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