March 11, 2018, Lent 4, When Is a Savior Like a Serpent – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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In the Second Book of Kings, chapter 18, there is a story about a young king named Hezekiah. Hezekiah was just 25 years old when he became the king of Judah. Hezekiah was that very rare thing, in the ancient world as well as today, a ruler whose heart and actions were dedicated to the One True God. When he became king, it had been seven or eight hundred years since Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. And since then, the Israelites had come a very long way from following the God who had rescued and led them.
The writer of 2 Kings tells us: they “were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah [which was a pole, like a tree, used in the ritual worship of a fertility goddess] and [they] worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and [they] used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord.” Things had gotten bad indeed.
When Hezekiah became king, then, he set himself to turn his people away from their idolatry and back to their God, back into that covenant relationship that God had established with their ancestor Abraham, when he called him out to make of him and of his descendants a great nation. And so, Hezekiah went around destroying all the high places that the people had set up as altars on which they made sacrifices to false gods. He cut down the Asherahs. And he took a serpent made out of bronze, a thing that the people called Nehushtan and made offerings to it; he took that serpent and he smashed it to pieces. But that serpent wasn’t some strange idol that the people of Israel had adopted from their pagan neighbors. It was the very same serpent that we read about this morning, the serpent God had commanded Moses to make out of bronze, and to set up on a pole, so that when any of the people of Israel were bitten by the fiery serpents in the desert, if they would only look up at the bronze serpent on its pole, God would heal them, and they would not die from the serpent’s poison, but live.
When that serpent was forged all those hundreds of years earlier, the people of Israel were still exiles from slavery, wandering homeless in the desert. But God had been with them every step of the way. He had given them the Law to set them apart from the godless nations surrounding them, and he had given them detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, which was a traveling Temple, a glorified and glorious tent, basically, that they carried with them as they wandered, and where they offered their sacrifices and worshiped God. He had established his Presence among them in the heart of the Tabernacle, the most holy place. He protected them from the surrounding nations that threatened this little band of nomads, and he provided for them even when food and water where nowhere to be found. Because the desert is not a very comfortable or hospitable place to visit, let alone to live in for decade after decade.
But when things got hard, the people of Israel acted as people do, grumbling and griping to the Responsible Parties, to Moses, and to God himself. In the hardships of desert life, they forgot the unendurable suffering of their slavery in Egypt, and they forgot God’s faithfulness, and they forgot his miraculous deliverance from Pharoah’s armies. They saw nothing but their own suffering. And they despised God’s kindness. “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness?” they cried. “There is nothing to eat or drink here – and we detest this miserable food.” And by “miserable food” they meant the miraculous bread that God provided every single day of their forty-year sojourn in the desert, the manna that fell like dew every morning, always just exactly enough to feed every man and woman and child, heavenly bread that tasted, Moses tells us, like wafers made with coriander and honey.
It was no wonder, then, that when poisonous snakes came among them, and people began dying from the venomous bites, the people thought at once that God was punishing them. Aware of their guilt, and ashamed of their ingratitude, and terrified of God’s anger, they went to Moses and asked him to intercede for them. “Please,” they begged, “we know we have sinned. But please, ask God to take these serpents away from us.” And God heard the cry of his people and he told Moses to fashion a poisonous serpent from bronze, and to set it up on a pole. “Anyone who is bitten shall look on the serpent,” God told Moses, “and they will live.”
God gave the children of Israel that bronze serpent as a sign, that if only they would look up, away from the serpents that threatened them, away from their guilt and fear, away from their own wounds even, up to the serpent that Moses had set upon the pole, then they would live. Centuries later, when Hezekiah became king of Judah, that very same serpent become an idol and a snare to God’s people. By then, they had forgotten the shame of their ingratitude and they had forgotten their fear of God, and they had forgotten their desperate need. But most importantly, they had forgotten to look up to God.
Martin Luther, the German reformer, wrote this about the bronze serpent, which John tells us was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. “Moses commanded the Israelites who were stung by serpents in the desert, to do nothing else but behold it steadfastly, and not to turn away their eyes.” he wrote. “They that did so, were healed by that constant and steadfast gaze. But they which obeyed not Moses’ command to behold the brazen serpent, but looked elsewhere upon their wounds, died.”
The message of the serpent is that we have to take our eyes off of ourselves. “If I keep on looking at myself,” Luther wrote, “I am gone. If we lose sight of Christ and begin to consider our past – our hurts, or our shame, our resentments, or our failures – then we simply go to pieces. We must turn our eyes to the brazen serpent, Christ crucified, and believe with all our heart that He is our righteousness and our life.” We must look up, and then we will live.
But we might wonder why God chose such an unlikely figure as a symbol of his perfect Son. Ever since the Garden of Eden, the serpent represents everything that is evil, everything that is false, everything that is in rebellion against God and his love for his creatures. When Moses hammered out metal in the shape of a serpent and raised it up for everyone to see, that serpent embodied all the fear and all the guilt and all the pain, and even death itself. Every bit of evil and misery that the living fiery serpents had brought into their midst was represented by that twisted piece of bronze. There was no power in the thing itself. It was just a lifeless hunk of metal that the Israelites later foolishly began to worship. The only power belonged to God himself, as he had Moses raise the evil out of their midst, inviting them to look away from themselves, away from their wounds, away from their fear, and to look up, trusting the promise of God that they would live.
And everyone who looked up, lived.
And just so, Jesus – who as a man of flesh and blood suffered in every way as we have, except that he was entirely without sin – he took upon himself every sting of the Serpent, Satan: he took on our fear and our guilt and our pain, and even our death itself. Because the truth is, we all bear the sting of the serpent, we are all dying here. But taking all our sin and frailty upon himself, our Lord chose to be raised up on the Cross, putting death itself to death. Like the serpent of bronze on its pole, Jesus himself was raised up for us, and we, if we look away from ourselves, and up to him – we will live.
“So, if I would find comfort and life,” Luther wrote, “when I am at the point of death, I must do nothing else but apprehend Christ, and look at him, and say: I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me: in whose wounds, and in whose death I see my sin, and in his resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil, also righteousness and eternal life. Besides him I see nothing, I hear nothing.”
Let us pray: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior
Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.