The Other Serpent

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:1-17
© Stacey Steck

Last week we heard the story in Genesis of the serpent, the craftiest of all the creatures God made, the one that beguiled Adam and Eve and brought sin and discomfort into the world. This morning, we heard the story of the other serpent, the one that God gave as a means of salvation, and the story of Nicodemus, who learns that Jesus too must be lifted up, fixed to a pole, as a means of salvation. Scripture doesn’t tell us what species of serpent Moses fashioned there in the wilderness, but we do know one thing about it: it was an apotropaic serpent. And Nicodemus learns, or he begins to learn, that Jesus was an apotropaic savior.
Yes, I learned a new word this week, and therefore so you will too. It’s the word “apotropaic” and it is an adjective meaning “safeguarding from evil” or “intended to ward off evil.” Indeed, the roots of the word are apo, meaning from or away, and trepein, to turn. So something that is apotropaic turns away evil which might be directed at someone. It is a word which one might expect to find in a Harry Potter book, but in fact, it is a word associated with the Bible. The bronze serpent which God instructed Moses to make was indeed apotropaic. Its job, its sole reason for being, was to turn away the poisonous venom of the snakes God sent as punishment for the Israelites speaking against God, and against Moses. It safeguarded the people from the evil that threatened them. We might imagine that when the threat of poisonous snakes was past, the serpent was melted down and used for some other purpose, perhaps as some other apotropaic object for some more pressing need.
By itself, this passage from Numbers is a wonderful story of God’s patience, God’s mercy, even God’s willingness to relent on a divine decision already made. We’ll leave aside for this morning that God was the one who sent the poisonous serpents in the first place, and maybe put that down to our Lenten theme of discomfort. What is wonderful about this story is that Moses prays to God for the sake of the people who have repented, and a remedy is given. What is strange and different about this story is, of course, the making of the bronze serpent, a request very much out of character with what God usually asks. Materially speaking, this is an object not unlike the scandalous golden calf which the people convinced Aaron to make and which caused Moses to break the first set of tablets of the commandments, though in this case it is commanded by God. But for God to allow such an image, even though it was not to be worshipped, is hard to explain. But then again, “the wind blows where it chooses,” as Jesus reminds Nicodemus and God doesn’t have to be fully explainable.
Even though it is not one of this morning’s Lectionary texts, I chose the one from Numbers because it sheds some light on the Nicodemus story, in which we hear, “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.” But in between the desert and Nicodemus visit to Jesus, there is one other important background story to remember, and it is found in the book of 2 Kings about King Hezekiah of Judah, who, it is reported in the eighteenth chapter, “did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. Hezekiah trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among all those who were before him.”
So, from Second Kings we learn that the Israelites had been for some time worshipping that same bronze serpent, and that it was so important to them that they even had even given it a name! And it had become a spiritual trap from which Hezekiah must rescue them. And from that introduction to Hezekiah’s reign, we learn that it was a virtue beyond all others to name and unmask idolatry in the service of the Lord. Out of the dozens of kings of the nations of Israel and Judah listed in the Bible, Hezekiah was one of only three kings about whom it was said that they “did what was right in the sight of the Lord.” For centuries, the leaders of the people, and the people themselves, practiced an idolatry which the witness of Scripture proposes as the very thing responsible for their eventual exile in Babylon. Too many times, the people ignored the counsel of the prophets and continued to worship other gods, their wealth, their power, even themselves. And in the end came the fall of a great nation and the scattering of a proud but misguided people.
And so, through the centuries, instead of being melted down and used for another purpose, this apotropaic bronze serpent must have been carefully carried along with the people, perhaps someone tending to it and making sure its pole was straight and that it had a prominent place in the temple, even when the threat of poisonous snakes had passed, for certainly this was a wilderness phenomenon. It boggles the mind to think that what began as a divine and merciful antidote to snake venom became an object of such devotion and care that people forgot its original meaning. Or maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, as Jesus asks Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
You see, we human beings are actually quite adept at mistaking the gift of God for the God who gives it. We confuse the gift with the giver. In the Israelites’ case, they ended up worshipping the material object, the serpent, and not the true object of their worship, namely the God who gave them the serpent. Perhaps this is not really so surprising, seeing as how the serpent is right there in front of you, you can see it, you get healed when you look at it. Sometimes it is so much easier to hold on to what we can see, and what we are comfortable with, rather than embracing the mysterious and the ambiguous and the uncertain, no matter how wonderful, like the Spirit, it may be. It’s so much more comforting to lay our hands on something tangible and concrete than it is to shout into the wind looking for answers which never seem to come. This is true even when we know in our heart of hearts that the giver is more important than the gift. If it weren’t, we might live our lives quite differently.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our physical appearance and start tending more to the crying needs of the human beings with whom the giver has blessed us. Consider the idolatry in racism and sexism, in the disparagement of obese people, of disabled people, of people who stutter, who are bald, who are too tall or too short, or who are, heaven forbid, simply less attractive than the norm. The idolatry of the body comes at quite the cost to society and to individual human lives, all because we have raised the gift, the human body, above the giver – the God who has created all human beings both equal and good.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our money and our possessions and start using them more for God’s purposes than our own. Consider the idolatry that generates chronic poverty and malnourishment, that allows inadequate medical care and school systems, that drives the market for the newest sneakers or video games, or the latest fashion. The idolatry of wealth comes at the expense of God who gives us everything and asks only that we use it to care for one another. We have raised the gift above the giver.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our freedom and power and begin to use it more responsibly. Consider the idolatry in nationalism, in making war before it is a last resort, in emotionally controlling those over whom we have real or imagined authority. The idolatry of free will and independence exists because we have allowed those wonderful gifts of God to become more important than the God who gives them to us but showed us how to use them on the cross.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our dominion over the earth and start taking seriously our God-given stewardship of the environment. Consider the idolatry in pollution, in overfishing, in burning rainforests and holes in the ozone, in redirected rivers and green golf courses in the desert. The idolatry of private property and never-ending development is part and parcel of our higher esteem of the gift of the earth than the God who calls us to till and keep the garden and all its bounty.
I’m not giving you this laundry list of sins and forms of idolatry to depress you or make you leave here with a guiltier conscience than you came in with, but to say something about how pervasive is the tendency to worship the object and not the object of worship. But that tendency is not just seen in our worship of the material, but also with the spiritual. In our passage from the gospel of John, Jesus makes the link between himself being lifted up and the bronze serpent which Moses made. The lifting up of the Son of Man, of course, refers to the crucifixion of Jesus, his exaltation, and he is lifted up so that all who look upon him, all who believe, may be saved. The apotropaic, crucified Christ is the antidote for sin. Those bitten by the human condition merely need to gaze upon the crucified Jesus to have eternal life. This is a divine gift of mercy, given by a great and wonderfully merciful God. It is God’s great gift to us. But it is not the giver.
For Christians, there can be a tendency to worship the gift of salvation and forget the giver. If we’re not careful, we can see salvation like graduation from school, the moment we can throw our caps in the air, give a sigh of relief that it’s all over with, and kind of forget about God until some crisis enters our life. If we are not careful, the cross that brings about our salvation becomes like the serpent that never got melted down, and we wear it around our necks without much thought for what it really means. It becomes mere jewelry instead of a reminder of the giver of the gift. But the Christian life is so much more than the moment of our salvation, however wonderful and important as that is. The abundant life that John describes a few chapters later is more than the comfort of knowing that Christ did what he did for us. Being born from above, as Jesus describes it to Nicodemus, is more than an abstract theological concept. It is a way of life, and life is not always comfortable.
One of the most pervasive ways I see this working itself out is precisely in the comfort we try to make to goal of our faith. I’m not picking on you when I say that when we sit in the same pew each and every Sunday, we’ll only ever interact with the same people who sit near us each and every Sunday. It happens in every church I know. If we only hang out with politically like-minded people, or only listen to sources of news whose bias we already agree with, we’ll only have our beliefs and biases confirmed. If we only read about the Bible instead of reading the Bible itself, we’ll only ever have second hand knowledge of Scripture and our Savior. If we only ever read someone else’s prayers, or listen to someone else pray, we’ll never pray our own prayers. If we only ever think that someone else is responsible for the world’s ills and never take a look at our own role, we never have the opportunity to let God transform us and bring change to the world. All of those are ways we try to stay as comfortable as possible, and in so doing miss out on learning something new, or seeing something differently, or love someone more deeply. Our comfort becomes an apotropaic object which wards off precisely what God brings our way to become more fully human.
By now, you may be looking around for an apotropaic object which will safeguard you from hearing more of this sermon, but I assure you that I am concluding. Let me leave you with this final thought on this second Sunday in Lent: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” God gave us Jesus Christ that we might have eternal life, an eternal and abundant life which begins when we accept the gift, but which deepens with our knowledge of the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and our worship of the giver. As you continue to journey through this holy Season of Lent, preparing yourself for Easter, may you find your eyes opening not only to the gifts God has given you, but especially to God who gives them. Amen.