Numbers 21/Jn.3

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Today’s Old Testament lesson gives us an example of what historians have called, “primitive” religion.

At the time of the story, the people of Israel are wandering in the wilderness. You may remember that these 40 years of wandering were the Hebrews’ punishment for not trusting the Lord to get them to the Promised Land.

But the Hebrews apparently haven’t learned much from their wandering. In the Bible story, they are complaining about the dullness of the manna that they receive each day from Heaven—they complain constantly, even though this food is keeping them alive! In other words, they’re still questioning the promises of God.

God’s response to this whining is severe. He punishes the Hebrews by sending poisonous serpents among them, and many people die. Finally the people admit to Moses that they have sinned.

So Moses prays to the Lord on the Hebrews’ behalf. God instructs him to make a bronze sculpture of a serpent and lift it up on a pole. Now, anyone who is bitten by an actual snake can look at the serpent and be healed.

The bronze serpent thus becomes a magical object that provides supernatural aid. The story is far too ancient for us to discover any actual incident on which it might have been based. By the time the Book of Numbers was written, the Hebrews no longer relied on such practices to protect them.

But they remembered the event. Hundreds of years later, Jesus referred to it in the beginning of the Gospel passage we just heard. He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Thus, Jesus cleverly uses the primitive tale of divine intervention to portray the power that will be unleashed when he himself is “lifted up”—that is, when he is put onto a cross to die.

For there is no question that Christ must be “lifted up.” When Jesus spoke, the world was still over-run with forces of evil beyond human control.

In contrast to the story of Moses and the serpent, though: when Christ was crucified, the world would be transformed. Instead of curing snakebites, the Son of Man would offer the antidote to death itself. As Jesus goes on to say, “Whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

As it happens, right after this reference to the serpent in the wilderness comes the famous verse that many Christians feel is the heart of the Christian message. The reference to this text, John 3.16, has even been displayed on signs at sporting events.

The verse reads, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may inherit eternal life.” When Christ was lifted up, the power of death was overcome by the power of God.

Thus, the New Testament use of the Old Testament story goes far beyond primitive religion. According to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God has changed the way the universe works.

Eventual extinction is no longer the sole final option for human beings. A second possibility has appeared: whosoever believes in Christ can now have eternal life.

So we can let go of superstition and magic. Our vision is now raised infinitely higher, to the Cross–where human lives meet the divine life.

Yet we should be wary of seeing ourselves as superior to our religious ancestors. Our minds, however scientifically advanced, still fail to comprehend all the mysteries of the universe. And our souls, however intellectually sophisticated, are still prone to dark emotions.

The services of Holy Communion in Advent include a line that always makes me stop and think. At the beginning of the Prayer of Consecration, we pray that when Christ “shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.”

The Hebrews in the wilderness had plenty of shame and fear. They felt shame at their lack of trust in God. They feared death from the serpents and all the other threats of the desert wilderness.

We, too, have experienced these emotions. We’ve been ashamed of our “sins and offenses and negligences.” We’ve feared all manner of earthly threats, up to and including personal extinction.

There is only one sure antidote to these poisonous emotions. Like the Israelites who were promised that if they looked up to the bronze serpent, they would live: so if we look up to Christ who has given himself for us, we, too, will find life.

Now of course it is possible to “live” with fear and shame. People can sometimes put up with all kinds of dark emotions—through mental toughness, perhaps, or simply by learning to ignore and deny them.

But why tough it out if there is a remedy? What if Christ offers the antidote to the poisons of the soul.

Evangelical Christians sometimes ask people they meet, “Are you saved?” And this isn’t a bad question to ask yourself.

Don’t just ask if you have the right theological beliefs to enter a particular church. Ask more generally: is there any way in which you are “lost” and you need saving? Are there fears and shame that keep you in an emotional wilderness?

Maybe it’s time to look for a way out of the wilderness. Maybe it’s time to stop looking inward and start looking up.

As St. Paul wrote, “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Maybe it’s time to seek spiritual power that so many of our Christian brothers and sisters have been given through the ages–the antidote to earthly poisons, the triumph of Life over Death.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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