Gospel Reflection Lent 4B
March 18, 2012
And 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. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Quite a number of commentators are on record as wishing that the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness would just go away. It’s not exactly the most inspiring story in the Bible. Take a look at Numbers 21:4-9 for the description of God losing patience with the ongoing complaints of people who had been rescued from slavery, witnessed multiple miracles, been provided with enough food every day – though not their preferred menu – and were on an amazing, difficult, soulstretching journey. Soul-stretching, as we know from experience, can be very costly and not always a lot of fun. So, according to the story, they just kept on complaining, and God sent poisonous snakes among them that bit and killed many. They repented, begged for help and God told Moses to craft an image of the snake from bronze, set it on a pole and raise it up high. Whoever was bitten by the serpents would live if they looked at the image. They could still be bitten. The snakes were still there. But they could survive the bites if they would look at an image of the snake. Yeah, I agree with the commentators. This story should just go away.
On the other hand, the story must have something to teach us or the writer of the Gospel would not have included it in so key a place. Look at the whole context. Nicodemus, sensing there was more to Jesus than his fellow Pharisees were accepting, but afraid to be seen with such a scandalous fellow, went to him under cover of darkness. Perhaps he was even more afraid that Jesus really was the Messiah – really was the one to pay attention to, really was the one to bring God’s healing to all people. You know how you get a glimpse of something truly fine – something that really draws you in – but you know that if you go that way you’ll have to make core changes so part of you resists?
So I started wondering if the story about the bronze serpent on the pole might symbolize an invitation to look long and hard at those things that we allow that draw us away from God’s Light because they are too frightening or too challenging or make us face those parts of ourselves that we don’t want to admit to. If that has any validity, perhaps taking a good, long look at Jesus on the Cross is part of what John is urging – both as a symbol of the kind of darkness to which we can descend when we resist the way God loves us and as a symbol of the kind of light we are invited to enter when we allow ourselves to receive the wonder that this is the way that God loves the whole of our broken world and every single one of us.
When the rebellious/repentant wanderers in the desert looked at the bronze snake, they could be healed from the consequences of their own folly. When we look to Jesus on the Cross, we can choose also to accept the difficult, challenging wilderness road that leads to the kind of healing that allows us to live freely, unashamedly, fearlessly in the Light as God’s beloved. It seems like a nobrainer. Why, do you suppose, we continue to find it so difficult?