Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 11, 2018

2018.03.11 “Snakes! Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?” – John 3: 14 – 16

Central United Methodist Church
Snakes! Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?
Pastor David L. Haley
John 3: 14 – 16
The 4th Sunday in Lent
March 11th, 2018

Snakes.Christ top

“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.” – John 3: 14 – 16, The New Revised Standard Version


As I prepare to move, I have been sorting, and this week I went through yellowed newspaper articles that I wrote at my first church, Trinity United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN, between 1976 to 1979. It brought back memories, and a few chuckles.

For example, one article I began with the words, “Recently while visiting my girlfriend in Chicago . . .”. Unfortunately, the masthead, the picture, and the signature were of the Senior Pastor, the Rev. David Hilliard. Therefore, in the next newsletter, with the same masthead, picture, and signature, with the title, “What’s Black and White and Red All Over?” Dave wrote:

“By now I hope that most people have realized that the article in last week’s paper which had my picture on the masthead and my signature at the conclusion was, in truth, written by my associate, Rev. David Haley. Now, ordinarily, I would be glad to claim most of the articles written by David, but when I read the first line of that particular article my only reaction was, “Oh, my Lord.”

He went on to assure the congregation that his only girlfriend lived in Memphis, who was his wife, Patsy. After the shock and correction, he and I and the whole congregation had a good laugh about it, for a long time.

But another article – taken from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church – was more pertinent to today’s readings. It seems a family in a certain church there had become inactive, and all efforts to re-involve them in the life of the congregation were futile. One day one of the boys, John, was bitten by a rattlesnake. The father sent for the pastor to come pray for John. The pastor came, and this was his prayer:

“O wise and righteous Father, we thank you, for you, in your wisdom, sent this rattlesnake to bite John in order to bring this family to its senses. They have not been inside your church for quite a few years. It is doubtful if ever before in his life this boy has felt the need of prayer. Now we trust that this will prove helpful and will lead him to repentance and recognition of a need for Christ in his life.

“Now, O Lord, will you send another snake to bite Jim, and another to bite the old man? We have done everything we could for years, but all our efforts did not accomplish what this one snake has done. We thus have to conclude that the only thing that will bring this family to their senses is rattlesnakes. Lord, in Thy mercy, send us bigger and better rattlesnakes.”

While we may laugh (or cringe), believe it or not, it is indeed snakes (or a snake) that is the controlling image in two of today’s three readings. “Snakes?” you say, as Indiana Jones did in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Why did it have to be snakes?”

Unless you are a herpetologist, us humans have a timeless and universal fear of snakes. They even show up as evil creatures in our ancient mythologies, as the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. (“It was the snake that made me do it!”)

For those of us who grew up in warmer climates, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, snakes were something you had to watch for, before you step, especially when walking through the woods. For example, once my cousin and I, his mom and a friend were walking down a creek bed in the fall. Just as my cousin was about to take step, the friend grabbed him by the arm and lifted him up, interrupting his next step. The reason being, he was about to step on a poisonous copperhead, expertly camouflaged in the leaves. To this day, when I see even a stick lying on a path that looks like a snake, my internal “snake” alarms go off. So, the last thing I want to hear about when I come to church is a story about snakes. But that is what we get today, the story of a snake, lifted up, foreshadowing Christ, to which we look for health, healing, and life.

The first occurrence, which serves as a reference for the second, is an obscure story from the Old Testament book of Numbers, about the children of Israel in the wilderness, following their exodus from Egypt. Though God had delivered them from bondage, the people complained against God and 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.” (I know, God’s people complaining, it’s hard to believe.) Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

Today we might “What kind of God would send snakes to bite people?” According to this story, an angry God, sick and tired of people complaining how that even though God had miraculously delivered them and provided for them, it was taking longer than they thought, and it was harder than they thought.

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

But – like those wayward parishioners in Virginia – in this story snakes did the trick, and the people repented: “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 snake, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a snake 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.”

In other words, when Moses did what God said, the repulsive sight of a snake in the wilderness was transformed, so that it became a symbol of health, healing, and reconciliation. Are you bitten by a snake? Look up!

Yes, it’s a puzzling, fantastic story, and we probably wouldn’t even be reading it if it didn’t show up in an unexpected place, the Gospel of John, right before our favorite verse, John 3:16: “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.” How come nobody ever holds up a sign at a baseball game, saying John 3: 14 & 15: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life.”

It must have been frustrating to Nicodemus, the Jewish rabbi who came to Jesus, to whom Jesus tells this story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with his questions, seeking to be persuaded through reason and logic, to arrive at a clear decision. Jesus, on the other hand, says the spiritual life is “from above”: unearned, uncontrolled, and uncalculated. Jesus goes so far as to compare the spiritual life to birth and wind, two of the most mysterious forces on earth. And then, like a snake on a pole, as in the wilderness, to which one simply looks up.

As it was for Nicodemus, it can be frustrating to those of us who come to church seeking simple explanations or straight-forward answers. Thankfully, it is not snakebite that plagues us, but the thousand mortal ills that life brings to us, leaving us wondering sometimes if there even is a God, and especially – in the light of the world we live in – whether God is a God of love. As we come with our questions, what Moses and John and Jesus tell us is to look up, to glimpse God’s great love for us. There is nothing we can do, other than to behold what God has done. For Jesus would indeed be lifted up, but before he does so in resurrection and ascension he would be raised up – like a snake on a pole – on a cross. As we sit – transfixed at the sight – John says: “This is how much God loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever trusts in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”

As we make our way through Lent towards Easter and the looming cross, it can be frustrating to read John’s Gospel. Sometimes, like Nicodemus, all you want are the facts, “ma’am, just the facts.” But as the last Gospel written, with more time to contemplate Jesus’ story, John always goes further, deeper. Yes, Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, but when all is said and done, it’s the Temple of his body he’s talking about, which will be raised in three days. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life. Next week, we hear that Jesus is a grain of wheat which falls into the earth and dies, but in dying, he bears much fruit. Sometimes we need the facts, but sometimes we images, something we can contemplate, like stopping in a church or cathedral amidst flickering candles, to sit before a crucifix, to contemplate God’s great love in Christ.

Snakes.Christ fullAt the summit of Mt. Nebo in Jordan, from which Moses looked west over the Holy Land, there is a metal sculpture erected by the Franciscans, and designed by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni, commemorating the Bronze Serpent. The sculpture features a serpent twisted around a pole, with its head, at the top, encircled by a loop of its body.

But clearly, the sculptor was thinking of more than snakes, and likely of this verse in John 3, because in addition to depicting the serpent made by Moses, the body of the snake looped around itself suggests the head of one who has been crucified. The lyrically shaped crosspieces, evocative of outstretched arms, remind us of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Like a snake on a pole, once an object of horror and revulsion, so the cross of Christ has been transformed to become for us a symbol of love and life. As we look beyond it to the One lifted up, may we find there what we need, health and healing and happiness, abundant and eternal life with God.



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