Given the esteemed place John 3:16 holds in the hearts of God’s people, therefore, and the number of bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and religious nick-knacks it’s inspired, it’s more than a bit ironic that the verses that immediately precede it and give it its context reference one of the most mysterious and problematic objects ever mentioned in the Bible—the Brazen Serpent of the Exodus.
Hear again John’s words.
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. 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.This morning I hope to help us dig more deeply into the Good News of Jesus Christ by recounting the Brazen Serpent’s history, a story that begins in the book of the Bible called Numbers.
Numbers tells us that there came a point on the Exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land when God’s people became angry with Moses. Actually, the scripture says that there were many points on the journey when the people became angry with and questioned Moses. In this specific instance, the issue was a detour from what would have been the most straightforward road to their destination.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.This is an imperfect analogy, but imagine if you and I left New York this afternoon to drive to Washington D.C. and as soon as we came through the Holland Tunnel I told you that we were going to D.C. by way of Pittsburgh.
You’d certainly want to know why, and I’d probably have a hard time convincing you that I knew what I was doing, much less that I had your best interest in mind.
Perhaps this helps us to empathize with the Israelites’ point of view just a little bit.
But even still, the Exodus wasn’t just a road trip. It was a pilgrimage, a journey with God that was filled with sites and wonders. After all, these were travelers who had walked over the Red Sea without getting their feet wet, witnesses to the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai, and recipients of manna from heaven on a daily basis. Their journey had been filled with grace, and God had never left them wanting, so when the people grumbled, Moses took it personally, and so, it seems, did God.
Numbers 21 says that the people complained against God and Moses—rejecting the gifts they’d been given to accomplish the task at hand.
[So] the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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. 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.” 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.What a wild story, right? Of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have referenced—of all the people, places, and events he could have invoked to make his point about God’s love and the gifts of salvation and new life—why did he choose the one about a shiny snake on a stick?
But wait, before you answer that. There’s even more to this story.
The scene from Numbers isn’t the only time the scripture mentions the Bronze Serpent. It actually shows up again—several centuries later—in a book called Second Kings where it’s revealed that the object made by Moses became an idol, a bronze god that corrupted the peoples’ hearts.
In Second Kings, the Brazen Serpent is such an odious thing that a good king named Hezekiah destroys it.
[Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done...He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.And that’s the last mention in the Bible of the serpent until Saint John wrote his Gospel.
So, what do we make of this? Let’s review.
The Brazen Serpent was a relic from the Exodus fashioned by Moses at God’s command. Initially, the people associated this object with their prayers for deliverance and God’s gift of healing. The serpent was the sign that the Lord heard their prayers and wanted them to live. Over time, however, the object that was once a sign of God’s healing presence became an end to itself. The serpent, divorced from the story of God’s love, became an idol and King Hezekiah, a descendent of David, destroyed it.
Then, centuries later, Jesus, who was also a descendent of David, said that the Son of Man would be lifted up like the serpent, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Again, of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have used to make his point, why this one?
I suppose the answer could be very simple. Maybe Jesus is saying, “Way back then people looked up at the serpent on the stick and lived, and now, people will look up at me when I’m lifted up and live, too.”
But that leaves out a lot of the story, doesn’t it? And it seems strange that Jesus would make a one-to-one favorable comparison between himself and an object that had to be destroyed because of the ill effects it had on God’s people.
No, I think if we want to understand what Jesus says in John 3, we need to remember the ultimate fate of the Brazen Serpent in Second Kings. We need to remember that when the people forgot the connection between the serpent and God’s love, the serpent ceased to be of any benefit to them.
Without the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness, the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.
Jesus, then, seems to be cautioning those who would be his disciples from separating his story from the epic story of God’s love for all Creation.
In John 3, Jesus pushes us to recognize that when he welcomed the poor and outcast into his heart, when he healed the sick and cast out demons, when he died on a cross, rose from the grave, and ascended into Heaven he was bringing to life—bringing to flesh—the steadfast, all excelling love of God.
Without love the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.
Without love, to paraphrase Saint Paul, Christians and the story we tell is just a lot of noise.
Some Christians live with so little joy that they make people think that Good Friday is the end of our story.
Some wear a bejeweled cross over a heart filled with greed and materialism without a hint of irony.
Some seem so intent on condemning others to Hell that we have to wonder if they think that really matters is how many people they crucify, not their willingness to pick up their own cross and follow Jesus.
Think about it. One of the vilest expressions of hate in our culture is a burning cross, a symbol used by racist Christians to demean, intimidate, and terrorize their neighbors.
These are people who have forgotten their story, who have forgotten God’s story. Their sinful attitudes are Brazen Serpents that need to be smashed.
And whenever we act as though Christianity is more about putting people in their place, rather than lifting them up in Jesus name…
More about the indignation we feel at our perceived loss of privilege, than the compassion we feel for the outcast and marginalized…
More about us than anything else, then we have to confess that we’re still vulnerable to snake bites, too.
Thank God there’s a healer in our midst.
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.Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.