Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 18, 2012

2012.03.18 Snakes! Why’d It Have to be Snakes! – John 3: 14 – 21

Central United Methodist Church

Snakes! Why’d It Have to be Snakes!

Pastor David L. Haley

John 3: 14 – 21

The 4th Sunday in Lent

March 18th, 2012


               “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up — and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.

          “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.

          “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” – John 3: 14 – 21, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.



         As you come to church today, hear the Scriptures, and prepare to hear this sermon, I hope you are not having the experience I am: of being completely lost. I feel like a student who has missed a week of school, now I’m behind and don’t know where we are anymore.

         Before Lent, I searched for a Lenten sermon series for this year, but could not find anything I liked, or more importantly, that I thought you would like. Little did I know, perhaps there was reason for that I did not yet know; that this year I was going to walk a Lenten journey of my own, through my father’s final illness, death, and funeral.  After returning from that last Sunday, I have tried to get oriented this week. When I looked back at the previous 3 Sundays, to try and get a sense of where we’re going, I realized that so far I’ve only preached one of the three Sundays, and that may be part of the reason I don’t know where we are.

         When we turn to the Scriptures for this 4th Sunday of Lent, thankfully, we are met by an old friend: John 3:16, which, as most of us learned long ago is not the men’s room on the third floor, but one of our favorite Bible verses. We’ve seen the signs held up at sporting events, and in all kinds of strange places. Most of us have known these verses for most of our lives, likely in the familiar form of the King James Version which I memorized more than fifty years ago (Let’s say it together): “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (KJV). 

         On the other hand, as we read what goes just before that, we heard that strange reference we may have never noticed before, something about snakes? And, as if to prepare us for that, that whole story we read from the Old Testament book of Numbers, the story of the snake invasion in the wilderness? For some of us, our reaction might be the same as Indiana Jones’ reaction in the movie Raiders of the lost Ark: “Snakes? Why did it have to be snakes?”

         Like Indiana Jones, I can handle about anything, but snakes I’m not fond of. I apologize in advance to herpetologists, but about the only thing I ever liked about snakes back home in KY was shooting them. Just last weekend, my cousin Bill was there for the funeral, and we rehearsed two of our favorite snake stories. One was occurred back when we landed on the moon, when one of the local ignoramuses remarked, “They better be careful stomping around up there on the moon, they’re gonna get snake bit.” The second was a background story behind such a wacky remark, how my cousin and I, his mom and a friend were once walking down a creek bed in the fall. Just as Bill was about to take step, the friend grabbed him by the arm and literally lifted him up, preventing his next step. The reason was, he was just about to step on a poisonous copperhead, expertly camouflaged in the leaves.

         So the last thing I want to hear when I come to church is a story about snakes. Unfortunately, what I’m experiencing may be the experience of many when they come to church. They’ve just come through some horrible experience in their life, say, like a death, and come to church tender or anxious or fearful looking for something to hang on to, and find themselves subject to a sermon – as eloquent as it might be – about snakes in the wilderness.  Who cares?

         For that matter, what kind of God would send snakes to bite people, anyway? I guess the answer is, a God who was angry, tired of people complaining about God’s efforts to deliver them, and provide for them in the wilderness, and how it was taking so much longer than they thought, and was much harder than they thought.

         There’s a reason such a story would be in the Old Testament. That’s because the Biblical revelation is progressive, meaning that it gets better and clearer as it is revealed over time. The earlier parts often reflect a more primitive understanding of God, as acting like we might act; anthropomorphisms, they are called.  After all, if I were God and delivered my people from bondage in Egypt, through the miracle at the Red Sea, lead them with a pillar of fire, given them manna to eat and water to drink, and they do nothing the whole time but complain, I might want to let some snakes loose, too. Let’s face it, if God acts like we act, we’re all in deep trouble. 

         Truth be told, there are still lots of people out there – some prominent – who still talk like God is this kind of God, that the primary nature of God is anger.  They say that if we don’t believe a certain way or act a certain way or even have sex in a certain way,” God is angry at us.”  I only point that out because lately there’s been so much talk of this, even on the campaign trail.  The God I believe in – the God most of us believe in – is bigger than that, and the nature of this God is love.

         That’s the point Jesus makes in John 3:16, to the Jewish leader Nicodemus, who comes to him inquiring about such things. Here snakes in the wilderness is only a passing reference, a reference Nicodemus would understand, that “as Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and believe, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up, that everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.”

         And then he says it: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

         God is not like us, God is a God of love. God loves the world so much, God sent God’s one and only Son, Jesus.  

         But it’s at this point that words began to fail, and we revert back to the kind of God who would send snakes, even reading this passage in this way. Understood within the heaven-and-hell framework, as many of us learned, and many still believe, everybody who believes in Jesus gets heaven, eternal life, but everybody who doesn’t gets –worse than snakes – hell and everlasting torment.

         This is a significant misunderstanding of the Gospel.  What it says is, “God so loved the world:” the cosmos (as it says in Greek), the whole world God created: not just you and me, not just Christians, not just people, but the whole of creation. 

         And God loves this world so much that God gave God’s only Son, not in substitutionary sacrifice to appease the anger of God, but through incarnation, God becoming incarnate in Jesus, living as we live, dying as we die, rising to give life forevermore.

         So that everyone who believes in him.  Did you know that word “believe” is likely the most mistranslated and misunderstood word in the Bible? In this verse, as in the Bible generally, the pre-modern rather than the modern meaning “of believe” is intended: “to believe” does not mean believing theological claims about Jesus, but trusting Jesus, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to him. This is the way into new life. 

         And this new life, often translated as Eternal life and commonly understood to mean a blessed afterlife beyond death, is, in John’s Gospel, not life in the world to come, but life that begins now, in present experience. To know God and Jesus in this life, in the present, is to participate now in the life of the world to come. 

         Thus in John, this verse is not about believing certain things about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later; it is about loving Jesus and the God known in Jesus, and entering into abundant life, eternal life, now. It is not about people going to hell because they don’t believe. It is about Christian believers experiencing life now. (Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored. HarperOne, 2011)

         Does that understanding start to change things for you?  Does it start to make sense, about how you could come to church after some devastating, difficult experience in your life and hear not some weird story about snakes, but about a God who loves us so much that God was willing to live among us, live as we live and experience what we experience, be broken by it and rise above it, be lifted up as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, so that everyone who looks to him will be given life, real life.

         Do you know where the term “raising the standard” comes from?  According to one source, it appears to have been first used in relation to the rallying of English troops around a flag at the Battle of Cowton Moor in 1138, where the Scots invaders were defeated. Henceforth, the King’s Standard came to refer to the specific battle flag of the monarch.

         So imagine the scene: here you are in a battle. All around you your comrades are struggling, even falling, and you are not sure whether you will make it, or whether the battle is won or lost. Out of the corner of your eye you see it, the standard raised, the flag flying, the trumpet sounding, and you know that there is hope, and whether or not you make it, the battle will be won. 

         For us as Christians, life is like this. We struggle and may even fall, but we are never finally defeated. The standard around which we rally is not a bronze serpent on a pole, nor even a flag flying, but the cross of Jesus Christ.  As William How put it so eloquently in his great hymn, “For All the Saints:”


And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,

steals on the ear the distant triumph son,

and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong,

Alleluia, Alleluia.






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