Snake bit

15 March 2015
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Lent 4B (RCL)
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

This passage in Numbers is an odd little story. Yet again the people are grumbling, and God sends fiery serpents among them. The word in Hebrew for the serpents is “seraph,” just like the seraphim whom Isaiah sees in the Temple. As such, the seraphim are emblems of God’s holiness. The word in the Septuagint is “ophis,” which corresponds to the serpent in the temptation story (this connection, alas, doesn’t exist in Hebrew). John, in writing his Gospel, would have been reading the Septuagint. John uses “ophis” in this passage from his Gospel.

Whether the connection is to temptation/sin or to holiness, the people in the wilderness grumble, and God sends fiery serpents among them, who bite them. Many of the people die. The acknowledge their sin, and ask Moses to intercede with God to send the serpents away. God does not send the serpents away, but instructs Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent. Those who look on the image live. King Hezekiah would later destroy this “idol” found in the Temple (II Kings 18:4). God does not take away either holiness or temptation/sin from among the people, but invites them to gaze upon an image of it for their salvation. The author of Numbers may be seeing the connection to sin, because the people recognize their sin after the serpents come among them.

This passage from John’s Gospel is part of the dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus at night. Up to this point, the discussion has been about entering the kingdom, and being born from above. The conversation then shifts to the exaltation (lifting up) of the Son of Man, just as Moses exalted the serpent in the wilderness. John, reading the LXX, no doubt has allusions to temptation/sin in mind. Just as Moses held up the image of the people’s sin in the wilderness, so will the Son of Man be exalted (on the cross), for God has so loved the world.

From a contemplative point of view, or as a way of appropriating the story, perhaps John is suggesting that when we look on Jesus on the cross, we are looking at the consequences of that first temptation and sin. And we are also looking on the antidote to that first sin.

I am writing this the morning after two police officers were shot and wounded in a demonstration outside the Ferguson Police Station. The captain of the force had resigned in the wake of the DOJ’s scathing report. A small demonstration had gathered in the evening, and was winding down just after midnight. Four shots were fired from outside the group of protesters and two police officers wounded.

Advent is currently engaged in a dialog with Church of the Ascension. We have begun to learn that even the smallest misunderstandings and biases lead to ugly results. Jesus on the cross signifies the consequences of human sin, and at the same time, its antidote. Jesus says that the judgment is this, the light has come into the world, and people avoid it, for fear of seeing that their deeds are evil. We need to hold our deeds up to the light of community scrutiny, in order that we can see them grace-infused. God does not remove the snakes from among us. We are all snake-bit, but if we can look fearlessly at the results of our sins, we can begin to forgive one another, just as Jesus gives us authority when he breathes on us on the day of resurrection.

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