Snake Stories: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

I’ve been married to a southerner for almost twenty-five years, and I lived in the South for fifteen. I don’t claim to be an expert on Southern culture, but I’ve been around it long enough to know a thing or two, certainly I know I great deal more about the south than I did when I made my first visit to my future in-laws in 1986.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that most southerners are fascinated by snakes. They love to tell stories about them. If the alcohol has been flowing freely enough, at some point in a really good party with good storytellers, you are going to get your fill of snake stories. The only snake stories I know are ones I’ve heard from Corrie or from other Southerners. I have none of my own.

I was reminded of the Southern fascination with snakes a few weeks ago when PBS aired a documentary about the Burmese pythons that have overtaken the Everglades. We just happened upon the program, but instead of flipping over to something else, or turning off the TV, Corrie kept watching. It was the kind of show a Southerner would love, complete with video of a guy who keeps a menagerie of snakes in cages in his backyard. Southerners are fascinated by snakes because there’s a sense that under every bush, or boat, or in an overgrown bank of a pond, there are snakes waiting, poisonous snakes like water moccasins, copperheads, or rattlers. Most cultures have similar fascination with snakes.

The Biblical tradition has one very famous story about snakes—of course, I’m referring to Genesis 3 and the story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent. It may be that some of our culture’s discomfort with snakes goes back to that story. After Adam and Eve eat the apple, Yahweh curses the snake, saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between her offspring and yours; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Biblical scholars suspect that although the story as we have it explains the origin of enmity between humans and snakes, there are hints of something else. It may not be coincidence that it was a snake doing the tempting, and that the temptation was wisdom. In fact, in many ancient cultures, especially in the ancient near east, snakes were associated with wisdom and with immortality. They were not a symbol of evil, but rather of good.

Whatever the case in Genesis, we know that the snake is a powerful image that works on the imagination of human beings everywhere that snakes live. They inspire fear and revulsion in us. The lesson from Numbers is a testimony to that. Once again, the Israelites are complaining in the wilderness about their lives. They are sick of the miserable food; they don’t have enough water, they probably don’t like the accommodations, either. We see such complaints repeatedly during the wilderness. In Exodus, when the people complain about food, Yahweh sends down manna for them to eat.

God responds somewhat differently here. Instead of giving them what they want, God gives them fiery serpents, or poisonous ones, the Hebrew is ambiguous, and they attack the Israelites. In response, Yahweh instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze, but the force of the Hebrew suggests more than that; one scholar suggests “a serpenty serpent;” another translation reads, “a copper viper.” What seems to be intended is that this image is somehow uniquely, perhaps archetypically serpent-like. The Israelites are told to gaze on the brazen serpent to save themselves.

This story raises all sorts of questions for us. At the very least, it sounds like magic. But more than that, it also sounds very much like idolatry and in fact, the bronze serpent was kept in the temple for centuries, until King Hezekiah had it destroyed when he was purifying worship.

It’s that story to which our gospel reading refers. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” A symbol of death, evil, a focus of fear, becomes in both instances a symbol of life. We are in John 3. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has been visited by Nicodemus and the verses we heard read are in some way a continuation of, or commentary on, the dialogue that took place between them.

This passage from John includes in it one of the most famous Bible verses of all: John 3:16—“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” We know it well, but if you’re like me, you may cringe every time you see Jn 3:16 on a bumper sticker or in the stands at a football game. These words of hope and good news have become a stumbling block to many. Words of promise, life-giving words have become message of division, off-putting.

In fact, to see people displaying signs like John 3:16 in the effort of evangelism, is sometimes so cringe-inducing that we refrain from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others. We may admit, if asked, that we are church-goers, we may even identify which church we attend, but good Episcopalians, we would not be so bold as to invite someone to join us at services. Whatever good news we experience in Jesus Christ, we hesitate to offer it to others. We act that way because we don’t want to offend, because we may be slightly embarrassed, and because we don’t want to be associated with those aggressive Christians who are trying to save people from going to hell.

That’s a shame. We are, all of us, people who believe or at least want to believe that Jesus brings life to the world. We believe and experience the cross as transforming and life-giving. Yet much of what we do seems to others, seems to those whom we seek to reach, as bringing death and destruction. Even the cross, Jesus “lifted up” is no longer a symbol of life, but of death.

The serpent is an ambiguous image—in our texts today it can be an image of death or of life. The gospel of John repeatedly uses the image of “being lifted up” in connection with Jesus. It refers both to Jesus’ exaltation and to his crucifixion. For John those two are in a sense the same thing. Thus the cross, the image of death, becomes for us an image of life. The same is true for the Israelites in the wilderness. The fiery serpents brought death; by gazing upon the bronze serpent, the image of pain and death, they were given life. If they looked away, they died.

We are on our Lenten journey toward Good Friday and the death and suffering of Jesus Christ. I think for most of us that image of Christ on the cross, no matter how much it moves us, has become something common place, almost ordinary. Perhaps some of us are completely turned off by it. So I return to the snake stories. One reason snakes continue to work on our imagination is that they are, or can be, terrifying. To encounter a rattler on a hike is to have an encounter with death, to face our deepest fears. There is a tendency in such an encounter to freeze up and stare. It’s kind of like the temptation to slow down and look closely while passing a bad car wreck, or even the thrill we get from watching horror movies.

There’s something of that in the cross, of course. One needn’t look at too many medieval images of the crucifixion, nor view Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, (and if you’ve not seen it, don’t bother) to be tempted to wallow in the suffering of Christ. Even the hymns that we will sing in the next few weeks will tend to emphasize Christ’s suffering. There is horror there. There is suffering and death. But there is also life. Next week we will hear from John’s gospel again, from the twelfth chapter, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”

Our struggle is to understand and experience that in the cross, we encounter not just death and horror. We walk this pilgrim way of Lent, and come closer each day to Good Friday, and to our encounter with the cross. Whatever pain and suffering is in our lives, whatever horrors we face each day, let us pray that our encounter with the cross be life-giving, for ourselves, and for the world.

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