Lent 4B Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21
In honor of St Patrick ’s Day I’ve seen lots of green, heard some wonderful Irish music and even a touch of Irish language. I saw a really cute cartoon with St Patrick in the driver’s seat of a car that was just crammed full of snakes. Each snake was saying some version of “are we there yet? How much further?” The caption read: St Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. That’s one of the legends of St Patrick; that he rid Ireland of all its snakes. Whether or not it’s literally true, which I seriously doubt, it is mean to be symbolic of Patrick ridding Ireland of evil.
In some cultures and traditions, snakes and serpents are not symbolic of anything evil at all, but Christian symbolism has often, though not always, used snakes to symbolize deception, evil and danger. Snakes and serpents are not evil creatures themselves, but they can be dangerous. Our Old Testament lesson for today talks about both the Israelite’s fear of snakes and the symbolism of serpents, both real ones and bronze ones on a pole.
The people of Israel were following Moses to the Promised Land. God had led them out of slavery in Egypt into the desert—into the wild lands—and Moses had taught them the ways of God by presenting to them the Ten Commandments give by God. And God had preserved them in the desert, leading them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, giving them manna and quail to eat when there was no food to be found, even providing them with water from a rock when there were no other sources of water. He had also given them success in military battles, too. Pretty much anything the people had asked of God, he’d given to them. Yet the people were, as we often are now, the “what have you done for me lately” people. Every time things got rough, they would go to Moses and complain. Like those snakes in the back of St Patrick’s car whining, ‘are we there yet??’ the Israelites would say “Why did you bring us out into this desert where the food is bad and we are so unhappy?” Never mind the fact that prior to this they were trapped in brutal slavery and were now free and heading to a land flowing with milk and honey; a land that was to be their very own home.
And this is where we pick up on the story today. The people of God are getting impatient again and begin to whine once more. Why did you bring us here just to die in the desert and we hate the food and there isn’t any water and whine whine whine. Well, if they thought things were bad, they just got a whole lot worse. There is a snake infestation. Poisonous snakes. Their bites kill many people. They cry to Moses to ask God for help and he does. God tells Moses to make a great symbol of God’s power and authority for the people to see and remember. Make a serpent out of bronze, God tells him, place it on a high pole and have the people look at it. The word here in the Hebrew is not just look at it in the sense of a passing glance or even to just look up at it, but to focus on intently. To really see it. So, Moses does just that and when someone was bitten, they looked at the serpent on the pole, this symbol of God’s power and authority over all things, and lived.
For the Israelites, the bronze serpent on the pole was intended to be a vivid reminder, a symbolic image, a touchstone to keep the people ever focused on the reality of God’s love for them, God’s mercy for them and God’s strength over all things.
Our symbols are powerful things. Just think about the many symbols we have today. In our secular world, we have things such as our nation’s flag, which is meant to symbolize for us the rich history of our country and those who have died to defend it. School colors and mascots. Company logos, monograms and other commercial images. Our church is full of innumerable symbols as well.
Symbolism can also be a kind of short hand or abbreviated statement of what one believes. In the fellowship hall we have a huge image of Luther’s Rose, the official seal designed by Martin Luther. Each part and color has a particular meaning. The black cross, showing the death of Christ both painful and life giving, situated inside the red heart, the place the cross belongs. These are centered in a white flower, the renewed life and holiness Jesus gives our lives.
Our Apostle’s Creed used to be called the Old Roman Symbol. It was a statement made by Christians when they were baptized that summarized and, therefore, symbolized their faith. It was short, easy to remember, and something to hold on to, so to speak, to remind others and oneself what Christians believe and who our God is.
There is such beautiful and amazing symbolism in the church that we could spend forever talking about it. Some of it has become so much a part of the life of Christians that we even forget what it really means and must remind ourselves from time to time. However, there is also a danger in symbols. We can sometimes make a symbol into something greater than what it symbolizes. A small number of the Israelites eventually did this very thing to that serpent on the staff. In the book of Kings we read about a king of Israel, many years later, destroying that bronze serpent along with many pagan worship sites because a small group of people had begun to think that the serpent itself had some kind of magical powers. Rather than believing in the God whose power it symbolized, a whole cult had grown up around the worship of this bronze snake.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his being lifted up in the desert in the same way that Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole, but there are some differences. The bronze serpent was a symbol only—one that only illustrated God’s power. The cross is both a symbol and the thing it symbolizes. It is both an image of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and power over life and death and it is also the actual manifestation of these things as well. It is God’s love and redemption made flesh and blood. It is kind of like daffodils. The blooming of daffodils is a sign, a symbol that spring is on the way. But daffodils are also more than a symbol—they are also real flowers that really bloom and really do show up when spring is coming. Like baptism, which is a symbolic reminder of God’s salvation of creation and his people through the flood waters, the parting of the red sea and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and also the actual washing away of our sins and making us members of the body of Christ. Communion, too, which is a symbolic act in remembrance of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples AND the very real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine. These things are symbolic and are what they symbolize.
Jesus’ crucifixion was to be an image to be seen and believed to show—to symbolize—God’s power in the world. God’s power over evil. And it is ACTUALLY God’s very real power over evil in action. Moses placed on a staff a dead and conquered version of the fearful thing: the serpent. He held it up high, for all to see, as if to say, we have no fear from such things as these, serpents cannot harm us because our God has more power than this little snake. With Jesus, DEATH ITSELF is on that staff. Death itself, the very death of God, is lifted up high, for all to see so that God may say to us: no serpent, no evil, nothing, not even death itself can harm you because I am more powerful than this. I have overcome it. See this and remember. See this cross, a symbol of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But see this not just symbolically, but truly. See this and know I love you. I have saved you and you are mine.