Lift High the Cross (and the Snake)

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; St. John 3:14-21

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who brings life everlasting. Amen.

John 3 is undoubtedly one of the most famous passages in the entire Bible – up there with Psalm 23 or I Corinthians 13 (the love chapter read at so many weddings). Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus gives us both the phrase “born from above,” or more commonly translated as “born-again” (we read that section around this time last year, and during midweek prayer a few weeks ago) and the verse so famous that it has become its own cliché: John 3:16. Our familiarity with that verse from today’s Gospel might only be matched by how strange John 3:14 is: a serpent lifted up in the wilderness? What?

It’s a call-back to the events of Numbers 21, which we read this morning: nearing the end of their wandering through the wilderness, the Iraelites begin to grumble again.

Numbers actually has five of these so-called “murmuring” stories, where the people begin to whine to Moses like children on a car trip:
“Are we there yet? We’re bored. Our feet hurt. There’s nothing to eat; can we go back home already? No, I don’t want the crackers from heaven, I’m tired of them, I want the food we had back in Egypt.”
And much like a car trip, the grumbling eventually brings about a response from God, a sort of divine “Don’t make me turn this Exodus around!” When the Israelites realize they’re in trouble, they ask Moses to intercede by asking God for forgiveness – which Moses does and, in turn, God does.

So after the Israelites start complaining again, fiery serpents from heaven invade the camp and start biting people, and chaos erupts – because of course it does, there are flaming snakes invading the camp and biting people! They go to Moses, Moses goes to God, and God gives Moses a solution. The only answer? Well, it’s obvious, really: craft a serpent out of bronze and put it up on a pole for all to see. Who among us hasn’t gone on a camping trip with a giant bronze serpent on a pole guiding the way?

Ok, maybe not so obvious. But it works as promised, and the serpent statue eventually ends up in the Temple and, centuries later, King Hezekiah destroys it because it had gone from being a piece of divine first aid equipment to something treated as an idol.

This story is one of those that raises more questions than it answers, that rides the line between divine miracle and some sort of magic.
Would this statue have worked before Moses spoke to the Lord, or did they have to chat first?
Could anyone have fashioned a serpent of bronze, or did it have to be Moses?
God specifies that the sculpture needs to be of a venomous snake – but it’s a bronze snake; was Moses really such a talented smith that he could differentiate between a and a an Egyptian carpet viper and a Sinai dwarf racer?
And can we take just a moment to talk about how the statue didn’t prevent snake bites but only acted as a sort of theological antivenom? I don’t know about you, but when I encounter snakes, I prefer for the interaction to end before they bite me, even if they’re non-venomous.
Its inclusion in today’s Gospel is even all the more bizarre: What does Jesus mean by “lifted up”?

Just as the bronze serpent was lifted upon on the pole, so too will Jesus be elevated on the tree of the cross. And just as the bronze serpent brought healing to those afflicted, so too will the elevated Christ bring healing and wholeness.

Verse 14’s cryptic reference continues on into 15:

…that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Indeed, by the time we get to that most famous of verses,

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.

(plastered as it is on billboards and t-shirts and signs at sporting events) it arrives as a summary of all that has come before: the world is perishing, but to those who are born again from above through faith in Jesus Christ shall be made whole by Christ’s elevation on the Cross.

This past year has been almost a microcosm of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness and our own struggle against the powers of sin and death. Covid has spread like a fiery serpent, taking from us loved ones and opportunities and an entire year of our life together, a constant reminder that the entire world has fallen from God’s original, good creation. (And yes, those of us still avoiding eating in restaurants are, like the Hebrews tired of manna, longing for something new to eat.) As the death toll has risen to unfathomable levels, we’ve longed for some hope, some good news, something to drive away the plague, to return to the way thing used to be.

Halfway through this Lenten pilgrimage, or more seemingly, a year into the Lent that never ended, let us not lose faith. In a world that is perishing, let us turn to the cross and cast our eyes upon our hope and salvation: Jesus Christ, the one who brings healing and forgiveness, the source of life everlasting. As we draw near to Holy Week and Jerusalem, and to the Great Three Days of our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, we look to the Cross as our source of healing, comfort, and hope because, lifted up on the cross, Christ opened to us the way of eternal life.


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