Sunday, March 20, 2011

Serpents and Flagstaffs

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17


Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He comes to Jesus at night to make a claim that cannot be spoken by the light of day: that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. Nicodemus knows this because the signs Jesus performs cannot be done apart from the presence of God. Nicodemus cannot openly declare this because he is a Pharisee, and Pharisees hold strictly to ritual purity; Jesus does not. Pharisees hold strictly to the letter of the Law; Jesus holds to the heart of the Law. The Pharisees aren't big fans of Jesus; Jesus later calls them thieves and robbers.

That Nicodemus comes to Jesus and makes his proclamation under the cloak of darkness should not come as a surprise to us. The Gospel of John frequently juxtaposes light and dark. Here were find Nicodemus, a Pharisee, some of the "shadier" characters in the New Testament if you will, testifying to the light.

Jesus responds by introducing additional dichotomies: being born of water and being born of Spirit. Theologians are split on what it means to be born of water. There are those who claim it is a reference to the amniotic fluid that is released when a pregnant woman's "water" breaks. Others believe it is a reference to baptism. Given Jesus's comment that what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is Spirit leads me to choose the camp of water as a reference to human birth. It just makes more sense to me contextually.

But this seems to get Nicodemus really confused, for he asks, "How can these things be?"

And Jesus answers by referencing an Old Testament snake.

Snakes appear a fair few times in the Bible. They aren't the most popular animal (oxen, asses, and bulls are far more common), but muskrats don't appear at all, so they've got something going for them.

The thing is, though, most often, when snakes or serpents are mentioned in the Bible, it's not a good thing. When they are mentioned in a positive light, it is often done in juxtaposition to other serpents which are cast negatively. Two such stories are found in the Old Testament.

The first time this good serpent vs. bad serpent tension comes into play is in Exodus 7.8-13: Moses and Aaron have gone to Pharaoh to ask that the Israelites be freed. As a sign of the power of the God of the Israelites, Aaron throws down his staff and it's turned into a snake.

So, Pharaoh calls all of his wise men, magicians, and sorcerers, and they each throw down their own staff in turn, turning each into a snake as well. But Aaron's staff, the one that God turned into a snake, eats the others.

The second time a serpent is cast in a good light happens in Numbers 21.4-9. Here we find the Israelite people, freed from captivity! They've been led out of bondage and slavery in Egypt.

Now, God has been providing for them along the way. The Israelites were hungry and God provided manna; they were thirsty, and God caused water to spring forth from a rock. In typical human fashion, the Israelites forgot God's great provision and began to complain: "We have no food." "We have no water." "Manna's gross! I'm not going to eat that!"

So, God did what parents of ungrateful children everywhere only wish they could do. He sent venomous snakes in to bite them. I'm kidding. About parents wanting to set venomous snakes upon their children. God actually did it.

And several Israelites died. Now, this had an effect on the rest of the people. It woke them up, and reminded them of who God is. They went to Moses, confessed their sings, and pleaded with Moses to intercede. So, Moses prayed for the people.

God told Moses to fashion a snake sculpture and affix it to a pole, so that anyone who looked on it would live. So, Moses did. He made a snake out of bronze, he stuck it on a pole, and he set it out. Anyone who was bitten had only to look at the bronze snake, be healed, and live.

This is the snake to which Jesus compares himself when he says "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him." This bronze snake, stuck to a pole and raised in the wilderness.

I think there's a subtle, unspoken reference in there to the venomous snakes as well. The whole reason Moses had to make the bronze snake in the first place is because people had been bitten by venomous snakes.

As such, it is logical to draw the conclusion that we also have been bitten by a venomous snake. It's called 'sin' and it's killing us. Sin separates us from God, the source of all life. Big or small, sin infects our life, spreading like venom and wreaking devastation in its path.

Now, various snakes have different types of toxins in their venom. Some work by disrupting neurological function--these are called neurotoxins. These toxins damage or destroy nerve cells, leading to seizures, coma, and death if left untreated.

Other toxins attack the body hematic system, that is, the blood. These are called hemotoxins. These toxins can either increase clotting, turning the blood to sludge, and causing heart attacks, strokes, embolisms, and death if left untreated.

Other hemotoxins destroy the blood's ability to clot. When this happens, the internal organs begin to bleed. Bleeding from the nose, mouth, eyes, and ears are also common. Left untreated, someone infected by this type of toxin will suffer exsanguination and die. Put more simply--they'll bleed to death.

Still other toxins act on the muscles, working as paralytic agents. When this happens, the heart, the strongest muscle in the body, is rendered silent. A person infected with this type of toxin, if left untreated, dies.

I think something similar happens with our sin. See, it affects people's lives differently. It manifests itself in different ways for each of us.

Ultimately, however, the outcome for each of us is the same: death.

And what is the treatment for our sin?

Faith. No amount of work on our part can fix us. Only faith.

Paul, quoting Genesis 15.6, tells us that "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So it is with us. Our justification, our healing, our reconciliation to God does not come by our works--for if it did, we would have cause to boast. But to one who, without works, trusts him who justifies the ungodly (that is Jesus), such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

We are made righteous, that is removed from the guilt of our sin and with death, by our faith in Christ Jesus.

And how do we first demonstrate this faith? Just as the Israelites lifted their eyes to the bronze snake on a flagstaff raised by Moses, and their act of faith saved them, so too are we saved by lifting our eyes to Jesus, on the cross, trusting him to heal us.

After all, that's why Jesus came. It's right there, in the text, in what is widely known to be the oft most quoted verse in all of scripture: 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."

And while most people know John 3.16, few ever go on to quote verse 17, which is actually my favorite verse in the Bible: "Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Jesus isn't judging us, condemning us for our sins. After all, it's really hard to look down on others in judgment when you're being crucified for treason.

While being crucified, Jesus himself was crucifying sin, ending its power over our lives, and providing a victory for life over death. And all of it was done out of an overwhelming love for all the world, for each one of us.

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