flow” through the death-dealing ways of this world “like everybody else.”

Salvation comes in freedom from these poisons, a slow healing, when the venom doesn’t kill anymore.  But sometimes we don’t believe that any change can come. Frustrated by the detours along the way, like the Israelites at Edom, we curse God and give up.

John Done, the English preacher whose feast we commemorate this week, wrote these words: Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun, / which is my sin, though it were done before?

The answer of course, is Yes.  God will forgive that sin, and every other one.  The Psalmist reminds us this week that God’s steadfast love endures forever. Cry, after cry, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the darkness of our own nights… God comes to answer us.

During Lent, we spend time in this dark, wilderness place, resisting the urge to rush too quickly to Easter, or to look back too fondly on the mighty acts of the past. We stay in the wilderness, and we learn here. We learn the lessons of Numbers, we learn to look the snake in the eye, confronting our fears, including our fears of freedom. We look, in the same way, at the cross, and confront the violence that binds us as victims and victimizers, through things done, left undone, and done on our behalf.

That would be a great end to the sermon, but there’s one last twist.

The bronze serpent on the pole didn’t disappear once the Israelites passed through the desert. It ended up in the Jerusalem Temple, where people started worshipping it.  Hezekiah, the 25 year-old king of Israel some generations later, took the snake and smashed it into pieces, reminding everyone that a blessed object of healing can easily become an idol.

The cross, too, can become an idol when our focus stays fixed on it, instead of its message. Jesus does not stay on the cross, but is lifted up again, out of our sight.  And so as we look to the cross for healing of our own wounds, Jesus sends us outward to find him in the midst of those who are broken, abandoned, tortured, crucified in this world. There, in what Mother Teresa called his “distressing disguises,” we can truly find Christ, and find the next step on our unfolding journey of salvation.

Instead of looking into the eyes of a bronze serpent, we may find ourselves looking into the eyes of a Mexican immigrant, whose wilderness wandering in our borderland was filled with more dangerous detours than the one between Israel and Canaan.  At this moment when we search for a just solution to immigration reform, when legislation threatens to make any gesture of helping illegal aliens a criminal act, we may be called on to take up the challenge of our House of Bishops at its meeting this week, which called on Episcopalians to follow the Gospel and our Baptismal covenant and relieve the suffering of undocumented immigrants without regard to unjust legislation.

To be ready for that moment of salvation, when we must choose sides, publicly, without the safe cover of night, we need to use this time in the wilderness well.

Moving beyond our fears of freedom.

Confronting our pains.

Confessing – perhaps, at first, in the darkness – those secret sins that poison us.

Looking Jesus in the eye: on the cross, and in the world.

Then we will be prepared, at last, to enter the Promised Land … ready to tell the story of our salvation.