Scripture and Sermon
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against 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.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘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 serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent 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.
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The Rev. Bill Clark
Westminster Presbyterian Church
March 14, 2021
Many of us know the 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.” It’s a wonderful verse that has made it into our memories even if we don’t remember other scripture passages. And it is followed by an equally wonderful verse: ‘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.” Martin Luther called all of this “the gospel in miniature.”
But did you notice the two verses just before that? John 3:14-15 “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.” What’s that about?
That is referring to the strange and troubling story from the Hebrew scriptures that Josie read earlier. The Hebrew people have been traveling a long, grueling journey through the wilderness, when, for the fifth recorded time in the book of Numbers, they began to murmur and complain against their leader Moses and God: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s nothing to eat or drink. The food is miserable.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
Like I said, it’s a troubling story. Apparently, God was fed up with these people for their lack of gratitude and faith. After delivering them from slavery in Egypt, giving them a leader in Moses, giving them the gift of the law and providing heavenly manna for their daily sustenance this is the thanks God gets. An enraged God sends fiery, poisonous serpents to bite the people. “I’ll show you what it’s like to die in the wilderness!”
There’s a lot of anger and rage in this story—in the people’s grumbling and incessant
complaining, in God’s wrathful response, in the deadly sting of the snakes. And while this ancient story seems strange and bizarre and even offensive to our modern ears, it does, I think provide an assessment of the human condition. There’s a lot of venom out there.
Just scroll through your Facebook posts, look at Twitter or watch FOX News or CNN and you’ll see and hear the venom. On the Monday that our power went out during the great storm I began frequently checking the Austin Energy twitter feed for updates. There weren’t too many updates at first but there were a lot of angry posts: “We’re freezing!” many said. “How am I supposed to cook for my four-year-old?” an anxious and angry mother asked. “Why is downtown still fully lit up?” many asked, using much more colorful language than that. I was right there with them!
Austinites had turned their rage on Austin Energy. I heard later that when some Austin Energy workers were out removing fallen tree branches and repairing power lines angry residents hurled insults at them along with snowballs, sticks and rocks. The enraged Austin Energy customers were biting the hands that feed them.
There’s a lot of venom out there. There’s also venom here, in our own hearts. It stings. It hurts. In some cases, it even kills. So where does all this venom come from?
It comes from fear. Like snakes tend to strike when they are backed into a corner so do we lash out when we feel threatened, fearful, or anxious about our situation. The venom also comes from pain that we are experiencing from the present and from the past. There’s an old saying, “Hurt people, hurt people.” When we are in pain we have a tendency to inflict that pain on others, just like the snake that has been wounded.
Maybe that’s why God sent the serpents. After God lovingly led those people out of slavery with the promise of a new life and land, providing daily bread for them in the wilderness, all that God gets in return is moaning and complaining. God’s heart could have been wounded by that lack of gratitude. So God lashed out with fiery serpents. Maybe that’s a bit heretical. Don’t hold me to it. Don’t tell the presbytery! But I do know that hurt people, hurt people.
So what can be done about all of that venom that has been unleashed, and all the venom that is still pulsing through our veins?
“Here’s what you need to do,” God said to Moses. “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent 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.
Earlier in the wilderness journey when the 10 commandments were given, God specifically said, “No graven images.” A bronze serpent on a pole sure seems like a graven image to me. Besides it’s a bizarre image, a slithering serpent that brings death, being lifted up high on a pole so that all who look at it might have life. I can’t really explain how it worked, or why it worked. But one thing is clear, sometimes God will do something extraordinary to save God’s people. Sometimes God even breaks God’s own rules to save God’s people.
“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.” (John 3:14) The gospel writer announces that Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted like the serpent was lifted up, not on a pole, but on a cross.
Crucifixion was a gruesome scene. The slumped body hung on a cross, exposed for all to see, struggling, gasping for air, crying out, gasping for more air. This time it’s God’s beloved son upon the cross, God’s own flesh and blood dying up there. In this image, lifted up before our eyes, we see the consequences of human sin. We see in graphic detail what our venom can do.
But as we gaze upon this hideous image of God’s crucified Son lifted up on a cross, the gospel writer offers these words: “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. 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.”
In Jesus Christ, lifted high on a cross, God reveals a deep, divine desire to remove the venom in this world and in our lives. And when God’s love is lifted up among us, it begins to draw out our venom and all that poisons the world. That can also be called the gospel in miniature.
From his cross where he reigns Christ is still speaking on this fourth Sunday in Lent: “Let it go. Let it all go. Let all the ingratitude go. Let all the backbiting go. Let go of everything that poisons our lives, corrupts our community, and demeans our humanity. Let it go, and be lifted up with me.”
For God so loves the world…