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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Snake on a Stick.

Numbers 21:4-9

            The Israelites are in the desert, having been liberated by God from slavery in Egypt.   At Mt Horeb, they have received the commandments in which God teaches them how to live together without falling into the injustice and oppression of Pharaoh’s tyranny.  And they continue to move through the wilderness, stopping for long periods at various oases. 
            They are headed for Canaan, but instead of directly invading, they are going to approach it in a roundabout way from the east.  So they leave their camp near Mt. Hor, and they get on a trade route called The Way to the Red Sea.  Their intention is to swing around the land of Edom.  “But the people became impatient on the way.”  Again.
            While they are out there, the people fall seven times into rebellion.  Seven times they question God’s wisdom and goodness in delivering them.  Seven times they complain about the accommodations.  Seven times they decide to wax nostalgic about how great things were back when they were slaves in Egypt.
            “At least then we had security,” they say.  “Not like now when we are always at risk, on the edge of dehydration or starvation, attack, or disease.” 
            Sometimes when we experience liberation we get floored by the new responsibilities and challenges that freedom brings.  This is especially true if we are still being formed in our freedom and our deliverance has not yet been fully realized.  Sometimes we get tired of our liberty.  And suddenly the days of our bondage start looking attractive in hindsight.  The people somehow wish they were back in Egypt because at least slavery was secure.  It was familiar.  They were used to it.  It is kind of like a recovering addict might recall how much fun it was to get wasted.  Or it’s like an ex-con who can’t handle fending for himself on the outside, who is so used to the prison routine that real existence in the world overwhelms him.  And he starts to miss his prison.  Perhaps you can think of some other experiences that were horrible at the time, but later on, in hindsight, look really pleasant.  (I can think of a few family vacations like that.)
            “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’”  “This miserable food” refers to the miraculous manna God was sending them from heaven.  Manna was apparently very nutritious… but also numbingly boring to eat day after day after day.
            This is the last time the Israelites will have this tendency to complain and get homesick for Egypt.  After this business we will hear about with the snakes, they are cured of wanting to go back.  They will still fall into faithlessness from time to time.  But from now on it will be to other temptations than the falsely remembered delusions about the comforts they had in Egypt.

            Now one of the symbols for the idolatrous regime in Egypt was a serpent or snake.  If you’ve ever seen pictures of Pharaoh’s crown, it was a golden snake, protecting the emperor’s head.  Snakes were considered holy in Egypt; they were associated with the ruling class of Pharaoh.  For the Israelites, the snake would have represented the oppression and temptations of Egypt.
            So when the people complain yet again about the inconveniences of the desert, and when they start missing Egypt, God seems to say, in effect, “Okay, you guys love snakeland-Egypt so much, perhaps you would benefit from a reminder about what snakes are really like.  Maybe you need a mnemonic device to help you recall your miserable existence under the snake-king Pharaoh.”
            So we are told that, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”  Snakes appear and wreak havoc among the people. 
            Now most English translations say “poisonous snakes”, but the Hebrew literally says “fiery serpents”.  In fact I was surprised to see that the actual word is “seraphim,” which are usually a species of angel.  It makes me kind of wonder if these were normal snakes, or something far worse.
            This infestation of snakes was horrible enough to shake some sense back into the people, who learn their lesson.  They remember that life under the snake regime in Egypt was not so good.  What they nostalgically recall as security, was really constant anxiety and stress.  The good food they remember wasn’t all that great either.  No doubt the Egyptians fed them the minimum they needed so they could keep working.
            Life as slaves of the Egyptians was like living in a viper pit where one wrong step could attract severe punishment.  It was a ruthless and brutal existence.  And, in facing these snakes in the wilderness, the Israelites realize they want no part of it ever again. 
            “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’  So Moses prayed for the people.”
            They are penitent, sorry, remorseful, and they confess their wrong.  So Moses intercedes for them with God.  In praying to take away the serpents or snakes, Moses is in effect exorcising them of these unrealistically rosy memories of Egypt.  The challenges and difficulties of freedom are vastly preferable to the oppression they endured under Pharoah.

            God tells Moses the solution.  “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’”  Now, as a general cure for snakebite, this isn’t going to work.  If you are bitten by a copperhead, finding a picture of one in the encyclopedia and staring at it won’t cure you.
            So what is the point of this strange prescription?  How does looking on the image of a snake heal a person who has been bitten by a snake?  Why would God, who has just finished telling them not to make any graven images of anything, tell them to make an image of a snake?  Why does God say that if you meditate on this image for a while, a person will be healed of the effects of being bitten by a snake?
            The prescription is not a cure for ordinary snakebite.  It is a cure for rebellion and for their desire to return to oppression and slavery in Egypt.  That is where the people really need healing.  The more profound ailment here is not just literal snakebite.  It is this deluded, nostalgic wish to relinquish their freedom, and go back to where they were forced to exchange it, and even their very lives, for a meager subsistence on whatever the Egyptians deigned to let fall from their table.
            It is as if God is saying, “Whenever you feel snakebit by the urge to return to bondage and oppression, indeed, whenever you feel like maybe that system wasn’t so bad, and you want to start implementing elements of it among yourselves, look on this image of a snake and remember what it was really like.  Remember that they passed a law requiring you to kill all your infant boys.  Remember that they made your work harder at will.  Remember the ten plagues this corrupt and unjust system drew down upon itself.  Remember what happened to the army when they tried to follow you into the sea.  When you see this image of a snake, remember the burning, consuming horror of slavery.  And then, remembering, turn away from it and turn to the God who gives you freedom and gives you a law so you can live in peace and justice.”
            “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”  Whenever the challenges and ambiguities of freedom start to seem not worth it, then the people were to look at the snake and remember what it was really like.  And then turn to God’s law, and live!

            In today’s gospel reading Jesus himself remembers this very story.  He says, “And 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.”  At first glance it may be a mystery why Jesus chooses this analogy.  How exactly is looking at Jesus anything like looking at this bronze image of a snake?
            When Jesus talks about how he will be lifted up, he means when he is nailed to the cross.  When the soldiers drove the nails into his hands and his feet, the wooden cross was probably on the ground.  It was just easier that way.  But then the whole cross, with Jesus on it, had to be raised up to a vertical position.  It had to stand upright. 
            And Jesus knows that his lifting up will be like Moses’ lifting up the image of a snake in the sight of the people in at least three ways.
            First of all, there is no difference between Pharaoh and Caesar, represented by his agent, Pontius Pilate, the man who had Jesus crucified.  If the snake on a stick was to remind them of the horrors of one dictatorial, imperial regime, Jesus on the cross reminds them of another.  But the meaning is the same: those are godless regimes of pain, horror, injustice, exploitation, and fear.  God is saying, “Do not forget what that kind of regime is about.  Do not forget that if you give one person, one class, all the wealth and power, this is the inevitable result: terror, torture, and death.” In other words, don’t forget what you have been liberated from.
            Secondly, just as the people were supposed to look at the image of the snake and remember their own sinfulness and foolishness in murmuring, complaining, and fantasizing about going back to Egypt, now when we look at Jesus on the cross we remember that human selfishness, fear, ignorance, and greed put him there.  Our recapitulation of these sins, generation after generation, continues to bring suffering and death to our neighbors all over the world.  So don’t forget how easily you become part of the problem.
            And thirdly, the point of both of these being lifted up is healing, salvation, and life.  God heals the people and saves them by exhibiting victory over the power that had enslaved them.  In Christ’s cross, God saves by absorbing and taking on all of this sin and violence and suffering and fear and hatred… and death.  And he redeems it, and transforms it, and shows it to be the way to a new life beyond the power of death.

            For Jesus’ lifting up does not stop on the cross.  He continues to be raised up in his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, and even in the way his followers lift him up by living according to his commandments and example, and teaching others to do the same.  He is always being lifted up.  And we who follow him are always being lifted up with him.
            The bronze snake on the pole became a sacred object for the Israelites.  They kept it and eventually placed it in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Centuries later, though, King Hezekiah had to destroy it because the people were worshiping it as an idol.  The people had made a symbol of their liberation from idolatry into an idol.
            The cross of Jesus can become an idol too.  When it stops reminding us of the horrors of injustice and slavery; when it no longer convicts people of their own sin in participating in injustice; and when the rulers co-opt it as a symbol of their own power or even a pointed warning of what happens to dissenters… then even the very cross of Jesus can become an idol, as when conquering armies bring slaughter and slavery to indigenous peoples “with the cross of Jesus going on before,” which has happened all-too-often in history.
            The cross of Jesus becomes for us the tree of life, the source of healing, salvation, redemption, and liberation when we keep in our hearts the next words: “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.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
            So the lifting up of Jesus on the cross is the sign of God’s love and salvation, not God’s condemnation.  Condemnation comes into the world, not from God, but as something people inflict upon themselves by failing to trust in God’s love and trusting instead in their own wisdom, power, and wealth.  And so, in following and subjecting themselves to the Pharaohs and Caesars of this world, they turn God’s good creation into a place of pain, exploitation, and death.  We do this and invent a snakebit existence characterized by treachery and poison.
            But in Jesus Christ, God comes into the world for life.  And in meditating at him on the cross we see, not God’s judgment, not God’s condemnation, but God’s great mercy and love in giving life to us and to the whole world. 
            What gets defeated on the cross is our hubris, violence, greed, self-centered short-sighted ignorance.  Liberated from bondage to these forces we are free to follow Jesus in lives of compassion and peace, justice and kindness, healing and blessing.  The cross is our pathway from darkness to light, from curse to blessing, from sickness to health, and from death to life.


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