Perhaps in this image there lies a truth greater than we realize.
told by Deborah
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that those who look toward him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
“Understand: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. Those who accept him are free; but those who don’t are imprisoned. They have condemned themselves by their failure to accept him as the Son of God.
“It’s like this: the Light has come into the world, but people chose the darkness — where they can hide.
“Those who do wicked and hurtful things hate the light and avoid it, for fear that they will be exposed. But those who do what is good come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their works were brought forth by God.”
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that those who look toward him may have eternal life.”
Wait a minute. What’s that? The business with Moses and the bronze snake is not exactly ’way up there on our list of cherished tales of divine acts of salvation. Rather the opposite, in fact: it’s a a grim reminder of a terrible and troubled time — when the Israelites were wandering through a wasteland, hungry and thirsty and besieged by poisonous snakes.
Not only that, but to compare Jesus with a snake is … well, just a bit disconcerting. OK, more than a bit.
But for the Christians in the Johannine community, it appears to have served as a meaningful analogy — probably because they saw parallels between the people of Israel’s situation in the desert and their own. It was a time of persecution, exclusion, and estrangement: former friends had turned into sworn enemies, neighbors no longer spoke to one another, families were fragmented, houses of worship divided, shops were shuttered, doors were slammed in their faces where they had once been welcomed.
It must have felt as if they were on a long and lonely journey, passing through enemy territory across an arid landscape, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, at risk of being bitten by sharp-toothed serpents at every turn. It was only by keeping their eyes focused on the Lord Christ that these Christians were able to resist the poison and retain their faith — and perhaps their sanity, as well.
Maybe our own time is not all that different. We live in a world of increasing hostility, incivility, and violence. Lies, cynicism, contempt, and hatred are accepted and even celebrated in business, government, politics, social media, and late-night television. This is a far cry from Jesus’ call to love God with all that is in us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We ache, deep in our souls, and our hearts break: this is not the Kingdom we yearn for, this is not our home.
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
~ Psalm 137:4
The deadly vipers are everywhere present, hidden in the shadows, waiting. They coil around us as we watch the news, surf the internet, receive tweets, read email, or drive on the freeway. They sink their fangs deep into us as we snicker and applaud as others are slammed and shamed and “schooled.” Ah yes, I guess we showed him…. The toxin spreads through us and we are transformed into poisonous snakes, striking out with sarcasm and cynicism and hate.
It becomes normal, acceptable — even admirable, to hiss and spit, to bite and puncture and wound, to hurt and destroy; to cut down rather than build up. In a den of vipers that’s how things are.
But when the Light shines, our vicious behavior is revealed for what it is: death-dealing. The same attitude as those who struck nails into the hands and feet of our Lord, who smirked as he writhed on the cross: “Hey, if you’re really the Messiah, show us: come down from there!”, those who didn’t care about the suffering that was inflicted upon another.
“Oh no!” we protest, “That would have been different. He was different: he was Jesus, he was the Lord; we would never have done any harm to Him!”
I wonder. Let us stand in the Light and know: the Lord Christ came to us in the form of an ordinary human person, humble and lowly. He didn’t look like the Messiah, he didn’t act like the Messiah. Jesus would have been indistinguishable from that fellow sitting over there in the coffee shop, our neighboring cubicle-dweller, the clerk at the grocery store, or the commuter in the next car over on the freeway.
“Hey, if you’re really the Messiah, show us!”
Hey, if you’re really a Christian, show us!
“It’s like this: the Light has come into the world, but people chose the darkness — where they can hide.”
How often do we prefer the darkness — choosing to remain ignorant of the harm that we cause, unwilling to admit the damage that we do? Hiding in the shadows, we cannot be held responsible for our biting remarks and careless cruelty; we are blind to the thousand wounds we have inflicted, the deaths of hope and happiness we have caused: it’s just what vipers do.
Unlike the reptiles, though, we have no immunity to our own toxins. The poison builds inside us, eroding our souls, shrinking our hearts, blinding us, driving us further into the depths: into despair, hatred, and destruction.
But there is a Way out. It is the way of The Cross.
What if the crucified snake represents the wicked, biting, hurtful nature of ourselves? What if we look upon Jesus’ crucifixion — seeing, not as mortals see, but as God sees — seeing it as both the hurt that was done and the healing that is possible?
Just as the snake was lifted up in the desert for all to look upon — See what has brought about the suffering you are enduring! — so, too, we may look at the tragedy of the cross as a sign of the suffering we endure, and a cure for the poisons that plague us. The cross is evidence of our temptation to strike out, to hurt, to shame and harm, and to cut down and destroy.
“Behold the man!” Pontius Pilate said, presenting Jesus to the crowd before His crucifixion. “Behold our humanity,” we might say: take a good look at the hurt we can do. Look upon this Man and see the harm we do to one another and to ourselves. When intoxicated by the venom of hatred and envy we will strike out blindly, wildly — and even try to destroy the image of God in ourselves.
The cross and all that it signifies about our sins and susceptibilities is not the last word. Following the acknowledgement of the Ordeal to come, we are given the glorious assurance of faith: the Christ-message that lifts us into the Light, the phrase known by all who follow the Lord:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Understand: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.”
It is not for condemnation that the Lord Christ came, but to bless and heal and lift us up. In His light we can find our way to full life; in following Him we shall be led away from the temptation to despair, to demean, to destroy, to stumble about in darkness. And we will surrender, once and forever, any desire to condemn others.
In His Light we can see what we have done and who we are called to become.
The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be what He is Himself.
~ St. Irenaeus
“Transcendent love.” What a concept. May it be our dream, our desire, and our inclination — in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Look upon those you meet (including the ones you meet “virtually”) with transcendent love.