The Hebrew Bible lesson for the fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, is a vivid one: Numbers 21:4-9, and it’s alluded to in the gospel lesson from John 3. As a child I thought it was one of creepiest stories in the Bible. Actually, I still think it’s pretty creepy. Here’s a sermon I wrote years ago on this text.
Why We Don’t Have to Be Afraid of Snakes
A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-17
When I was a child, our church had an illustrated Bible storybook for children. I have forgotten most of the pictures, but there was one picture that I remember vividly. It showed the people of Israel being attacked by snakes in the wilderness. As they struggled on towards the Promised Land, poisonous snakes in all different sizes and colors prowled around the Israelite caravan, terrorized them, bit them, and killed them. It was a frightening picture. What a dreadful scene it was!
I can’t think of a more fitting way to picture how dreadful sin is. Sin lies coiled up like a viper in the selfish corners of the human heart. It prowls inside and around our caravan as we travel through a snake-infested world. Sin can strike at any moment, and the poison it injects truly is dreadful. The ensuing sickness is mortal. Sin always leads to death, sometimes physical, and always spiritual. Sin kills trust and faith and hope and love. It cuts us off from God and from each other.
See what sin has done! Operating through ignorance, greed and selfishness, it has literally poisoned the environment. We have let chemicals, trash and all sorts of pollutants fill the waterways, cover the land and thicken the air. Do we really want to clean it up?
Sin has poisoned communities with distrust, and perhaps even worse, apathy. As long as me and mine are doing okay, who cares about you and yours? Sin poisons marriages and families with criticism, defensiveness, hard-headedness, and even contempt.
Sin poisons religion. Certainly we can see that in twisted cults, whose leaders sometimes lead their followers to death. But sin also poisons normal religion. It shows up in a “we’re right, you’re wrong” mentality. It hides in the hearts of good people, like the religious authorities that had it in for Jesus. They really thought sin was only a problem for others. They really thought they were doing the right thing when they conspired to silence to Jesus. What was it but the powers of darkness when these faithful people reacted so negatively to the mercy and forgiveness and healing that Jesus so freely gave? Instead of celebrating the grace of Jesus, they conspired to stamp it out.
Sin poisons the human heart, snuffing out love and fanning the flames of negativism. It’s sin behind that sense of power we feel when we get wrapped up in criticism and complaining.
Sin strikes in so many hidden ways. It robs us of joy, makes us feel powerless, inferior, incapable. It even makes us doubt whether God actually has our best interests at heart.
After God brought Israel out of Egypt, after all that time in the wilderness when God sustained the people day by day, they still complained that God had brought them out, only to kill them in the wilderness. The Israelites recognized that the poisonous serpents were a result of their sin. They cried out, “Moses! We know we have sinned against God and against you. Pray to God to take these horrible snakes away!”
Deliver us from evil is our prayer week after week. Do something, God! Stop the violence! Stop the danger and the fear! Stop the damage! Deliver us from poisonous serpents!”
If I were God, I’d just go ahead and kill the snakes. Wipe them out exterminate them. But God hasn’t done that yet. God didn’t call the serpents off the Israelites. God did something else.
“Moses,” God said, “make a poisonous serpent out of metal and put it up on a pole, so that those who are bitten can look at it and be healed.”
So Moses made a serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole. Whenever people were bitten, they looked at the bronze serpent, and they were healed.
Centuries later, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to handle the snake of sin that lives in human hearts. People hoped that he would whip things into shape. They hoped he would defeat the Roman oppressors by force and restore Israel to glory.
But that wasn’t his method. Jesus preached a message of loving enemies and doing good to the people that hate you. He worked to heal people. He made friends with sinners who obviously had the poison in their lives, and he forgave them. Jesus pointed out the poison to the good people who thought they were immune to it since they scrupulously kept all the laws.
And what happened? Were the people grateful? Did they repent? No! They rejected the healer. Even the ones who tried to follow fell away.
The snake struck Jesus! Sin pierced Jesus and riveted him to the cross with its fangs. Sin unleashed all its poison on him. Jesus got a full dose of the venom: violence, prejudice, callousness, cruelty, hatred, dread. The sin of all the world struck Jesus on the cross.
Sin killed Jesus. The snakes that kill God’s people succeeded in killing God’s Son, the one who came to express God’s love. It appeared as though all was lost.
But remember! We live on this side of Good Friday and this side of Easter. We understand now what Jesus meant when he said, “As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
See, there he is, lifted high on the cross, and even higher up from the tomb. And everyone who looks to him, who believes in him, will have life, now and always. Sin may kill, but it cannot kill us forever.
That is the wonder and mystery of the cross. Christ loved us, and he wanted to save us from the snakebite of sin. He wanted to make its venom powerless to kill us. And so, Christ our God exposed himself to the snake. He let it bite him. Christ let its venom kill him instead of us.
That’s how much God loves us. That’s how far God will go to do something about this terrible poison that cuts us off from him and from each other, and even from our own best selves. God loved us and wanted to save us from this poison that kills. So he gave his only Son.
I cannot explain how. I can only tell you that through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, God has opened the doorway to life for us. From that place the antitoxin, the antidote to the poison, Christ’s blood, flows down and out into the world. It is the medicine of salvation.
Christ’s love is a love that not self-centered. It makes sacrifices. It is forgiveness. It is the power to change and live a new life, the power to love as he loves. The power to live as members of the household of God, walking in his ways instead of being a slave to the snake.
Those who look to Jesus Christ lifted up, though the snakes still prowl around and bite us, though they still dwell in our hearts, those who look to Jesus are saved.
But I remember a great tragedy in the picture I saw in the Bible storybook. Though Moses told them to look at the serpent on the pole as God said, many of the people still tried to battle the snakes themselves. They wrestled with the snakes and tried to tear them off their bodies. They tried to beat the snakes off. It didn’t work. These people all died.
Why is it that so often we think we have to do that? Those who haven’t resigned themselves to the power of evil try to battle it out on our own. We try to tear the snake out of our hearts, to earn our way into God’s household by being good and moral. We try to save ourselves. But the snake always comes back. Sin always comes back. On our own, the struggle is hopeless!
Hopeless, that is, until we look to Jesus Christ, lifted us, to rescue us and give us the antidote of the gospel.
That doesn’t mean we nod at the cross and say yes to Jesus with our minds and our mouths. We must say “yes” with our bodies and with our whole beings. Don’t just look at Christ’s cross! Follow it! Follow Jesus on out into the world to work with him to heal and reconcile. We know where people can get the medicine of salvation. We know the way to be healed. God heals what sin destroys. Lift high the cross and proclaim the love of Christ.
On the day after Dr, Martin Luther King was murdered, many of the ministers in Memphis decided to walk to city hall to make a statement urging the people of the city to improve relationships between people of different races.
One minister from a church that had a processional cross took it, and lifted it high at the front of the procession. As they were going, they passed by the home of one of the church members. She was outraged! She demanded that he take the cross back to the church. “Take that cross back right now! It doesn’t belong out here! It should stay in the church!” (Story told by Joe E. Pennel, Jr. in The Whisper of Christmas. Nashville: Upper Room, 1984, pp. 113-114.)
The world is still snake infested. There is dreadful evil in the world, coiled up in people’s hearts. In my heart and yours. In a way, it makes sense to be afraid of sin. We must take sin seriously because it really is bad. It really does hurt and kill.
But we take our Lord Jesus Christ even more seriously. We take his life, death, and resurrection even more seriously.
Jesus Christ has been lifted up to save us. Therefore, we will not fear the snake. We will turn our eyes to Jesus. We will lift high the cross. We will proclaim the love of Christ, till all the world adores his sacred name. Come Christian! Follow!
The art is by Michelangelo. Click the image to see it in more detail.