Numbers 21:4-9 Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-21 Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

“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“


This is a very familiar verse for many of us. The focus of many evangelism efforts in football endzones and revival preachers.


And rightfully so, it is the distilled (if not somewhat overly reductionistic) good news for us. God loves the world. And God had shown this love through the loving act of coming to us in Jesus.


But before there is John 3:16, there is also John 3:14-15. Which of course, we all know just as well:

“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.”


Jesus just compared himself to a snake. Which is why we have our first reading from the book of Numbers this morning.


Snakes. It had to be snakes.


This is one of only four times that the Book of Numbers comes to us in the lectionary. And it is connected in two ways today. First, is because Jesus alludes to it in our Gospel reading, which itself is a part of a larger conversation with a religious teacher, Nicodemus. That’s important for us to know…Jesus is speaking with a religious authority, a member of the Pharisees, who is coming to Jesus with questions, to be taught. Which leads to the second reason we are reading this text today.


This account of the serpents happens within the context of the Exodus journey of God’s people…the time of wilderness that we ourselves walk through during Lent. If we’ve engaged in dietary fasting this year, we could perhaps identify with the people’s complaining about bland food. There sometimes is nothing worse than feeling “hangry.”


But this is another level. The people have been miraculously delivered from oppression, and have complained quite a bit throughout their time. They complained that they were hungry, God sends manna. They complain that they are thirsty, God sends water from a rock. They complain that they have no meat, God sends quail. And now they are complaining about being impatient that the journey is taking so long, that there is no food, and wait…there is food, but it is “miserable.” This is the quintessential combination of “Are we there yet? I’m bored. There’s nothing to eat, and ugh, this is yucky.” 


And yes, we’ve all heard others say that, but we also have our own way of saying it, don’t we? We grow impatient. We grow dissatisfied with the things God has given us because we feel we need something more. We get cranky and hangry.


And of course, we also then, have poisonous snakes sent to us by God because of our complaining. (Parents, please do not use this as a threat when your kids inevitably complain!).


I don’t want us to get too stuck on the problem of God sending snakes to bite people (this was an ancient way of talking about difficulties and explaining the origins of things and people). But there is a certain interesting logic to this story at work that I wan to draw our attention to.


Moses forms a bronze snake, and lifts it up, so that when people look at it, it becomes a means of healing and salvation for them. The very thing which has brought harm becomes the means of healing, not too dissimilar to how the antidote for snake bites is derived from the venom itself.


Jesus is making a connection from this story to himself. Just as the means of harm and suffering was lifted up in this story for the purposes of healing, so will he be lifted up. The cross, the means of torture, the thing that was keeping the people oppressed and living in fear, would be the very thing upon which Jesus would be lifted up, so that whosoever would “look” upon him would be saved.


It’s a beautiful metaphor and a wonderful picture of God’s love and mercy for us all. Because we all, like these people of God in the wilderness, and like those who “live in the world” are impatient and rail against God. We love darkness rather than light. And yet, we too can receive healing, forgiveness, and life eternal because of God’s love for us.


And yet, we need to be reminded of this again and again. Because the very things that “save us” can become impediments to us living faithfully as God’s beloved in this world. That which once saved us, can again harm us and others.


You see, many years after this account of healing in the desert by the serpent, there is another record of this bronze snake. In 2 Kings, when King Hezekiah comes to reign, he works to purge the people of Israel of many cult-like practices that emerged, often because of a commingling of cultures and the worship of other gods. The bronze snake is still around, but had come to be worshipped, having incense burned before it regularly, and it even was given a name, Nehushtan. So Hezekiah had it smashed as a series of reforms to help people return to faithful worship of YHWH.


There are good things that God works through at certain times and in certain ways that are good at the time. And at another time, those same things can serve opposite purposes, taking the place of God or taking our perspective away from God. This was true of the bronze snake. This has been true of the cross as well.


The cross that once was a sign of the sacrificial love of God would later be emblazoned on the shields of those fighting to subdue others in the name of empire. The cross that reconciled us to God and to each other would be burned in fields and on front lawns as an act of terror in the name of white supremacy. The cross that stood as a symbol for radical, selfless love now hangs around the neck of those who spout bigotry and hate, and would seek to limit the rights and opportunities of others in the name of their “faith”.


Which brings us back to our Gospel reading today.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.


For God so loved, means not that God loved the world SO much, but rather: God loved the world in this way. The serpent in the desert, Jesus on the cross…these are the way God loves the world. God does not leave us in our pain, in our difficulty…even when we have, in some ways, brought it upon ourselves.


God’s love is shown to us in Jesus, literally lifted up, that we might be confronted with the very things which have led to our suffering…and also be delivered from them. My God continue to deliver us, from our misuse of the cross, and even from the good things which now obscure our view of Jesus.  Amen.