Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

For today’s reading go to:

Supposing you have a greasy glass jar and you want to clean it out. Two possibilities spring to mind. You could try wiping it clean with a cloth, or you could float the grease out by pouring in warm, soapy water.  We might think about sin this way. We can try to clean ourselves up by struggling to be good; or we can simply let God into our lives. Most people, especially religious people, subscribe to the first method, the self-cleaning method. The results, though, leave something to be desired. For one thing, a greasy film remains. For another, it leads to unpleasant consequences, particularly a tendency to compare ourselves to others; as in, who is the greater wash-day miracle? This morning I want to explore the second method of dealing with sin; that is, simply letting God into our lives.

Let’s start with the reading from the Hebrew Bible. It helps to remind ourselves that, while the story is set in the time of the Exodus, the story was actually written many centuries later. Not only that, but those who composed the narrative possessed spiritual insight as least as sophisticated as ours, and in many cases greater. I say this, because too often in our day we take these stories literally; whereas they were written as metaphors for truths which the authors knew could not be expressed directly. Here is a simple example. Let me ask you to define love. You might start out seeking a direct definition; and then in frustration give up, and tell me the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. “That,” you would say, “is love!” What about today’s story, then? What kind of metaphor is that? “That,” we will say, “is sin!”

As with all biblical texts, we have to ask: what situation in life does this story of the snakes address? Whatever it is, it will be universal. Is it perhaps what we experience when we know we have done wrong; when we live in the grip of guilt, and we do not know how to break free? That sequence will feel familiar to all of us. We may not realize when we sin; or we may think it does not matter. The poisonous snakes, standing for sin, make it abundantly clear that sin is sin, and it does matter, because it brings death – spiritual death. Like snakes, sin moves with subtle malice; so that we may not realize we have been bitten.  My busy outward life can hide from me how near my spiritual life lies to death. The sickness is there, all the same, and sooner or later I will know it. We might say, then, that this story addresses that situation in life where sin leads to spiritual death.

Now comes a curious detail. God tells Moses to make a bronze replica of a poisonous snake and to put it on a pole, so that people have only to raise their eyes to see it. Note that it does not say they will not be bitten, only that they will live – not just exist, but come fully alive. This is an amazing claim. It acknowledges that we will sin and continue to sin; but the consequences will not be death. How can this be?

The bronze serpent did not work like magic. A person had to gaze hard at it; a quick glance would not do. They had to stare at it, which meant to turn their gaze inward and examine their sin. They had to recognize and acknowledge the harm it had done – to themselves, to others, and to the whole of society. We call it confession. Notice that nothing else was required – no amendment of life, no penance. If they simply gazed at the bronze serpent as if their life depended on it – which it did – then repentance would follow inevitably from their awareness of sin’s poisonous consequences.

This episode with the bronze serpent amounts to an exercise in awareness; and in time awareness supplants sin the way warm, soapy water floats away grease. No self-improvement strategies were called for, no battle of wills within ourselves to become a better person. Simply honesty before the face of God is all that God asks of us – the soap in the soapy water, so to speak.

The soapy water strategy differs radically from the usual religious approach. We who are identified as religious get a lot of bad press, precisely because we eschew the warm soapy water and reach instead for the greasy rag of self-improvement. It never works, but it does repel non-believers. Let me give you an example from a person I knew in California who belongs to one of the fundamentalist churches. Sam had been a drug addict and alcoholic for years, and he became clean thanks to this church. As the years went by, he rose in the ranks of leadership. Finally, he and another man were selected to go out and start another church. Sam, meanwhile, had begun to drink again and perhaps do drugs as well. He took a lot of trouble not to get caught by any of the people from church, sometimes driving over 100 miles just to go out for dinner. One day, in spite of all the mentholated cough drops he sucked and garlic he ate, one of the junior pastors in his new church smelled alcohol on Sam’s breath, and outed him. Rather than gaze at the bronze serpent, Sam fired the junior pastor.

You can feel Sam’s spiritual death here. I suspect it cannot be avoided with the self-improvement approach. Note how Sam had become divided within himself. One part of him was condemning the other part. The other part was cringing under the lash of guilt. It is what we mean when we say Sam lost his integrity, meaning his wholeness. Note, too, how he lived in constant fear of discovery. Finally, note how Sam, feeling judged, judged others – the junior pastor in particular. His spiritual journey stood on hold. This was not Sam’s unique problem. A culture of mutual judgment, or the threat of it, underpinned the whole church. Perhaps they told themselves they were just helping each other to live purer lives. In reality, they were wasting their energy on self-improvement, when that same energy could have gone into feeding the hungry and worshiping God in the beauty of honesty. When we try to self-clean hypocrisy follows.

I hope this helps us understand what Jesus says to Nicodemus, “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.” Jesus, the serpent on the cross, shows us the power of sin to harm. We gaze at him, at his torment, at his suffering and if we are honest we say to ourselves, “My sin put him there.” Yes, Jesus died for the sin of the whole world; yet if I alone sinned and no one else, he would have died just that way, just for me. Jesus’ death on the cross goes far beyond the bronze serpent, however. Like the bronze serpent, Jesus crucified allows us to gaze, until we realize and acknowledge our sins. He enables confession.

But more than that, Jesus returned. In a manner beyond our telling, he rose from the dead; and in some incontrovertible way he let his friends know that they were forgiven; their betrayal was forgiven. They testified to Jesus’ resurrection, not only because of what they had seen, but even more because of how they felt. They should have felt shame and guilt; they should have felt diminished in their own eyes and the eyes of others. No such thing! Instead, they experienced transformation. New life and power poured into them. Intimidated hicks from the hinterlands suddenly became bold and effective evangelists at the center of power. They in turn spread the good news. What good news? Not just that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but what it meant: we, too, can experience that living encounter which frees us from all the self-diminishment of sin, all sin’s poison.

St. Augustine wrote, “Love God and do as you please.” I would interpret that this way. First, establish a love of God; root yourself in an intimate relationship with Christ. Then for God’s sake do not go out and live a pinched, hesitant, fear-ridden life, perpetually on guard against sin. Live boldly. Live joyfully. Live with abandon. Feast, sing and dance! Pour yourself out in self-giving. The shadow of judgment is behind you. You have come into the light of wholeness. You live in the freedom of honesty; for you make daily use of the serpent on the cross – the figure that signifies: sin is not the end; no matter how grievous, sin need never be the end. “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.”


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