A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 18, 2012.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
I have a feeling that had Jesus not referred to the “snake story” from the Book of Numbers we read earlier, we would choose to ignore it altogether. Or maybe I should say that I would choose to ignore it. And for good reason. As one commentator puts it, it is “weird, mysterious, even gruesome.”1 Unless you’re Randal Berry, the youngest son of Betsy and Gerald and director of the reptile area of the Little Rock Zoo, there’s just something about snakes that you don’t like. And for good reason, I’d say.
Still, just about all of us have our “snake stories,” don’t we? That’s especially true of those of us who were raised in more rural environments. Will you bear with me as I tell you a couple or three of mine?
I started cutting our three-and-a-half acre field at the age of ten. Dad had bought a used Ferguson tractor, a 1948 model, as I recall, and purchased a bush hog as an attachment. One day, as I made my usual turn near the driveway, I felt something hit the back of my leg. I didn’t think much of it because I was always running over oak tree branches or other impediments that found their way in my way. But after making my circle around the field and coming back to that spot, I spied, glistening in the sun, the two pieces of a copperhead. It had evidently gotten caught under the rear tires of the tractor, and when the bush hog came along it cut the snake cleanly in two. It was the snake that had hit my leg. Fortunately, by the time it did so, it was not in a biting mood.
Speaking of copperheads… those of you who remember Runyan Deere may recollect the story I told at his funeral. Some of you who knew Runyan may even recall when it happened. He was out at Goose Pond Farm near Hot Springs Village and went to feed his cattle. When he reached into the feed barrel he pulled out his hand and found a copperhead attached to it. The amazing thing is that he drove himself back to Little Rock to the hospital. He told me that by the time he got to the emergency room, his arm was the size of his thigh!
My previous church, First Baptist in Trumann, purchased a bus much like the one our congregation owns. In fact, we bought it from Ward Bus Company in Conway while I was there, as we did after I came here (and no, I didn’t get a finder’s fee either time). In Trumann, we had a garage for our bus. One day, our youth minister and I went to clean out the bus for an upcoming trip. Matt was standing in the garage while I inspected the bus to see how much effort it would require. “Hey Matt, I called out to him. How about handing me the broom?” “Where is it?” he responded. “Right behind you,” I said. “If it was a snake, it’d have bitten you.” And as he reached out to retrieve it, nestled along the horizontal beam of the barn was just that, a snake, a rather long black snake. It was harmless of course, but it was the surprise element that got to my young friend. I’m not sure Michael Jordan could have matched Matt’s vertical jump on that day!
While such stories are interesting, and sometimes can be fun to recount, the truth is that if there was no reference to it in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, I’m sure it would be ignored altogether… if for no other reason than it is just… well, it’s just strange, not to mention “weird, mysterious, even gruesome.” That’s what it is.
And what possible purpose could it have for you and me? After all, we come to church to learn about how better to serve God and others, not to hear snake stories. Right? Well, let’s see if we can find out. We’ll start with the context of the story.
The people of Israel are in a snit. They’re that way a lot of the time, because they’ve been in the wilderness now long enough to have gotten really, really tired of it. Even the most fun trip in the world can get wearisome after a spell. Imagine how much more true that would be in the wilderness when you’re living out of a tent and eating nothing but manna.
The writer of Numbers puts five “snit stories” together, one right after the other. Either he strung them together to go ahead and get them out of the way because they are so similar in tone, or he is trying to emphasize just how wearisome this wilderness wandering had become. This is the last one of those stories.
They don’t know it yet, but the people of Israel are fairly near the end of the journey. They’ve been at this for almost forty years. You know what that means? It means that many of them have died along the way, including Aaron the brother of Moses. They’re at that point when they fail to see the point. There just doesn’t seem to be any future to all this. Yet, many if not most of them no longer recall their days in Egypt, so there is no inclination on their part to want to go back. That may have been true earlier in their wilderness wanderings, but not now. Now, they just wish they had never left Egypt, or more clearly that God had not made them leave. They are people indeed without a country. All they have, as far as they can tell, is bad water, bad food, bad leadership, and a bad God.
This fifth and final story, not surprisingly, finds the people complaining about this and complaining about that. And generally, when the wilderness wandering nomads of Israel complain, it either has to do with water or food or both. Not only that, but did you pay careful attention to the first line of this narrative? It says, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea…” Did you hear that? The Red Sea. Haven’t they been to the Red Sea before? I’ll say they have! Almost forty years ago! They’re going in circles!
“Impatient” is the word that is used to describe their attitude. Who can blame them? You and I would have no doubt been counted in their number. Who can blame them?
God can, that’s who. By this time God has built up some impatience of his own. God is getting tired of listening to their griping. Forty years may seem like a long time to the Israelites. And it is, of course. Count back forty years and you’ll find your memory meandering through 1972. A few things have changed since then, haven’t they? How would you like to eat nothing but the same bread all that time, every day for every meal? But forty years to God is like a day-and-a-half, the God who seems to have little or no patience for the complaining of his people.
Are you familiar with the old Westerns when a man is stranded out in the middle of the desert? After several days of no water and intense sun, he spies a beautiful lake up ahead, filled with cool, clear, blue water. But when he finally gets there and throws himself into the water, the only thing he finds in his mouth and hair is more sand. It is all a mirage. It isn’t real.
Were the serpents a mirage? Were the people of Israel seeing things when they spy snakes coming out from under the rocks? No! The snakes are real, and they bite! As they see people dying all around them from the poisonous snakes, those who have yet to be bitten begin pleading with Moses – the same Moses they had been complaining about – to intercede on their behalf with God, the same God they have been complaining about.
Surely God has the power to make the snakes slither back under the rocks from whence they had come. But that is not what God does. “Make a poisonous snake,” God says to Moses, as if Moses can really do it, “and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
Evidently, what God wants Moses to do is fashion an image of a snake. Obviously, he can’t create a real reptile. Notice that God doesn’t keep the people from being bitten either. God simply makes it possible for the people, once they are bitten, to survive the experience. God doesn’t remove the pain, just the mortal death.
Hmm… sounds like real life, doesn’t it? Sounds like what God did at the cross too.
You shall make no graven images, God has told his people. Then God turns around and tells Moses to make a graven image. Does that make any sense to you? Does anything in this story make sense to you?
This is the really strange part of it all. It’s also where the lesson from this story is found. The Lord has Moses construct a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. Everyone who is bitten by a snake is to look at the serpent, for in doing so they will be miraculously healed. Scarred, but healed. In other words, Moses made a replica of the very evil the people feared.2
These poisonous snakes were referred to by the Hebrews as fiery serpents, for that is how you feel when you are bitten by one of them… fiery, feverish. The Hebrew word for it is seraph, from which the heavenly being is named, Seraphim. The snake, which brings a terrible, painful experience, if not death, is also the Seraph which gives life.
As we said, it is all strange. Very strange indeed. And it is just as strange that John refers to this story when he recounts Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus would have known this story of Moses and the snakes, of course, since he is a learned Pharisee, and probably is quite puzzled as to why Jesus would use it as an analogy for himself. After all, it doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do about… well, anything.
It has been suggested that Jesus may have thought of this story because of the nature in which Nicodemus has come to see him… at night, slithering in quietly under the cover of darkness, not wanting anyone to know he has come to see the controversial Galilean. Maybe Jesus refers to it because he knows that the only way to come to God is to allow God to reveal that which we fear the most. And what Nicodemus fears right at that very moment, evidently, is being seen with Jesus in the light of day.
Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes. If it isn’t snakes, what is it you fear the most? What does it do to you and how does it affect your faith?
The last thing I feel capable of doing is to psychoanalyze Nicodemus or even conjecture about why he came to Jesus and at night. But I do think he may have been fearful that Jesus was who he said he was. And if that was true, and he found himself afraid not to believe in the young Nazarene, perhaps he was further afraid that doing so would rock his world in a way he was presently unable to deal with.
Does that sound anything like what you may be experiencing? You’re locked into a life not of your own making, and you feel incapable of moving, of moving beyond where you are, because you fear what might come next? And you’re not altogether sure your faith will be sufficient to see you through? If so, understand that, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Fear is a small cell with no air in it and no light. It is suffocating inside, and dark. There is no room to turn around inside it. You can only face in one direction, but it hardly matters since you cannot see anyhow. There is no future in the dark. Everything is over. Everything is past. When you are locked up like that, tomorrow is as far away as the moon.”3
As far as I can tell, the only antidote to that kind of fear is to look the snake squarely in the eye, as did the Israelites of old, and find your healing in the One who has come to redeem you. He too was lifted up, like the seraph in the desert, but in a way that saves us all, and in a way that enables us to overcome all our fear.
Lord, if we are fearful, find us faithful and willing to lean and look upon you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Craig Kocher, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 98.
2William Willimon, “Saved by the Snake,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 34, No. 1, Year B, January-March, 2006, p. 54.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 93.