Lent 4B. Numbers 21:4-9 John 3: 14-21
"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."
I remember as a child being somewhat mystified by the symbol of a snake on a pole. I could never fathom why Jesus was likened to lifting the bronze snake on a pole in the hands of Moses. I was just happy as a child at Sunday school with the much more familiar adjacent verse John 3:16, - God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life.
I think as a child I intuitively accepted God loved the world and Jesus was the one who showed us so through his life, death and resurrection. But Jesus being like the bronze snake on a pole – that was just plain weird.
Fast forward to adult-hood, and from time to time, I still catch sight of the symbol, a snake on a pole. Maybe you have too, given the pandemic health emergency –– as it sits at the heart of the World Health Organisation’s logo. So what do we know about its use?
The staff with the snake has long been a symbol of medicine and the medical profession. It originates from the story of Asclepius, who was revered by the ancient Greeks as a god of healing and whose cult involved the use of snakes.
Snake symbols of healing have been around for a long time. Snake bites were known to inflict great harm – but maybe there was also early recognition that snake venom also had medicinal properties. So a symbol that embraced both conditions of death, yet also the conditions for life – remains striking. And here we have that symbol in the Hebrew scriptures with the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses. Yahweh, the God of the Israelites deploys the symbol as a sign of mercy and healing his own people who have brought judgement and death upon themselves.
But that still leaves us with the mysterious story of bronze snakes on poles as part of Jesus night-time dialogue with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. Remember Nicodemus… hes the one Jesus is talking with about how to enter the Kingdom of God. And Nicodemus, a man for facts of law, and literal talk, of things that can be seen and touched and verified, is trying to wrap his head around Jesus talk of being born from above and of receiving the life that cannot be seen. Its talk of connections between heaven and earth, and an uplifted Son of Man giving forth life akin to Moses bronze staff. Nicodemus appears bamboozled. I admit as a child in Sunday school I was none the wiser either.
And then John the gospel writer interrupts Jesus speech to Nicodemus with the explanatory vs 16, For God so loved the world.
Roll forward to 2021 and we find ourselves paying a lot more attention to realities of healing, life and death, in fact acutely so. Life is fragile, so much more fragile.
So what can Jesus and John’s words tell us here? Well they tell of a drama, a cosmos sized drama that is the backdrop to our immediate emergency and yet also at the very heart of it.
Physical death and life is situated within what the Catholic theologian Hans Van Bulthasar calls a theo-drama. God’s engagement with us and the world and we with God. Or in Jesus dialogue with Nicodemus, the life of heaven and the life of earth.
Life and death and the conditions in which we experience it, perpetrate it, respond to it, fear it, is more than just facts, statistics of how many have died and how many are vaccinated. There is moral and theological negotiating to be done with what we are experiencing.
Even if we have not suffered medically from Covid – we have witnessed and felt the pull, the threat when mortality is in the ascendency, when life that is also moral and social seems to be unwinding in the wrong direction.
As we look back on this past year, many of us with middle class relatively secure existences have been brought closer to a brush with unexpected illness and a threat to ending life prematurely. It has sensitised us and possibly it has sensitised others in our society. Not just to death itself but to the downward entropy, of life unravelling, staring into the depths.
And we have seen some of that.
We have seen how vicious and debilitating this disease has become, reaking havoc not only here but also in countries and poorest of communities already living on the edge, with far fewer resources and freedoms. We have seen and maybe even experienced what it is to see a loved one die in a hospital bed, without family at the bedside, alone with medical staff, without that last physical touch.
We have seen the isolation and bewilderment of the elderly, the mentally unwell and the shielding, cut off from social contact. We have seen the young watch their aspirations and plans melt away as they lose their jobs and face the prospect of a long economic winter without options. We have seen ethnic minorities and those with communal bonds and essential jobs exposed and vulnerable to the brutality of this disease.
At the same time – we have seen life fighting back from the midst of this drama
We have seen the alone and vulnerable surviving because volunteers and neighbours responding on a mass scale, reaching out, giving, distributing food and human contact
We have seen medics and carers going into their own psychological and physical hell to save those who are sick and dying from this virus. We have seen scientists, pharmaceutical strategists and business consortiums creating vaccine options that will provide a way to exit the pandemic.
It reminds that life, not just our own, but the life of all God’s people, the world or the cosmos as John’s Greek puts it, is worth fighting for.
This is God’s drama not just our own in 2020 and 2021. Death is a downward pull in many dimensions. It is not just the ending of human life, yes it is that, but in the biblical sense it is the sum of all that erodes and breaks human life, all that removes meaning and value. Death is the endpoint of deathly things, ….of misuse of power, of falsehood, of vengeance, of tribalism, of religious self-righteousness, of scapegoating, …of exploiting nature’s habitats such that we could release deadly viruses on humanity. Death for the Bible is the end consequence of sin and evil – or where we end up when we let these run rampant.
Challenging that threat is an obscure symbol of bronze snake on a pole as a sign of a bigger drama.
It is an extreme symbol of death held up paradoxically to signify overcoming the threat of death.
It stares death down and says you do not win, you do not have the last word
(just as medical care, and vaccines might in our current crises).
John the Gospel writer sees the same in the suffering cross of Christ. As an extreme symbol of all that death and alienation represents. But the cross is not the end point for God. It is the very sign of God’s commitment to deliverance and what it takes for life to be lifted up in the place of death.
Jesus suffering and self-giving contains the resolution to the drama of humanity’s own fight with death – Jesus takes on the deathly power that leads to death and nullifies it, in Paul the apostles words, draws the sting of death, denies it the final word.
Yes it is paradoxical –– Jesus - the one in whom all God’s life dwells – loses life and is pulled into death’s full orbit, and only then is the downward power of death reversed.
I think as a child – I always thought the death of Jesus on the cross was unfair, even unnecessary.
Surely Jesus, if he was so full of God and so anointed by God could avoid this situation. Could not God’s work of healing and renewal be accomplished in any other way?
Yet it is this paradoxical reversal that sits at the heart of the Christian salvation drama and maybe it is not as strange as it might appear when we look at vaccines.
How does a vaccine come about? Scientists enter the heart of the genetic makeup of a virus that can kill us in order to find a means to activate our cells and render the virus impotent in our bodies. A vaccine is a marvel of modern science and turns that which could harm us, even kill us and reworks it to bring life. The sting or the deathly power, of the virus is removed. It can no longer overwhelm us. Its deathly properties need no longer triumph.
You see God’s life and healing comes not by ignoring the seriousness of the human condition, of dismissing death, or making light of suffering but of God entering our deathly vulnerability with us.
God comes to the world in Jesus, and goes to heart of our makeup, and goes into the downward pull, where that which exploits and destroys others, destroys community, destroys the earth’s ecosystems is circling. And God goes there in Jesus where it only ever ends in despair and death.
God goes there on that cross, God in Jesus goes to the bind we are in– all that is spiralling towards death, in order to rework that which continue to bind to us.
And the paradox, a deep mystery, is that this movement of God in Jesus reworks the downward pull to death. Out of suffering and death, out of that which can kill us, life is released, the downward pull to death is not the only word any more. That which bind us, our human societies, our planet to destruction need no longer overwhelm us.
But as with vaccines, the benefits must be taken up, and we must participate in the social project that will see health and well-being restored to society. So too we enter into God’s renewed life, by receiving and participating in what God has done and is doing to bring life. Heaven to earth.
At the close of a conversation with Nicodemus about how the fullness of God’s life, God’s Kingdom might be discovered Jesus concludes with the allusion to Moses holding up a strange symbol of a serpent on pole. For John the Gospel writer this is the moment to direct his readers to the sign of Jesus on the cross as God’s act of love and healing for the world.
Look towards the one who suffers and dies on a cross, from whom life and healing will come. Not as an act of triumphalism. For the symbol is still a signature of death. That is not extinguished. But it is a signature that threatens no longer, its infliction, it destructive binding to us has gone. There is more to God’s gift of life yet.
So too, this Lent. There is more to God’s gift of life yet. We are invited to look again, to contemplate God’s cosmos inclusive drama in Jesus, the source of ultimate life and healing in our broken world.
Look up towards the cross. Look up to the suffering God who is revealed to be working in the midst of despair. Look to the one whose love is stronger than death. And then open yourself to receive the power of that eternal love so that you may give life to others.