It’s not every Sunday that our scriptures give us a curious combination of folklore and psychology, zoology and theology, medicine, spirituality and, to top it all off, what must surely be one of the most commonly quoted sentences of the past 2,000 years—the subject of everything from T-shirts to highway billboards, bumper stickers, Sunday school memorization contests, the ubiquitous ballgame posters and, of course, Facebook groups.
For God so loved the world.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, I didn’t hear much about that part of the sentence. Oh, I heard a lot about the “only Son” part, and even more about perishing. But God loving—I mean really loving—the world? Loving as delighting in, aching for, rejoicing over and wanting the best for? Not so much.
And what I was taught, or at least what I heard—the part about God giving his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life—made me feel both guilty and a little scared.
I felt guilty for apparently being such a bad person that a really good person supposedly had to die so that I could have even a chance of avoiding eternal fire and brimstone. And I was confused by a God who wanted to save the world but whose church seemed to condemn just about everyone in it. But I was scared enough—that is, over-indoctrinated and under-educated—to think that finding true life and living in the light was all about following the rules and keeping my head down. Fortunately for me, I was never very good at either of those things.
Fortunately for all of us, finding true life—life shaped by transformative faith and healing forgiveness, life lived in mercy, to do justice—is about grace and trust. Fortunately for us and the rest of the world, which really does need to be saved from its greedy, warring and destructive ways, believing has less to do with accepting certain theological statements than with obeying God by be-loving all people, as Jesus did. Fortunately for the world God so loves, the way to the Promised Land of healing and wholeness, reconciliation and new life goes by way of a manna-littered wilderness and a death-defying cross. Fortunately—which is to say, thank God—no matter how far we stray from the light-filled path, all we have to do live in the light is turn around, make the choice to lift up our weary, snake-bitten hearts and entrust them to God’s loving grace.
But I’m getting ahead of the story—the story that Jesus refers to as he’s talking to Nicodemus in the dead of night. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he says, reminding us that he knows his scriptures, telling us that he understands the human need for divine healing.
The story bears a discouraging resemblance to other accounts of the Israelites in the wilderness. Having been liberated by God from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the people God has promised to love forever aren’t handling freedom very well. Yes, the plagues and the exodus were impressive, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army thrilling in a perverse sort of way. But now they’re walking circles in the wilderness, afraid to trust God for their next meal, much less the Promised Land.
And who is this guy, Moses, anyway? Some darling of Pharaoh’s turned murderer, turned sheep-herder? Sure, he’s managed some pretty cool tricks with that staff of his, and the way he looked when he came off the mountain with those tablets, they think maybe he really did see God, but it never ends: the walking, the meetings, the sermons, the announcements, the stewardship campaigns. For all they know, he’s leading them on a death march.
And so they set in motion a series of events we’ve seen before: grumbling and complaining, then getting in trouble with God, then repenting and running to Moses for help, then being saved by God’s response. Only this time it’s worse than ever. The story says they grew impatient. Imagine that. And while their previous complaints had been directed against Moses, this time they also speak against God. Finally, their impatience has made them sound like children desperately in need of a nap, whose behavior would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic:
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they whine—again. Having survived on water from a rock, manna from heaven, and quail from God’s hand, they say: “There is no food and no water and, and”—you can see them trying to come up with something else to say—“and there is no food and the food is really horrible.” While Moses might have been content to send them to bed without their manna, God had apparently had enough.
It was not the people’s murmuring, or complaining, that God found so offensive, but what it represented: their refusal to trust God. And so, according to the story, God really lets them have it: sending a plague of poisonous serpents. Can you imagine anything creepier? Snakes in their tents, snakes in their clothes, the very ground crawling with snakes when they went out to collect manna in the morning. The people getting bit were dying, and the ones who hadn’t been bit were going crazy with fear—never knowing where the next snake would come from and when they, too, would get bit.
Well, that’s no way to live. The combination of death and fear drove the people to their knees, and they repented, begging Moses to plead with God for mercy. Moses had gotten quite good at that, but this time God has a different response. Instead of saving the people outright, God tells Moses to give them the means for their salvation. Instead of doing away with the serpents, God provides an antidote the people can choose to take—or not. God tells Moses to put the bronze serpent on a pole and promises that all those who look at it will survive being bitten.
This sounds like one of those weird Bible stories, doesn’t it? One of those things you’re afraid your non-believing friends will discover and taunt you with, saying, “Come on! Are you telling me you can take seriously a book with stuff like this in it? That you can love a God who sends snakes to bite and kill people, only to heal them when they look up at a snake sculpture on a pole? And then Jesus says he must be lifted up like the bronze snake? Are you kidding me?”
And yet the truth of this story is preached even by those who reject the Bible: The spiritual antidote God provides operates on the same principle scientists used some 5,000 years later to develop anti-venoms, medical vaccines and treatments for peanut allergies; the cure is just one step removed from the poison itself. And psychiatrists, psychologists, wise people and tellers of folktales have long said that healing and wholeness require us to face into our fears, embrace our shadow sides, and take responsibility for our mistakes.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been bitten by a snake. I have, however, been bitten by life—and I’m guessing you have, too. Like the Israelites, I brought some of my “life bites” on myself. Like the Israelites, we are not hapless victims; some of our suffering, hurts, and difficulties are brought on by our own behaviors—pride, greed, self-absorption, bad choices, misplaced priorities, unresolved hurts, unaddressed fears, our refusal to acknowledge the writing on the wall.
I don’t know about you, but the life things that have bitten me haven’t been all bad; they include the untimely endings of precious lives, the sad turns taken by happy relationships, the benign neglect of important friendships. Many of the sources of my pain have been mixtures of both good and bad, like the snakes in our story. Snakes do, after all, help control the rodent population. And in the ancient Near East, serpents had multiple meanings: They could be symbols of evil, but they also represented “fertility, life, and [yes,] healing.” 1 Indeed, the symbol of the American medical profession is two snakes wrapped around a staff.
Folk wisdom says the person who’s been thrown off a horse must get back in the saddle again. Some say only love can cure a broken heart. There is no magic involved, only courageous inner work and an openness to grace. Buddhists Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman encourage us to look at the difficulties we are resisting, the obstacles we’re struggling with, the painful truths we’re denying and the darkness we’re trying to escape.
“How might you discover the wisdom of a Buddha or the heart of Jesus if you could accept what is actually before you, difficult though it may be?” they ask. “How can we see our shadows anew, in the light of awareness and compassion?” 2
The answers our scriptures provide are clear. “Have the snake-bitten people look at the bronze serpent, the one provided by my mercy, and they will live,” God tells Moses. “Choose to come through the darkness into the light,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. Look—really look—at your pain and the source of it, our story says. Trust God to heal it, to heal you.
By now, the fourth Sunday in Lent, we are more fully aware of our personal failings and weaknesses. In the midst of a severe economic recession, we may feel anxious and vulnerable. Weakened by illness or old age, we can feel discouraged and fearful. Stricken by grief, we may huddle alone in the darkness. Just walking through this beautiful and broken world with the best of intentions, we will get bitten by poisonous snakes.
What will we do? How will we cope? Where will we find comfort, healing and hope? Look to God, our story says; look to me and to the cross, Jesus says. Trust God, not to provide a snake-free world, but to show us how to live in it with grace and faith, courage and hope, love and even joy.
“In returning—that is, repenting—and rest you shall be saved,” God says. “In quietness and trust shall be your strength.” 3
Turn around, look up, and live. For God so loved the world.