“Lift Him Up”
“Snakes, why’d it have to be snakes.” That was Harrison Ford’s iconic line as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Indiana Jones had to descend into a buried room. He lights a torch and tosses it in and sees snakes covering every inch of the floor, ankle deep, and then we get that famous line. He could fight the evil powers that be in a variety of situations, but just don’t give Indiana Jones snakes.
A lot of people undoubtedly feel that way. Snakes are usually low-lying creatures. They crawl along the ground and if you don’t see them in time they may react to your presence and strike out and bite. Not only do snakes bite, but some are poisonous, and can be lethal. They are not exactly puppy dogs, and that makes them hard to love.
In the Old Testament there is the story concerning Moses as he was leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. In Numbers 21 we are told that the people became impatient and began to grumble and complain about Moses and to Moses. Actually according to the Bible the people spent a lot of time grumbling. This time they complained, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
Because the people spoke against God and Moses, the story tells us that “…the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” They got snakes. Have you ever been snake bit? Here many people’s fears were coming to pass. The situation could be no more dire. In our day and age we craft horror movies on this idea –like “Anaconda,” and “Snakes on a Plane” Israelites were living out these horrors. Finally, they came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” Moses intervened and “…the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
Now it is easy enough to hear this tale from Numbers and think that it is a rather odd story. We may understand snakes in a desert. Even what amounts to a plague of snakes, but what is with this bronze serpent? Why did God have Moses create such an image as a way to healing? As we are pondering this question, it is useful to note that this became the image that is used in John 3 “14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This story becomes more than just an odd story of divine punishment and healing, I think it is fair to read into this story a theological understanding of sin, salvation, and divine grace. The Old Testament story becomes a foreshadowing of the cross of Christ.
When you think about it, God is seen as providing for and protecting the people, and in return instead of living in gratitude for what they had they chose to complain about the things they felt they were lacking –the food is terrible (we used to eat better in Egypt). The water is in short supply, the sun is hot, and we have come all this way just to die out here in the wilderness. Things may not have been perfect, but they were overlooking God’s constant providential care and leading. They were being fearful instead of faithful. They were living in anger and judgment instead of being forgiving, and at the core level rejecting God’s plan and purpose for their lives. This was counted as sin to them. They sinned against God who was leading them and against Moses who God gave them.
Because of this God allowed their lives to fall into even greater hardship with the advent of poisonous snakes. Basically because of their sin they suffered punishment. The scriptures are generally clear and consistent about this point. There are consequences to sin in life. God is a righteous God. In their pain and anguish the people were confronted with their failure and as the story progresses they repented. They came to Moses admitting their wrong doing and asking for forgiveness.
Moses prayed to God and God then provided an instrument by which the people could find healing. God had Moses craft a bronze snake upon a pole and we are told that whenever anyone got bit they came and looked upon this figure and lived.” Now it wasn’t the bronze figure that cured the people, but it was God. As the people were once again willing to take a simple step of faith. As they were willing to upon the result of their own sin and believe in Moses instructions and God’s direction, they were made well. It wasn’t magic, but to look upon the bronze serpent was to acknowledge one’s own sin and one’s dependence upon the salvation that God provided. It was a physical act of demonstrating repentance and turning back to God. Look up towards God, confess your need, and be healed.
If we think about it is it any wonder then that the image of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness prefigures and reminds us of the saving work of Jesus upon the cross? I think often enough Jesus story can be seen in the pages of the Old Testament. There is point to all of this.
First of all the truth is that we all have been snake bit. The scriptures remind us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is one of Paul’s main points found in the book of Romans. Perfection is a nonexistent reality within human life. More than not, ever person is stumbling a bit through life, and life is more of a messy and misdirected affair then a neat and simple plan. Along the way mistakes are made and lessons are learned, and by far a person is confronted with their own imperfections in this imperfect world. We are a people that exercise freedom in a fallen world, and that is bound to be a recipe for missing the mark according to what God desires of us and for us. We find ourselves living with the consequence of our actions on a daily basis.
But just as God responded to the prayers of Moses, so God continues to answer our prayers as well. We are not without recourse or hope. In fact we discover that God is most aware of our situation. The missteps of life are nothing new to the eyes of God, but rather than condemn us God has chosen to send us a sign for healing and salvation that has been lifted up for all the world. Just as the odd image of a serpent was put upon a pole and lifted up, so our salvation and hope is found in the odd picture of Jesus lifted up upon the cross. In Christ’s death there is the mystery of real life and a real and new relationship with God for everyone who shall come and behold the one that God lifted up for our sakes.
John 3:16 is often found on signs held up at sporting events. Martin Luther once called John 3:16 the gospel in miniature. This verse holds for us the great plan and hope found within our Christian message. “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.
To this snake infested, snake bitten world and life, Christ is the cure. In Jesus God’s love has been given and is operative and accessible for us in this life, no matter what, and no matter who we are, or where we have been. As we are willing to repent, lift up our eyes to gaze upon the result of our sin, and trust in faith the one who died and lives again, we shall be saved. We need not perish or be lost or destroyed because in Jesus life is restored within us.
There is a story that comes out of the Bedouin culture. “Bedouin” is the Aramaic name for “desert dweller.” These people live much as the characters of the Old Testament did. According to this story, during a heated argument a young Bedouin struck and killed a friend of his. Knowing the ancient, inflexible customs of his people, the young man fled, running across the desert under the cover of darkness seeking safety.
He went to the black tent of the tribal chief in order to seek his protection. The old chief assured him that he would be safe until the matter could be settled legally.
The next day, the young man’s pursuers arrived, demanding the murder be turned over to them. They would see that justice would prevail in their own way. “But I have given my word,” protested the chief.
“But you don’t know whom he killed!” they countered.
“I have given my word,” the chief repeated.
“He killed your son!” one of them blurted out.
The chief was deeply and visibly shaken with this news. He stood speechless with his head bowed for a long time. The accused and accusers, as well as curious onlookers, waited breathlessly. What happened to the young man? Finally the old man raised his head. “Then he shall become my son,” he informed them, and everything I have will one day be his.”
So to, out of God’s great mercy and grace this, in a way, has been God’s response to us. Out of sin, and through Christ death, God has called us forth to live as his children. For God so loved… For God so loved. There is just nothing of which God cannot forgive you. There is nothing from which God can not heal your life.
Now is the time and opportunity to shake the snakes off, turn to God, and be made well. To believe is to move from death to life already; even as John’s Gospel tells us
“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.”
What we should hear within that text is the present assurance of salvation for all who hear and believe today, and realize that new life begins immediately. Healing is for the now. Hope is born today. This morning becomes the day of decision to live.
As you depart here today look upon Jesus, think about the cross, and consider God’s love for you. Finally consider what you need to do to lift Jesus up a little higher in your life. How will you honor the life and work of God within your life today? Here is eternal life. Here is true life for you today. Amen