Did It Have To Be Snakes?

serpent crossLent 4B – Did It Have To Be Snakes?

Numbers 21:4-9

John 3:12-21

March 15, 2015

Bethany Hamilton was in the news yesterday.

She’s a surfer and she made the news

because she’s now six months pregnant and still surfing.

That’s not why Bethany is famous though…

Bethany is famous (and her life story made into the movie “Soul Surfer,”

because when she was 13, she was attacked by a shark while surfing.

She lost her left arm…

and yet conquered her fear and went back to surfing once again

becoming a professional surfer (yes, there is such a thing!).

You’ve heard the saying..

‘get back on the horse again…’

When you have a fear,

psychologists say that the best way to conquer that fear

is not to avoid it – but to confront it head on.

So when you have a fear of flying…

part of the healing is to get on an airplane.

When you have a fear of heights,

you work with someone and gradually make your way up to the sky again.

And when you have a fear of snakes….

you guessed it… you look at them…right at them…

(Did it have to be snakes?)

The Israelites had a reason to be afraid of snakes.

Our first reading from Numbers says that they were poisonous.

People were being bitten by them and they were dying.

So Moses talks to God on their behalf..

and asks God to take away the poisonous snakes.

God doesn’t.

The snakes are still there.

But God tells Moses to put a snake up high on a pole,

and when the people are bitten by a snake,

they are to look up at that snake – look directly at the thing that hurt them,

that they’re afraid of;

look at it – don’t avoid it – and they will be healed.

It is an odd story.

And snakes have an odd history in ancient times.

Snakes have embodied both good and evil.

The serpent encouraged Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden.

Snake venom can kill.

In a couple of days we’ll celebrate St. Patrick,

best known for getting rid of the snakes in Ireland!

And yet it was also considered one of the wisest animals.

In some cultures, the snake symbolized the umbilical cord, joining humans to Mother Earth.

Because snakes shed their skin revealing a new shiny skin underneath,

they became a symbol for immortality.

Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing carried a staff with a serpent wrapped around it.

So here in the gospel of John,

John says that Jesus’ body, lifted high on the cross,

is like Moses’  pole…

that cross which looks like death – God lifts high and transforms to life…

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

so must the son of man be lifted up,

so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

(Those are verses 3.1415 by the way – so appropriate for the day after pi day!)

When we look at the Bible,

we know that the 4 gospels are not the same…

(tonight we have a movie night where will see the gospel of Mark.)

Each gospel writer has an audience in mind.

Each gospel writer has a particular purpose in mind.

For the gospel writer John,

the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross

is not to show his defeat, it is to show his victory.

Our opening hymn “Lift High the Cross” fits so well with John’s gospel.

Just as the snake was lifted up on the pole bringing the people life,

so Jesus being lifted up on the cross brings the world life – all the world is drawn to him.

It just doesn’t make sense though does it?

How could death mean victory!

My book club is reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson.

It’s a long book…700 pages long.

(One of my friends said that one of the benefits of using a kindle to read,

is that when you’re reading a book late at night and fall asleep,

you don’t hurt yourself when the book falls on your face!)

This book could really do some damage!

One main theme of the book is Johnson’s never ending search for victory,

for winning the ultimate prize (for him) of the presidency.

Johnson thrived on power which he mistakenly understood

could only come from winning – and winning each and every time.

He was terrified that he might lose something – whether it be an election or a vote for a bill.

His whole personhood was wrapped up in winning.


In fact when he did lose the nomination to run for president,

and it went to John F. Kennedy instead,

as Vice President, Johnson was like a beaten man.

He physically and emotionally changed.

He walked differently.

He talked differently.

People didn’t recognize him any more.

Second place was not good enough.

Johnson needed to be the one in charge.

Victory was winning, power, influence…

victory was everything.

Well John’s gospel is very clear…

victory comes not in power;

it comes from sacrifice;

it comes from giving;

ultimately it comes from the cross.

Now I suppose we could wonder…well that’s just for Jesus.

Our life is different.

For us, victory comes in winning doesn’t it?

Victory is first place, honor roll, dean’s list, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl ring,

making first chair, Rhodes scholarship, Nobel prize, the Oscar, CEO, the 1%, the chief,  top dog!

Victory is President not Vice President.

Victory is winning, power, having it all together,  …isn’t it?

But you know what? As BBT says[i]

There’s nothing in John’s gospel or in any of the gospels about winning.

“There’s nothing in the gospels about being impressive or successful.

There’s nothing in the gospels about being the biggest or the best at anything.”

The good news of the gospels…

The good news of God in Christ is that when you’ve lost rather than won….

When you’ve lost the only thing you ever wanted;

When you’ve lost the one person you could not live without.

When you’ve lost your very self – your dignity, your self-respect.

When you’ve lost it all…God is there to raise us up again.

The promise of new life will not be revoked.

God will raise us up.

Look up to the cross.

Look to Moses’ snake on a pole.

It looks a lot like death and defeat…but it leads to resurrection.

Thanks be to God.


[i] http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/165/preaching-christ-crucified-1-corinthians-21-5


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