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IN THE WILDERNESS

A Sermon preached by Robert B. Shaw

[Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21]


Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is also the first day of Daylight Saving, which you must know since you are here on time. The time change is always disorienting, and we should be sympathetic to any of our friends who, in all innocence, arrive just in time for Coffee Hour.


In deciding what the starting point of a sermon for this day should be, I had choices to make. The second verse of today’s lesson from John’s Gospel is likely to be familiar to most of us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.” Martin Luther, not always a man easy to please, called this verse “the Gospel in miniature.” It certainly is a good sermon text, and would be a fine starting point, and maybe if this was my day job I would have gone in that direction. But instead, I have decided to follow the prompting of my inner twelve-year-old and start by talking about serpents.


In their wanderings after the escape from Egypt, the children of Israel had many unsettling adventures: today’s lesson from the Book of Numbers recounts an especially weird one. Here, as in several other passages, the Israelites are not happy campers. They complain to 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 may sound like a comedian’s critique of a substandard restaurant: “The food is lousy, and the portions are small.” But it turns serious when the complaints trigger an onslaught of poisonous, often deadly serpents. (Older translations call these “fiery serpents,” which is scarier, but quantities of venomous snakes are already frightening enough.) This seems like harsh discipline, but for the Old Testament writer of these wilderness stories, there is constant emphasis on the necessity for what in the army is called unit cohesion. Any hint of mutiny is condemned, because remaining unified under the leadership of Moses is the only way the chosen people can get to where they are going. When the people have repented their ingratitude, Moses prays to the Lord and acts according to instructions, setting up a serpent of bronze on a pole: “and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”


When I told my son, who is a scientist, that I was preaching on this subject, he said, “Be sure to tell them it was a bronze serpent, not a brass one.  They couldn’t make brass in that part of the world back then.” Since I usually try to do what my children tell me to, I’m passing this along. My focus, though, is not on what the serpent is made of, but rather on the power it possesses. This story is intriguing in a number of ways. People reading it might wonder if Moses here was breaking the Second Commandment, which prohibits the making of graven images “of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” In fact, they needn’t worry: Moses was following divine directions, and more importantly, the bronze serpent was not made to be worshiped. Rather than being an idol, it was more like a sign saying, “The Doctor is in,” and it worked on those who came seeking help like an injection of antivenom. To describe the nature and function of an object like the bronze serpent, scholars use a sixty-four dollar word, the adjective “apotropaic.” Something that is apotropaic repels, or in the root meaning from Greek, “turns away” things that are evil or threatening. The term can apply to painted or sculpted images large and small, even to talismans small enough to wear as rings, bracelets, or necklaces. What is just as interesting, or even more so, is that apotropaic images often take the form of the thing they are guarding against. It is as though the destructive power that people are threatened or wounded by is not just neutralized but actually reversed: transformed into a power of healing and protection. That is certainly what happens here. And the protective power is accessed by a snakebitten victim simply by virtue of looking at the bronze serpent set upon its pole by Moses. And the people, as in so many stories of the perils they met with in the wilderness, are once more able to continue their journey to the promised land.



Fast forward to today’s lesson from John’s Gospel. This passage is the final part of the conversation of Jesus with the high-ranking Pharisee Nicodemus, who, we are told, “came to Jesus by night.” There are many things worth pondering in the entire episode, but the Lectionary has chosen to come into it at just the point where the New Testament, as I think of it, rhymes with the Old. Jesus harks back to the story of the serpents: “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.” Here already, very early in this Gospel, with this comparison Christ foretells his manner of death, his own lifting up upon the cross. He imparts this teaching to Nicodemus, talking with him in the dark, trying to make him see. In effect he asserts that those who see him crucified will be saved, as those who saw the bronze serpent were saved.  And here we might look forward to another point at which the two Testaments rhyme: in its account of the crucifixion, John’s Gospel will reach its climax by quoting the prophet Zechariah: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10; John 19:37).


We realize that this looking, this seeing, is more than just taking in a view. If someone explains some puzzling or complicated thing to me and I say, “I see,” what I really mean is, “I understand.” The Israelites would probably not at first have been eager to look at another serpent—even a bronze one—after what they had been going through. It was when they understood that this serpent, unlike the others, was a source of healing, that they could see it for what it really was and be healed. For Christ’s first followers there must have been an even greater shift—a revolution—in how they thought about the cross as they lived through the day of his death and the astonishment of his resurrection. The Roman Empire’s method of execution, crucifixion, is a set piece of sadistic brutality, and even in that less pampered time it could not have been easy to look at. And yet, Easter transformed the way the cross was seen. One of the Collects for Holy Week spells out this transformation of the symbol, beginning “O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life . . .” And another Collect asks “that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.” On the first Good Friday, the cross could only have been seen as a mechanism for state-sponsored death by torture. But remarkably soon after the first Easter, the symbol had been adopted by Christians as a sign of their communal identity, as it continues to be today.


So: where does that leave us?  Or, we might better say, where does that find us? In tracing the different strands of comparison in the two lessons, we have an obvious way to go further. How do we, as Christ’s followers, compare with the followers of Moses? Looking at the day’s news or spending some moments in honest introspection will remind us—if we need reminding—that we have our own wilderness to contend with. We may feel anxiety over the strains and fissures in our national life, over what sometimes seems the hellbent direction in which our society is going. Looking inward, we may feel regret and frustration over our own stubborn collection of shortcomings. The Israelites wandered in their wilderness for forty years; our journey of Lent lasts for forty days. Sometimes forty days can feel like forty years. Israel met repeatedly with snares and perils; as for us, we may set our clocks ahead an hour as we did last night, but we know that we cannot hope to arrive at Easter by skipping over the stations of Holy Week and Good Friday, which are the Stations of the Cross.


 Now, then, on what might be described as the rising slope of Lent, approaching closer to Golgotha, let us prepare for what will be lifted up for us to see. Let us come before the cross confessing our own sense of exile, our own missteps, our own weariness of wandering, our own wounds, whether incurred or self-inflicted, our own awareness that we, like Moses and his people, need to be brought home and need to be made whole. And seeing the sacrifice that saves us when we are helpless to save ourselves will be to see the ultimate sign of God’s love for his creation. Seeing is understanding—and in this case, that is the same as saying seeing is believing.


And this, by a winding, serpentine path, brings us back to Martin Luther’s Gospel in miniature: “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.” A good sermon text. I knew I’d get back to it. And to that, I can think of only one more thing to add, and that is to say Amen.


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