Oh those Israelites. They were grumbling and mumbling their distaste with God’s plan. Their worn out bodies were wracked by the relentless heat of the day while the few blankets they had grabbed from their hurried escape from slavery were worn thin, nearly translucent. Every night, they had to huddle together, clasping the tattered material tightly around them to survive the frigid evenings. Their throats were parched, their stomachs empty, their legs ready to buckle and collapse, when from their sunburned lips burst forth bitter complaints and fierce anger about the arduous journey they had undertaken at God’s hand. They found themselves yearning for what had been, the oppression that enslaved them, rather than this freedom, which sure didn’t feel free, which seemed to imprison their minds in despair. Nothing was right. And they railed against God. Maybe it was this – that their anger was turned toward God, not just God’s leaders – Moses or Aaron,- but YHWH, the same God who had parted the Red Sea for their escape; the same God who had sweetened the water at Marah; the same God who had sent manna each day; the same God who commanded water to gush out of the rock when they were parched. Somehow, they had forgotten that part of their story. Rather than their hearts flowing with generosity, they had hardened like rock. This hardness of heart erased from their mind the imagination of the Promised Land, that once-believed-in haven that would be flowing with milk and honey; that spot of green set within endless desolate desert filled with rocks and sand, that they could barely perceive from Mt. Nebo. They had lost the vision of being God’s people, chosen for the good life, where they could be God’s people and God would be their God, forever.
You could hear the hushed whispers of rebellion among the women, the whining cries among the children who long ago had tired of the foolish games they had been playing on their journey, and the violent cursing littering the conversations among the men. You could almost reach out and touch the tension in the camp. Moses looked alarmed, for he knew that they had angered God. They had complained one too many times, and God was angry. As they stood at Mt. Tabor and looked upon the Promised Land, that lonely bright green spot within the endless desert of rocks and sand, they didn’t believe they would make it there—
and their angry voices grew louder and more insistent, until God had had enough. God sent poisonous snakes into the camp, desiring their repentance and their forgiving and forgiven hearts.
The mothers shrieked in anguish, tossed their young ones on their backs, hoping to distance their little ones’ tiny feet from the hissing snakes which encircled their own worn sandals. The fathers beat at the snakes with whatever they could, their walking sticks, their blankets, their animal prods. But snakes appeared everywhere– hissing and slithering and biting the ankles of God’s people. Many were dying—and all were afraid. Oh, something had gone terribly wrong. They pleaded with Moses to do something, to speak to God on their behalf, to implore God to take the snakes away.
Their God, our God, the only God of mercy and compassion, responds to their pleas, but doesn’t take the snakes away. Rather, God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and lift it high upon his staff, so that anyone who looks upon it will be saved. Moses immediately grabbed one of the many rocks on the path before him to use as a hammer, relentlessly bashing a bronze vessel into a serpent shape, flattening it, forming it, with a sense of urgency and terror in his heart, fueled by the anguished cries. At last he’s done and he lashes the serpent to his staff and like a sheep dog, herds his people together, dashing at full speed, raising his staff up high, screaming until his lungs ache with pain, “Look up! Look up!” for he knew anyone who furtively and feverishly looked up for just a moment at that bronze serpent would be saved. He must have screamed aloud, “If only you can look up for a moment from the snakes encircling your ankles, if only you can tear your eyes away from the snake bite, from the compulsion to watch it swell and redden, if only, then you will be saved.”
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t do that one simple action to live? I tell you, I bet it was the hardest thing for them to do, for who would dare to avert their gaze from such danger– even if someone says, “Look up! And you will be saved.” You would need to trust that, while you are looking up, something, or someone, would be keeping the snakes at bay. That takes trust. Maybe that was God’s point. Maybe God was saying, “Trust in me and you will be saved.” And oh, if you have been bitten, oh how that snake bite hypnotizes you, consumes your every focus, becomes your whole being. “O Lord, O Lord” they must have cried, “I cannot tear my eyes off that snake bite! It is who I have become.”
You know, we’re not just talking about snake bites here, are we? We’re talking about more than snake bites. I’m thinking we’re talking about things your mother said, or didn’t, or things your father did, or didn’t do, or disappointments or regrets you’ve had with your life partner, or harm done to you by thoughtless people throughout your life, times you have been left behind, moment in time or seasons of your life when love was withheld. These are our snake bites – those things which can hypnotize us, those things that become our obsession, those things that we allow to define our lives. Just like the eyes of the Israelites could not stray from the inflamed site of the snake bite, our hearts often cannot stop telling the same story of our pain or loss or anger or grief, over and over again. We might find ourselves saying, “I just can’t look up! I can’t imagine myself being more than that snake bite.” We might find ourselves complaining bitterly, or whining endlessly, or cursing the way our life has turned out, rather than looking up, rather than seeing the new thing offered to us.
The people of God made it to the Promised Land and this story of the snakes, of God offering this strange remedy of inviting people to look into and beyond their greatest pain, that which is causing death in their camp, to disallow anger, disappointment, or resentment to hypnotize them and rather to look up got recounted from one generation to the next. This story of how God had saved them from the serpents by fashioning a bronze serpent on top of Moses’ staff, so they could be healed and saved by looking up and trusting God, so they could make their way into the Promised Land became a part of their history.
Jesus knew this story. So did Nicodemus, a learned rabbi, who is the recipient of the words Jesus speaks today in our gospel. Nicodemus has been bitten. We don’t know what has bitten him, but something has for he comes to Jesus in the cover of the night, a clue that darkness surrounds, not just in the evening, but fills his heart too during the day. Something’s not right in his soul; he’s yearning for something, some healing, and Nicodemus looks to Jesus for an antidote, something to take away the sting of the bite, the source of the inflammation. Jesus reaches back into their history and recalls a story from the past and tells Nicodemus that God is again going to do as was done in the wilderness many years ago. God will heal now, as God healed then. The Son of Man will be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, for God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him will be saved—whoever looks up, whoever trusts, whoever looks into their deepest pain to find God’s healing, whoever believes in God’s tender mercy and compassion shown to us through Jesus, will be saved.
This story is our invitation to take our worst anxieties and fears, be they of suffering or of death itself, of acts of terror or injustice done to us or to others, of rampant prejudice or oppression in our society, of our own most devastating pain, our own all-consuming regrets, or of our own sense of unworthiness, and look up! Jesus is saying to us, “Tear your eyes off these snake bites and look your fears or pain right in the eye, and then look up to the new life I am offering you through the cross.”
It’s an odd thing, but our healing has roots in our pain. There is no other way around it. This is how God works. We must walk into the worst of our lives in order to receive the best of God’s grace. This is why on Good Friday, when we walk the Stations of the Cross, we nail our sins to the cross. We hear that same banging of the hammer, as Moses’ rock hit the vessel to make the bronze snake, and we look our worst sin, that which separates us the most from God or others, in the eye. We name it and then we watch the smoke ascend, as incense, as our papers naming our sins are burned and released to God – and we look up, to the risen Christ who will fill in that now empty space in our hearts and souls with tender mercy and compassion, for ourselves and for others.
There are possibilities of wholeness that await us, but we must first allow death to come to the false selves we have created. We will know the God-truth of ourselves only when we look firmly at what keeps us from that authenticity, be it fear, anger, or resentment, and we let it die, and we call out with repentance as that rag-tag group of pilgrims did as they traversed the Judean desert, so we can be healed.
Now sometimes we prefer darkness, or a state of self-condemnation, or even alienation from God, because it is easier than doing this deep soul work. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s darkness we’re living in. It can seem like business as usual, for we go about life making decisions and pursuing our well-being in an unthinking way. Only with the arrival of the light of the way of Jesus does our darkness become evident. This is why it gets increasingly difficult when you turn more of your heart over to Jesus – because more light continues to flood in and highlight the darkness that has been consuming our attention, and we need to get practiced at looking up, beyond that which imprisons us.
Lent is about telling the truth of ourselves, to ourselves, to others, and to God. We can only do this work when we are aware that we are in relationship with a God who is divine Love, who cannot stand to see us perish, who wants to fill us with a life that does not end. Amazingly, blessedly, God somehow remains intent on providing healing for God’s people, even in the midst of our own darkness.
It is an odd paradox that our source of spiritual death happens also to be the source of our spiritual healing. Yet when we name where we have been bitten in life, God takes the sting away, and God calls us to look up to what God has in mind for us. God says to us, “Enough of this thinking small – look up, look at the possibility of who you could be. Look up from your disappointments or fears. Look up – for God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Thanks be to God. Amen.