Death on a Pole

Death on a Pole

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 11, 2018

4th Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21


Do you have any family secrets?  Has an uncle been caught selling moonshine in the mountains of North Georgia or has some distant cousin been arrested for something shady?  Most of us have a skeleton or two in the closet—some dirty laundry we would prefer to keep tucked away.  But in today’s gospel reading, instead of safely keeping family secrets, Jesus chooses to air some of his family’s dirty laundry.  We happen upon Jesus in the midst of a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  If we back up a few verses, we learn that Nicodemus, who comes in the cover of night, says to Jesus, “We know you are a teacher.  We know you have come from God.”  Jesus quickly shows Nicodemus how little he really knows.  Jesus speaks of salvation, the kingdom of God, being born of water and the Spirit, being born from above.  Nicodemus fails to understand. And it is a bit amusing when Jesus uses Nicodemus’ own words against him, “We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen…” Then Jesus reaches back into the history of his own people and drags out a bit of dirty laundry. “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.”


A serpent lifted up?  What is the significance of this ancient tale Jesus resurrects from the Hebrew Scriptures?  Let’s take a closer look. In Numbers, the plight of the Israelites is recorded. The people of Israel flee from Egypt under the direction of Yahweh. For sustenance, God offers manna from the heavens and water—even in a dry, barren land. Although God provides, the people grumble and complain. Because the Israelite’s are unable to have faith in God, they are eventually condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. No, this generation will not enter the Promised Land.


Just prior to the reading from Numbers, the Israelites reach Kadesh.  Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom requesting permission to travel on the King’s Highway, an old caravan route, but the king refuses to allow them passage. So, they must travel along the western border of Edom, a more treacherous path. With each step, the people grow more frustrated and impatient, and they speak out against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out here in the desert to die?  There’s no food, no water.  By the way, we hate this miserable food!”


God hears their grumbling, gets angry, and sends poisonous snakes to afflict them. (Interestingly, the word “poisonous” literally means “fiery,” a vivid description both of God’s anger and of the painful experience of being bitten.)  What the people of Israel fear most—death—comes to pass. They realize “they’ve done it now” so they run to Moses.  “Help us.  We’ve sinned.  Pray for us so that Yahweh will take away the snakes.”  So, Moses prays for the people and Yahweh answers, but the answer comes in a most unexpected fashion. God tells Moses to make a bronze image of a snake and place it on a high pole. Moses obeys. “When anyone is bitten and looks at the image,” the Lord says, “they will live.”  Looking and believing—the people are saved.


God takes the instrument of death—the serpent—and has Moses place it on a pole for everyone to see.  Death on a pole!  God takes something bad—the worst fear of the people—death—and out of it, brings something good—life, salvation. But humans, well, we are prone to do the exact opposite. We tend to take something good and make something bad of it, which is exactly what the Israelites do a few centuries later. In Second Kings we find that Moses’ bronze serpent (or perhaps a replica of it) is still a part of Israel’s worship.  But King Hezekiah, as part of his reform, must destroy the serpent on the pole because the people come to the temple to worship—you guessed it—the pole! They worship the pole God provided instead of the God who provided the pole.


The whole thing sounds like dirty laundry, doesn’t it?  I imagine anthropologists would have a field day with this story. Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole!  They would flip open their notebooks and chalk it all up to a talisman, a good luck charm.  “Such things are used in primitive cultures,” they might write, “to ward off plagues and evil spirits.”  Yet, it was Yahweh who introduced this “talisman!”  What a shocking story to find in Scripture!


Maybe this ancient tale would have remained buried in the Old Testament, squirreled away like some skeleton, were it not for the fact that Jesus raises it up in the middle of his famous dialogue with Nicodemus, in the middle of speaking about life that is eternal. I can almost see poor Nicodemus scratching his head, trying to understand. We, too, are left scratching our heads, as Jesus trots out this old tale of Moses and his snake-on-a-stick.  What does Jesus mean when he says, “the Son of Man will be lifted up?”  Is he talking about the cross or the resurrection or the ascension?  Although each of these interpretations have merit, it is most likely that Jesus is speaking of the cross—since the cross bears the closest resemblance to what this ancient object probably looked like. By referring to this tale, Jesus foreshadows his own crucifixion.


Of course, there’s another common theme between the stories: fear—fear of death. Lisa Nichols Hickman writes, “Everyone bitten by those fearful snakes in the wilderness were made to look straight in the face of what they were most afraid of as they gazed upon a serpent of bronze posted on a pole.”  No doubt, fear is a factor in the story of the bronze serpent on a pole—fear, not of the serpents in and of themselves, but fear of the death that the serpents cause. In fact, the issue of death is what started all the grumbling to begin with. Remember their complaint, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to DIE?”  The people of God fear death and, in essence, God says, “Put this thing you most fear upon the pole. Take a good, long look at it. You have grumbled because you fear death. I have sent death by way of the snakes. I will lift up death before you on a pole, and you will see that I am God. Death is not the victor! I am the victor!”


After Jesus tells of the Son of Man being lifted up like Moses’ snake in the wilderness, he speaks what has become the most famous verse in the New Testament. It has been called “the gospel in miniature.” 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.”  Jesus offers to Nicodemus—to us all—not death, but life eternal.


Jesus will be raised up on the cross for all to see so the people of the world may look on him and live. As believers gazing upon God’s crucified Son, we know there is no human suffering that is utterly beyond the reach of our Lord’s healing and sustaining love. Just as the bronze serpent is a way for ancient people to deal with their fear of snakebites, the cross of Jesus Christ offers a way for people of every age to deal with their own fears. Because we know death does not have the last word. Christ is raised from death. Christ ascends into heaven. Christ sits beside the Father. Christ prays for us. And Christ will come again for us.


Matthew Arnold has said that humans are like animals in that they must die; but they are more miserable than animals for they long to see life steadily and see it whole. We long for life to have meaning, to see some thread of purpose neatly winding from past to present to future. We yearn to peer beyond the veil that hides God’s purposes from our understanding. We want to know. We want to control. We want to be free of the fear that imprisons us.


Poet Wendell Berry offers a word of wisdom concerning our worries and our fears:


A man with some authentic worries

And many vain and silly ones,

I am well-schooled in sleeplessness;

I know it from the inside out.

I breathe, and I know what’s at stake.


But still sometimes I am sane and sound,

However heart or head may ache;

I go to sleep when I lie down.

With no determined care to breathe,

I breathe and live and sleep and take


A Sabbath from my weariness.

I rest in an unasking trust

Like clouds and ponds and stones and trees.

The long-arising Day will break

If I should die before I wake.[i]


All of humanity has been bitten by death—it is our mortal condition. From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Of course, we fear things other than death. We fear the world in which we live: crime, poverty, wars and rumors of wars.  We fear sickness; failure. We fear the things we do not know; the things we cannot control.  But God is not a God of fear—God is a God of love and sound mind.


What are your fears?  In today’s Scripture reading, in the retelling of an ancient tale, we are invited to bring our fears to the cross—no matter what they are—bring them to the cross. Put them up on the pole and take a good, long, look. “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.”


Children of God, lift high the cross, gaze upon the promise of new life, and be at peace.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, 187.

*Cover Art “The Serpent in the Text” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription


Consumed by Zeal

Consumed by Zeal

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 4, 2018

3rd Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22


Recently, I heard someone say how difficult it can be to read Scripture with fresh eyes—especially when the story is quite familiar. The comment made me think of a spiritual exercise taught by Ignatius of Loyola—the Spanish theologian who founded the Society of Jesus—more commonly known as the Jesuits. Although Ignatius left behind many teachings, the one I wish to consider this morning relates to our imagination. In this method of encountering Scripture, we are invited to spend time with a gospel story, for example, and try to imagine ourselves actually in the scene—fully present. As we meditate on the setting, we become participants—so much so, we may feel the rays of the hot summer sun beat down on us or we may feel the itchy clothing we are wearing.  If the reading involves Jesus interacting with others, we keep our eyes on him. We notice how he walks, with whom he makes eye contact and even the tenor of his voice.


Spending time with Scripture in playful, imaginative ways, may lead to fresh insights. It may even lead to a story like the one I am about to share about the day I witnessed Jesus cleansing the temple. It happened on Passover—one of the busiest times of the year for those who serve in the Jewish temple. People from near and far flocked to the city of Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and to celebrate this religious spring festival. My job was to take care of the exchange of money. You see, as Jews for whom idolatry is a sin, coins with Caesar’s image or anyone else’s for that matter, were not allowed inside the House of Yahweh, so in the outer court, I sat year after year, taking in coins and giving out coins.


On this particular day, things were chaotic as usual but then something extraordinary happened—SOMEONE extraordinary happened—I should say.  Jesus! Some called him a prophet, others thought he was Elijah or John the Baptist returned from the dead, while still others only knew him as the son of Mary and Joseph. Regardless of his name, he had made quite a name for himself throughout Galilee, Jerusalem, and the surrounding area. People of all sorts followed him—men, women and children, outcasts, the poor, the hungry, as well as some Jewish religious leaders. Even some Roman citizens were drawn to his message and his miracles. On street corners, people huddled together to ask, “Is this the Messiah? Could he be the One?”


As I sat at the money-changing table in the outer court of the temple, doing my job, I listened to the “baa” of the sheep, and I tried to ignore the scent of all the animals. With the noise of the people, rushing in and out, along with the sounds of the animals, the temple looked more like a place of commerce than a place or worship—but that was the way things had always been. Certain tasks had to be performed to keep the temple running just as Yahweh had instructed the people centuries ago.


Business as usual—at least that’s the way it appeared—until Jesus walked in. Although I had never laid eyes on him, the moment I saw him I knew in my heart—he was the One—he was the One about whom everyone was talking. He came in with his disciples and I watched while he stood looking around the temple—taking it all in. Then he got so angry—furious, really. He started yelling. He noticed some cords lying on the floor; they had probably been around the neck of some animal on its way to be sacrificed. He reached down and picked them up and began swinging them over his head, driving out the sheep and the cattle, all the while yelling at the top of his lungs, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”


He came toward all the moneychangers, myself included. I was startled when he grabbed hold of the table and hurled it to the ground. Coins scattered everywhere, and I scrambled to pick them up. I was afraid the people would steal them and then I would have to explain the missing money to the priests. But there was no need for me to worry. No one noticed the money on the floor because every eye was turned toward Jesus.


Crouched there on the floor, I saw the Jewish leaders rush toward Jesus, their voices slicing through the air, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Without hesitation, Jesus responded, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus, overcome with anger, took on the religious leaders without hesitation. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if he might be just another zealot, trying to take over the Roman Empire. One of the other moneychangers echoed my thoughts, “Another fanatic—he doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into—they’ll kill him—mark my word.” And, of course, they did. The religious leaders were not ready for this Savior—would they ever be?


Years have passed, but I have never forgotten Jesus, consumed with anger, cleansing his Father’s house. At the time I could not understand his rage. We were in the Second Temple, which was not nearly as grand as the one King Solomon built long ago, but still, it was the house in which God dwelt—or so we thought. And the sacrificial system initiated by Yahweh involved animals being offered for the sins of the people. I suppose it did look a bit like a marketplace, but as I said, we had always done it that way. But, you see, Jesus came to change all that. He came to change everything, even the sacrificial system of the temple. No longer would God be housed in the temple—as if God was ever housed INSIDE anything. Jesus came to help us see that once and for all. Jesus came to show the world that God had come to the earth as a flesh and blood man. God was present in the person of Jesus, and after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, God was present everywhere to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit.[i]


What does this mean for people throughout all time? It means that we do not have to come to a building to meet God. We gather to worship and pray and confess—but it is not about the building—no matter how beautiful—it is about God. And the experience of worshiping together prepares the body of Christ—the body of believers—to go out into the world better attuned to see God in all of life. Believers may gather in one place—but then the church, the real church, rushes outside the doors to be on the lookout for God and to be ready to serve in whatever way God leads.


For you, a believer or seeker in this day and time, where do you find God? What I mean is, where do you expect to meet God, to experience God, to participate with God in God’s ongoing work? Perhaps you expect God only to be in the church—along with the leaders of the church, who are called to serve. But if we accept the biblical teaching of the priesthood of all believers, doesn’t that mean everyone is called to serve and not just inside the church? And if God cannot be contained in any temple, any church, any structure, then isn’t all of life indwelled by God? Whether you are at home, at the office, at school, having lunch with a friend, baking cookies for the Father Daughter Valentine Dance, packaging or delivering meals for Break Bread Together, showing a kindness to a child, out on the golf course, or by the ocean’s shore—isn’t God in the seams and crevices of it all?


It took some time for me to recognize that God came to the world because of his great love for us; to understand that Jesus the Christ was and will always be the Savior of this world; to understand that the Holy Spirit dwells within every baptized believer. But thanks be to God—I was given eyes to see. Maybe what we all need to see is this: Jesus came to replace the temple once and for all. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Christ in you; the hope of glory.” Christ lives in you and, by the way, you and I live our lives, there is hope for God’s kingdom to be called down on the earth every day.


Oh, gathering to worship is still important, make no mistake. But the church is not the only place where God is! Yes, God is here, but God is also out there. We come to this place to worship, pray, give thanks and we come here to prepare for the week of ministry that lies before each of us. We are the body of Christ. That’s what Jesus was trying to tell us that day in the temple. With all his heart, soul and mind, Jesus wanted us to understand God’s love is for everyone—not just a select few. Jesus was ready and willing to tear down the doors of the temple to get the message across—God’s new kingdom is breaking in. God kingdom is here among you!


On that day, Jesus demonstrated the words of the psalmist, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[ii] We are all consumed by something—so often it is the things of the world, the opinions of others, success, the accumulation of wealth, a list of dos and don’ts. Those of us who were the sellers and moneychangers for the temple were consumed by the work at hand. Jesus’ disciples were consumed by their desire for a Savior who would overturn Roman rule and give them a place of honor. The religious leaders were consumed by a list of rules and the way they had always done things. But Jesus, Jesus, was consumed by zeal for his Father’s house. And now, because of his sacrifice, the house of God is open for business—open for every man, woman, and child—because everyone is welcome to the Lord’s house. Everyone is welcome to the Lord’s Table. Just believe and be consumed by the things of God!

[i] David Lose,

[ii] Psalm 69:9

*Cover Art “The Temple in His Bones” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription