Numbers 21.4-9 (not reading in lectionary!)
“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.” (John 3.14-15)
“Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”
We know the story. It’s told in the book of Numbers – chapter 21 verses 4-9 to give it its full reference.
The people of Israel are still wandering in the wilderness, making their way to the land God has promised them with Moses leading them. Not for the first time they are discontent, grumbling and blaming God and Moses.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they complain, harking back to an imagined golden age that never was.
“… there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” they moan, rejecting the God-given manna and forgetting that here in the wilderness they are a free people, no longer living as slaves under an oppressive and cruel regime.
Then the serpents get them – poisonous, deadly serpents that bring fear and panic, illness and death. They think they’re being punished – and don’t we too sometime say, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” because finding a rational explanation, however unlikely, is better than living with uncertainty and the random nature of sudden injury to sickness in human life. So they look round for what they’ve done wrong and they realise that they have dared to complain to God and he is punishing them for that.
“Pray to the Lord”, they ask Moses, “pray to him and ask him to get rid of the serpents”.
We pray for healing too and God’s answer may not be just what we were hoping for: the serpents remain but God provides protection to his people so that they won’t be destroyed.
He tells Moses to make a bronze replica of the poisonous snakes, to set it on a pole to be held up high. If anyone is bitten by a serpent he or she may look at the bronze replica and live. The poison isn’t taken away but God provides a way for his people to get through this crisis in the wilderness.
Fast forward many years, many generations and we’re back in the wilderness once again, this time with John the Baptist on the banks of the great river Jordan which snakes its way from Mount Hermon in the north down to the Dead Sea. We are geographically in the wilderness again but we’re also in another sort of wilderness: the wilderness of sin from which John calls us back – calls us to repent, to be baptised and to live in a new sort of promised land of God’s salvation.
We’re not so very different from the people of Israel who flock out to the river bank seeking an answer to the problems of the world and to our own longing for the something better we feel sure is out there somewhere.
No longer slaves in Egypt, we are slaves to sin: poisonous, distorting, miserable sin which undermines our sense of self, twists relationships and winds itself round human beings, made in the image of God, crushing that image within us and leaving us empty, feeling powerless to escape and filling us with loneliness, guilt and despair.
But it doesn’t have to be like that! That’s the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man.
Because, to borrow words from the poem “Desiderata”, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, this is still a beautiful world” and, most importantly, God loves it. In fact, “God so loves the world that he gives his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
And we do not have to fear what that means for us because:
“God does not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world (including you and me) might be saved through him.”
In the wilderness God gave his people the sign of salvation in the shape of a serpent held up for everyone to look at and live even though their bodies were full of the poison from only too alive and venomous snakes.
Now he gives his people the sign of his Son, lifted up on a cross for all to see. And whoever really looks at the cross and believes in its significance will live in the eternal life of God even though they are still living in the world of time and space and sin.
And we can enter into that eternal life of God immediately: we can be born again into a new way of being which is all about forgiving love and faithfulness. We are freed from the fear of judgment, condemnation and punishment because that’s not what God is about, that’s not why he sends his Son into the world.
God sends his Son because he loves the world and wants with all his being to save it from itself, to save us from ourselves.
So when we watch or listen to news bulletins, documentaries and discussions of current affairs let’s remember that. It may feel like we’re living in a world that is all wilderness and danger, corruption and oppression, hardship and suffering. We may well wonder where, when and how it’s all going to end and have a strong sense that it’s not going to be good.
But God loves this world so much that he gives us his Son so that everyone, everyone may look to him and have eternal life. And if God loves this world, loves us, that much surely that’s a message of good news which we need to share with those around us.
And if God doesn’t condemn us or punish us for our sins surely we too need not to condemn or judge others.
This is the good news and the joy of salvation which lie at the very heart of our faith and we need to share it in a wilderness world of darkness that longs for light, truth and love.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believe 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.