They say that you can tell a lot about a culture from what its tallest buildings are. Of course, the tallest buildings are always the easiest to see. Once upon a time, the tallest buildings in the world were family homes; they were the first kinds of structures to be built. In later times and in later cultures, military installations, government facilities, royal palaces, and houses of worship dueled for the “tallest building” title. In various parts of the world and in multiple eras, a different one of those might be the one casting an imposing shadow over the place where people lived.
And now, today? In every major city in the world, in every culture, we can see what takes up our highest spaces. It’s always business. Money talks, after all, and it elevates itself above all other concerns. We live in a time in history in which the families, governments, militaries, and religions are all subject to the whims of money. After all, money’s what makes the world go ‘round, as people are fond of saying. In fact, there’s a huge sermon about idolatry in that idea somewhere, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Instead, I would ask that you accept my premise that we put what’s important up highest, and think about it in relation to our stories today.
I read for you an odd little story from the book of Numbers this morning. This is one of those weird stories that I remember talking about as an undergrad in religion, and a lot of people born & raised in the church had no idea about. I’m not surprised if most of you out there have never heard this story before. It’s this story of poisonous snakes. It’s such a weird story that most preachers will avoid it. In fact, I’m not really going to preach on it today, either, but it is referenced in our other reading, so I think it merits some explanation before we move on to talk about the passage from John. The passage from John relies on us understanding this Numbers passage, so let’s make sure we all get that one first.
As you probably know, there was a time when the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses helped lead them out of their time of slavery and to the Promised Land of Israel. The journey, though not a long one by miles, took them forty years as they would set up camp for a while, then move along, slowly and deliberately. The story we read today takes place in one of those times, when the Israelites have not yet arrived in the Promised Land.
On the trip, this trip which has been long, difficult, and boring, the Israelites begin to complain. Now, I don’t want to be too critical of that, nor should any of us be. The furnace went -out at our house this week – Monday, I think it was – and it got cold. Carissa and I complained, as you do. It was “way down” to 60 degrees at the coldest point. And honestly, that’s really not that cold. I mean, think about what people did in South Dakota 130 years ago. I’m sure most houses were substantially colder than 60 degrees on the day of a blizzard. So we do the same thing; it’s very easy to take what you have for granted.
And beyond that, we can often forget what things were like before. I think the Israelites suggest that “at least the food was better in Egypt” out of the same sort of logic that can cause any one of us to wish to return to an earlier time in our lives. Sometimes, earlier times were better; but honestly, most of the time, we forget the things about the “good ol’ days” that were worse than now, because we’re idealizing the things we miss. If the Israelites had given it much thought, they certainly wouldn’t’ve been wishing for Egyptian food at the cost of days of rest, the ability to control their own lives, and the promise of better days ahead. But, in a moment of difficulty, it’s very easy to make a desire to go back to something before.
So, that’s when we get to the tricky part of the passage; see, this is where the book of Numbers tells us that “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so many Israelites died.” Now, to my ear, that makes God sound petty and childish.
It’s one of those situations where I think we have to acknowledge that the writers of Scripture were more often concerned with explaining everything than they were with necessarily being consistent in their portrayal of God. So, in order to explain a plague of snakes, they say, “God did it; clean, easy answer.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that works for me; it doesn’t sound like the God I know. I don’t know God to punish everyone every time we complain about something. So I prefer to think of it in one way, but your mileage may vary.
Regardless, there are these poisonous snakes around, and people are dying. The Israelites ask Moses for guidance, and Moses prays to God. See, this is part of why I don’t love (or really even understand) that earlier part about God sending the poisonous snakes – God is, in this passage, the one who offers deliverance, not the one who gets the people in trouble in the first place. But either way, Moses’ prayer is answered. God tells Moses to build the highest thing in the camp – a bronze snake on a pole, which will miraculously heal anyone who looks at it. Just as we have in our cultures throughout history, the most important thing is elevated. In this case, it’s a promise of deliverance from God, and it’s healing for people who are desperately in need of it.
So hopefully that clears some of that up. Even if you didn’t know the story before, you do now. And it’s relevant, because our brief reading from John’s Gospel begins with that line, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” It’s a weird reference, but think of the commonalities. The serpent was lifted up so everyone could see; likewise, when the Romans crucified people, part of the point was to have them up high on display, so that people could see the execution. The serpent was on a pole, while Jesus was on the cross. The serpent was a direct result of fleeing a foreign power who wanted to control the Israelites; Jesus was executed by a foreign power who was controlling the Israelites. Finally, and most importantly of all, the serpent on that bronze pole and Jesus were also a means of salvation.
Yes, the serpent was a means of salvation from a physical illness. And when we’re struggling with physical illness, it’s probably very tempting to wish for some sort of serpent of our own; something we could just look at an be made well. When we’re ill, and while we walk this earth in our bodies, it’s pretty easy to think of our physical health as being the most important thing in the world. But really, think about why John’s Gospel chooses to include this reference to the story from Numbers; it’s a story about the most important thing being raised up the highest.
As I’ve said before, the season of Lent is a long march to the cross. It’s a metaphorical journey we make as we attempt to think our way through what Jesus is doing in the season of Lent. He knows that he has to prepare himself for his death and resurrection; we must therefore prepare ourselves, too. Many people choose to do so with prayer and with fasting, depriving our bodies to focus our spiritual lives. But what for?
And that’s where our passage hits us with those verses that we all probably know; those verses that are so famous that people go to sporting events and hold up only one verse from the whole Bible to describe Christianity and choose John 3:16 – “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.” Continuing in verse 17, “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.”
Jesus does not come to us as a poisonous snake to bite us, to make us ill, and to kill us; Jesus comes as the way out – the deliverance, the promise of hope. Yet, Jesus also goes through his own trials, and through them, offers us change. We’re told in these most famous of words from the Bible that od loved the entire world so much that we who believe would be given the keys to everlasting life. That’s where we see the similarity to this snake: we see that lifting up of the thing that will save us.
But the case of Jesus is different than a snake. The promise in Jesus is not a temporary relief from the pains of life, but a permanent home of life everlasting, enjoy the fruits of heaven with the creator of the universe. That’s the great hope in the promise of this passage. We know that Jesus comes to save.
And that last point is crucial; verse 17, so often omitted from readings of this passage, is just as important as its more famous counterpart in verse 16. Jesus did not come here just to condemn us; he came here to save us. It would be easy to compare ourselves to Jesus, to see where we don’t stack up, and for that to be God’s proof that we’re worthless, or that we need to be discarded. There are Christian groups a lot more excited about God’s judgment than God’s deliverance – except, that’s not what John’s Gospel has us concerned about. Instead, Jesus is the proof that God loves us, and that we will be saved, in spite of our imperfections. Jesus is the proof that God so loves us all that God’s primary concern is not harming us, rather saving us from harm.
Brothers and sisters, the life of faith is not an easy one, as the journey to the cross shows us. We will face poisonous snakes throughout our lives. But most importantly, we always have the option to look up; and when we do, we should not look to the things that the world towers over us – buildings desperate to show off the extravagance of wealth and power – but rather to the humility of the cross, on which God in human flesh came to show us that we are saved. Amen.