Mar. 18, 2012 Lent 4 “The Bronze Serpent”
Chapter 18 of the second book of Kings tells the story of a young king named Hezekiah who came to the throne in Judah at the age of twenty-five. It was around the year 700 B.C., three hundred years after the golden age of King David, and Israel had split into two kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. None of Israel’s kings proved faithful to God, and by no means all of Judah’s kings were faithful either, but Hezekiah was a good king. The writer of 2 Kings says of Hezekiah “He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him…He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. [These were all sites of the idol worship that had grown up since the time of David.]” And the writer goes on: “And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan)”.
Hezekiah made it his mission to destroy every vestige of idolatry in Israel, and to call his people back into a faithful relationship with their God. The high places and the pillars and the Asherah pole were things the people had adopted from the religions of the nations that lived around and among them. When God brought them into the land of Canaan that he had promised them, he had warned them not to settle among the inhabitants of Canaan, but to wipe them all out or they would be a snare to them, leading them into idolatry. That seems horribly violent and unjust to us, and I’m not sure we can fully understand what was going on, except to realize that God was right. When the people of Israel failed to obey God’s command to clear the land of its former inhabitants (and they certainly didn’t disobey out of mercy or compassion; it was much more human than that – a mixture of foolishness and greed and laziness) they turned in very short order away from the God who had gone with them for forty years in the wilderness, to worship the gods of their neighbors, gods of wood and stone who had no power but who demanded their sacrifices, sometimes even the sacrifice of their own children.
And along with these foreign idols and places of false worship Hezekiah found the people worshipping a bronze serpent that had not come from their pagan neighbors. It had been made by Moses himself, and the people had been making offerings to this idol they called Nehushtan for 700 years, ever since the time that we read about today in the book of Numbers, when the people got fed up with God in the wilderness. They had been wandering for nearly forty years since they left Egypt; they had forgotten their miserable slavery under the Egyptians and only cared that they were sick of the hardships of the desert and sick of wandering and even sick of the miraculous food that God had provided for them year after year. And God punished them for their rebellion. The story says that he sent fiery snakes among them that bit the people so that many people died. And it seems most likely that these snakes were some of the many dangers of the wilderness that God had been protecting his people from, so that when they spoke out against him and against Moses his servant who had cared for them so selflessly and tirelessly, God held back that one protection and allowed that one danger of the wilderness to come upon his people so that they would remember his care for them and turn their hearts back to him.
And it worked – the people came to Moses and admitted their sinfulness and foolishness, and they begged Moses to pray to God that they would be forgiven. And when Moses brought their repentance before God, this is what he told him to do, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” And it was then that Moses made the fiery serpent out of bronze, and just as God had said, when anyone was bitten by a serpent, if they looked up at the bronze serpent they lived; the bite of the live serpents had no power to kill them as long as they looked up at it. Through this experience God taught the people of Israel to remember that their lives were in his hand. It wasn’t just a matter of God getting back at his unruly people, or keeping them under control – he had called them out of Egypt for two reasons. One was that he was calling them to be a holy people whose identity would be set apart from the rest of the world so that God could make himself known to the world through them and so through them he would bless all of his creation. That was the promise he made through Abraham and Sarah.
The other purpose God had for calling Israel out into the desert was related to the first, but it was more intimate. God was calling this little nation into a relationship of love with him. He called Israel out into the desert to woo her, as a bridegroom calls to his bride, because he loves her and wants to be with her. When God had Moses set up the bronze serpent it was not to say, “watch out or something worse will happen to you.” He was saying, “look to me, only look to me and I will provide everything you need; I am here always to heal you, to feed you, to protect you.” Through the prophet Isaiah many years later, God said, “your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called…For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.”
The bronze serpent was meant to be a sign to them, pointing beyond itself to the God that loved and cared for them, but like the normal foolish people they were, the people of Israel missed the point. They looked to the serpent, and they were healed, and so they began to bring offerings to this bronze thing that had no more power to heal than a rock or a clod of dirt. The remarkable thing is that God didn’t send more serpents, or wipe them out or give up on his people, even though it took 7 centuries before one faithful man had the sense to put an end to it. But God is patient, and his revelation unfolds over many, many centuries, and when he told Moses to make the bronze serpent he had something more in mind than curing snakebites.
Jesus said, speaking to Nicodemus, “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.” God doesn’t do things at random, no matter how much it might look like it sometimes. It was no accident that he allowed the desert serpents to punish his rebellious people, because the serpent was always, ever since the Garden of Eden, the symbol of evil and of man’s fall into sin. And so the bronze serpent that saved so many lives in the wilderness was also a sign pointing ahead 1400 years, to the time when God himself would come to earth and would take on himself, willingly, every curse of the fall, up to and including death, being lifted up high on the cross so that anyone who suffered the bite of the serpent – the temptations and sicknesses and sorrows that come of living in a fallen world – could look to him and be healed.
And God’s purposes never change. His purpose is now as it always was, to heal and restore the creation that he loves and to share his life with his creatures. The snakes were not a judgment on the Israelites to condemn them; they were meant to call them back to God; God’s desire for his people is that they live, and that they live in a loving and trusting relationship with him. It was with the bronze serpent as it is with Jesus, just as John writes; “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” And it is with us just as it was with the Israelites. We too suffer the bite of the serpent – we suffer every day from the brokenness that came into the world through sinful man, not just the hurtful and wrong things we do or the hurtful and wrong things that are done to us, but also sickness of mind and body, and broken relationships, and the constant inner struggle with that part of us that hates the light, and for all of us, death. But we have been given the sign of Jesus Christ raised up on the cross that we can look to and live.
And now we face the challenge that the Israelites faced. We have been given the sign of God’s love and care and power so that we might be led through them into a relationship of love and trust with him. But we share with the Israelites that human tendency to idolatry: we see God’s creation, and the signs he gives us that are meant to draw us near to him, but we are blind to the one who gave us the sign. That’s what is at the heart of superstition, and religion so very easily becomes superstition rather than true worship. We begin by receiving something truly good that God gives us: the cross, the sacrament, the Scriptures. But then we forget that they are the means to our relationship with God and we make them into an end in itself. How easy it is for people to use the cross as a good-luck charm or the Scriptures as a way to prove ourselves right and to judge another person, or the sacrament of Holy Communion as a way to feel good.
It is like a woman who marries a man that loves her very much. And she says to herself that she also loves him. She spends time every morning polishing her wedding ring, looking at it and touching it reverently. She has photographs of the wedding hung in every room of the house, and she has a habit of touching each one every time she passes by. When her husband brings her flowers, she presses them carefully and keeps them in a scrap book. She makes sure she has dinner prepared at exactly the right time for her husband to eat when he gets home from work, and while he eats she is cleaning up from her preparations so the kitchen is always spotless. And the bedroom she keeps immaculately clean – she doesn’t even dare sleep in the bed for fear of messing it up. She has so much to do to be a good wife, the kind of wife she thinks she ought to be, that she never has time to sit down and talk to her husband – besides, she is afraid she might say the wrong thing; it’s much safer to avoid it altogether; she never has time to enjoy her husband’s company, to go on a walk with him, to enjoy the physical companionship of marriage. This will be a marriage without real joy, without love, and without fruit – there will of course be no children. It is a barren life – a life of empty obedience. That is what idolatry is.
But we are not called into that kind of obedience; we are called into relationship with the living God. When we look up to the cross, we are not healed by a magic charm, we are healed by the one who came to live among us, who willingly shared our disease so that we could be freed from it completely. We don’t come to the communion table to feel good; we come into the Presence of the One who shares his body and blood with us. We don’t read the Scriptures to prove that I am right and you are wrong; we read them as a love letter to us – as the story told by the One who desires that we know him better and better. And we never need to come to God fearfully, afraid that we will say or do the wrong thing. We don’t need to know flowery language, or to know how to hold our hands just right or when to cross ourselves. We just need to come to him. Like Hezekiah, by the grace of God, we need to break anything in our life that has become a false god rather than a guiding hand to lead us to the God who loves us. It’s all a matter of focus. If you look through a window and focus your eyes on your reflection in the glass, you will see nothing of what is on the other side. But as soon as you stop focusing on your own reflection you see what is there and the glass seems to disappear. That is the purpose of all signs and sacraments, not to draw attention to themselves but to draw us into closer and more joyful relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.
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