The Bronze Serpent

Moses and the Bronze Snake painting
Moses and the Bronze Snake

TEXT: Numbers 21:4-9

If somebody mentions snake stories in the Bible, the first one that pops into most people's minds is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, getting tricked into disobeying God by a clever snake.  And having that memory of snakes and sin is not such a bad backdrop to this morning’s story from Numbers about the poisonous snakes and the bronze snake on a pole.

This is a problem story for a lot of people--one of those Old Testament stories that makes God seem nasty and harsh with a solution that seems just plain weird.  But this tremendously odd story pops up again in the Gospel of John, where Jesus compares himself lifted up on the Cross to the bronze snake lifted up in the wilderness. And if Jesus is comparing himself to a snake on a pole, maybe this bizarre event deserves a bit more attention.

So into the strange story we go. First we need to remember where we are in the bigger story that is being told. This is Israel in the wilderness, during the 40 years between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land of Canaan. These are the folks who have seen God's finest hour to this point in history. They remembered first hand being slaves in Egypt. They remembered all the miracles that were performed to get them out of Egypt--all the plagues that touched Egypt and not them, the first Passover where the Angel of Death took the firstborn of every home in Egypt, but passed over the Hebrew homes and left them alive.

These were the people who watched the waters of the Red Sea part and who crossed over on dry land only to see the Egyptians drown behind them. These were the people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, saw the mountain smoke and shake, and received God's law. They heard God promise to be their God and to make them God's people...and they promised to obey God's commandments.

These are the people who saw God's care for them visibly every day as God led them through the wilderness by a great cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. And these are the people who saw God provide for them whenever they complained...which was a lot. We're hungry, they God sent manna...a miracle food that appeared every morning for them to gather. They got thirsty and complained, so God gave them water miraculously from a rock. They got bored with the manna and complained again, and God gave them quail.

God had done all of these things, and yet there was no gratitude, only complaints. And they were whiny complaints. It was never, "God, you have already done so much for us and we are grateful. We know we can live on whatever you provide, but we find we are thirsty all the time and we would really like more water." There was never humility in their wasn't even asking. It was whiny complaining, "Why did we ever leave Egypt! At least there we had food and water. Why did you ever bring us out of there! Did you just want to see us starve in the wilderness?"

God has put up with that sort of complaining time and time again from Israel, and now it is starting again. This last complaint puts God over the top, and God responds with a plague of poisonous snakes. We tend to be horrified at the thought of God actually punishing people this way, but I can tell you that if it had been up to me, I would have sent the snakes long before this. The God in Numbers 21 is a God who has had enough...a God who is not going to be a doormat...a God who has given and given and given, getting only abuse in return, and this last complaint is one whine too many.

What are we to learn from this?  The people try God's patience a bit too far and get poisonous snakes as a result. So, we can learn first of all that thinking of God as a tame bit of milk toast who exists to serve us is a dangerous position to take. God does get angry and God doesn't like being pushed around or being taken for granted any more than we do. It doesn't hurt every now and again to remember Who it is that we're dealing with.

The poisonous snakes had exactly that effect on the people. This wakes them up, and they realize this is punishment. Not everything bad that happens is punishment from God, but this time it most surely was, and they knew it. They also knew it was deserved. Nobody in this story says, "God is so awful, look what God has done to us innocent people." Nobody charges God with wrongdoing. When the snakes show up and people start dying, the people say, "Uh oh. We've done it now," and they go to Moses to ask forgiveness. Remember Moses is the intermediary between the people and God. They go to Moses and admit that they were wrong to complain about him and about God, and they ask Moses to pray for forgiveness.

This is the appropriate and faithful response to God's wrath. To repent as they did shows that they know that God is just and would not give them a punishment they did not deserve. To ask for forgiveness shows their faith that God is not only just, but merciful. They ask because they know it is in God's nature to forgive. That is how the faithful respond.

Often our response to stories of God's wrath is something like, "That is cruel and harsh. I can't worship a God like that." OK, so how smart is that? If God has just blasted you with a plague of poisonous snakes as an attitude adjustment, what sense does it make to refuse to do what God wants? If you're going to refuse to worship God because God gets mad on occasion, then please go live over there and keep the snakes to yourself. I will opt for the repentance, thank you very much.

Anyway, the people ask Moses to pray for them that God might take away the snakes and Moses does as they ask. God's answer is perfect, I think. God does not take away the snakes. But God does provide a way for people who are bitten by the snakes to be healed. Moses is instructed to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. From then on, whoever got bitten had to look at that bronze snake to be healed and live. It seems like a weird solution, but I think it shows a lot of God's wisdom.

Think for a minute about the solution proposed by the people: take away the snakes. Given what we have seen of Israel in the story so far, what do you think are the chances that when the snakes were gone they would remember the incident so vividly that they would not complain anymore? I can tell you what the chances are...nil. This is not the first incident of punishment. After the little incident with the Golden Calf, God sent a plague. When Korah incited the people to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron, 14,700 people died. But none of that seemed to change behavior. If God just took away the snakes from the people here, it would be just like it had never happened and the people would be right back to their old ways.

But consider God's solution. The snakes stay. And the snakes continue to bite people. God could have just rendered all the snakes harmless. But the snakes stay and they stay poisonous. But God does provide a way for people to survive the bite and live. The bronze serpent is a symbol of both the sin of the people and the mercy of God.  In order for someone who was bitten to live, they have to be willing to look square in the face of their sin. In looking at that bronze serpent, they will remember that God sent those serpents as punishment for their sin.  If they are willing to look at the serpent and be reminded of all of that, they will be healed.

Now, with all of that as background, take a jump with me to the Gospel of John, to the passage that we read...chapter 3 verse 14. "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." Lo and behold, this strange snake story from the book of Numbers, is tied into the saving work of Jesus Christ. John compares the snake on a pole to Jesus on the Cross.

To enter the Kingdom of God, we have got to be able to face the crucifixion of Jesus. For us to be healed, we have to be willing to remember both our sin and God's mercy. The Cross, like the bronze snake, is a symbol of both. Israel looked at the bronze snake and remembered what they had done to provoke God, the death that they deserved as a result, and the way God had made for them to live.

The Cross does the same for us--not the empty Cross--that is a different symbol. The empty Cross symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus and therefore our own resurrection. But the Crucifix, the Cross with Jesus dying on it, is the one that John says we must look to. That's the one that will remind us of our sin; the one that will help us remember that, as a result of our sin and that crafty snake back in Genesis, death came among us; and the one that will let us heal the poison and live.

There are some traditions that focus on the feelings of guilt produced by the Cross, and that's not all bad. We can never come to repentance if we don't realize our own guilt. But the Cross, like the bronze serpent, not only reminds us of our guilt, it also reminds us of God's forgiveness and mercy. At the same time that we are reminded of our sin and its penalty, we are reminded that God has provided a way out, a way for us to live. Just as the bronze serpent provided physical healing and life, so the Cross provides us with spiritual healing and eternal life.

But in both cases, God demands that we look at it. Before we can have either healing or life, we must recognize the extent of our sin, the justness of God's punishment, and the wideness of God's mercy. It was all there in the bronze serpent, it is all there still in the Cross. If we are willing to look at spend some time with let it speak to us however it will...we will be ready to hear the next verse of the Gospel of John, the one so many of us learned as children, "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." That is what both the serpent and the Cross are ultimately about: life... mercy... forgiveness... love. That is emphasized in verse 17, "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him."

God could have just let the poisonous snakes have their way and condemned the world; God could have let death reign. But that's not what God did. God had Moses put a snake up on a pole, so that those who were willing to admit and remember their sin could find healing; God willingly went to the Cross in the person of Jesus Christ so that those who were willing to accept death might be welcomed into life instead.

Lent is that uncomfortable time of the year when we remember that God's forgiveness comes in response to our sin, and that our sin has real consequences. We have no chance of understanding what Easter is all about if we aren't first willing to admit that there are times when we actually do things that are not pleasing to God. We sin. Therapists will tell you that a person's ability to benefit from therapy and get past their problems generally begins with the ability to admit their own part in the take responsibility for the things they have done which have hurt themselves or others. The person who puts all the blame on others or who expects others to do all the work cannot begin healing.

We have to first look at the snake on the pole...Jesus on the Cross...and realize that He is up there in part because of what we have done. Then the poison can leave our system. Then our healing can begin. Then we can see the wideness of God's mercy and understand the extraordinary message of the empty tomb and why we call that message “good news.”

As you prepare your hearts for Easter, spend some time at the Cross. We each need to look our own sin square in the eye.  Not the sins of others.  Our sin.  It takes tremendous courage, but the Gospel says that the purpose is not condemnation, but healing.  We need not be afraid to face our sin.  When we finally dare to look into the face of our sin, we see only the face of our Savior.  Amen.

Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson

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