Preached Lent IV, March 18, 2012
St. Giles, Moraga
Let’s talk about snakes. In particular, let’s talk about these snakes in the desert, biting the wandering Israelites. Even more in particular, here’s the question: Why did the Lord send snakes to bite and potentially kill the Israelites when the Lord had taken such trouble bringing them out of Egypt? Is God a despot like King Lear who depends upon the flattery and kind words of those close to him? And then goes insane when that flattery isn’t there?
There certainly seems to be a taste of petulance and perhaps even insanity about this story: if you’re going to be thankless, then I’m going to send serpents. And then if you’re sorry, I’ll heal you. That will show you, God seems to say. If that is the case, then that’s a God I can’t worship. A God that says, “You don’t like me, so I’m going to punish you,” is not one that I want to adore. A God that works by fear and intimidation isn’t a God that I feel I could rightfully call compassionate or loving.
I think it’s just a cheap trick to say, “That’s the Old Testament God and God isn’t like that any more.” Instead, I want to take a deeper look at this nasty little story and see if maybe there isn’t something else to be found there. Perhaps there is more here than first meets the eye.
First of all, where in the Old Testament story are we? When you hear the Red Sea, you might think that we are towards the beginning of the Israelite’s wandering in the wilderness, but in fact, we have come a long, long way. And the people have complained almost every step of the way from the beginning of the departure from Egypt until now. When we finally get to this story that we heard this morning, by my count the people have complained that they were going to die in the wilderness six times. This is the seventh time we have heard the Israelites complain against Moses and the Lord, saying they wish they had never been brought out of Egypt.
With all that in mind, and with the knowledge that this is the end of a long series of complaints and rescues, here is my thought about these snakes: I think that the Lord made flesh the very snakes that were already there, the snakes of fear and faithlessness that had been biting and poisoning and plaguing the Israelites throughout their entire journey. Let me say a little more about that.
You may have heard this definition of a sacrament: a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. I think these serpents are anti-sacraments: outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual illness. To me, that explains why the response of the Israelites to the appearance of these serpents was to say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” It’s because they recognized these serpents for what they were: a physical manifestation of their attitude and behaviors.
It also explains to me the next thing that happens. The Israelites say, “Pray to the Lord to take the serpents away from us,” but that’s not what happens. Instead the Lord says, “Make a poisonous serpent and put it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” Instead of getting rid of the serpents, God tells the people to look at the snake that bit them. No longer do they get to ignore the snakes; and the snakes don’t go away. The means of dealing with the poison of the snakes is that the people have to look at the snake that bit them.
Now, let’s take a look at what this might mean for us.
One of the problems I personally have with being forgiven is the part where I have to look at what I’m being forgiven for. I’m very happy to be forgiven. I’m even fine with repentance and amendment of life. It’s the part where I actually have to recognize what I’ve done that’s hurt someone else, that’s poisoned my relationships and hindered my community, that I have a hard time with. I don’t want to admit to the snakey parts of me. I’d rather be all pretty birds and fluffy bunnies and would prefer that those snakes just went away. But when I just ignore them, that doesn’t take care of the poison in the system.
The thing this story says to me is that as awful and ugly and scary and creepy as it is, I need to look at the snake that bit me. Being scared of it is not going to help. Running away from it is not going to help. Because there’s something about looking at that nasty snake, as awful as it is, that prepares the way for God to fully heal me.
I think Jesus is saying something similar as he speaks to Nicodemus. "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,” he says, followed by that most famous line:
"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.”
And I am going to sacrilegiously change two words of that verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who looks at him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Looking at Jesus, not to see what we want to see, but to see what is really there. To see the one who challenges us about our behavior and says we must do more than follow the law. To see the one reverses our assumptions about who is an acceptable companion and who is important. To see the one who calls those he loves to suffer. To see the one who failed utterly, who was betrayed, whose disciples abandoned him at his lowest point. To see the resurrected Christ who appeared to dubious or unreliable witnesses and depended on them to tell the world he is alive. When it comes right down to it, when I really look at Jesus, that’s what I see.
Believing is easy. Looking is hard. Whether it’s the snake of our own actions or the savior who doesn’t follow our rules, it is hard to look, to really look, to not take shortcuts to healing or belief. But to get to healing, to belief, to the promised land, to eternal life, first we must look.
And in looking, I don’t see a God who wants flattery. Just the opposite: I see a God who wants people to see the truth, to face reality, to acknowledge the bad as well as the good, the sorrow as well as the joy, the hard things as well as the easy ones.
So here are the two things these readings ask of us today: to look at ourselves: not just the pretty birds and bunnies, but the snakes as well; and to look at Jesus: not a sweet and affirming Jesus, but the Jesus who challenges us and loves us and calls us to new and eternal life. Because it is only after truly looking that we can truly believe.