The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018
I grew up for the first six years of my life in a house in the country that backed up on a pine thicket. The trees there were longleaf pine, probably at the time only about 10 years old--not towering trees, but tall enough to a small boy of four or five. Throughout the year and especially in the fall these trees drop some of their needles, layering on the floor of the forest a bed of pinestraw that builds over time. My dog at the time liked to roam through the thicket, chasing rabbits and squirrels, and I’d follow him across the soft, quiet pine straw floor of the thicket.
During the heat of the day the pine trees were cooling, filtering the light of the sun onto the forest floor, but by dusk they provided cover of darkness for forest creatures to come out, and the thicket came alive with the sound of crickets, cicadas, and frogs from the nearby pond. Dusk and dark were the times that, even as the thicket found its night-time voice, that another sound appeared, as well. I didn’t like to walk into the thicket at night, for fear of stepping on the small brown hognosed snakes that lived there, silently slithering across the pine needle bed, hunting for food, for, when they were disturbed, they’d puff up a bit and hiss. We called them spreading adders. They were harmless, not aggressive, not poisonous, but that hiss was enough to strike fear in the heart of a small child. And while as an adult I’m sure it was the wind in the pine trees that made its own sound, as a child I was sure there was a chorus of spreading adders out in the forest, singing a song, warning me to stay away, quietly hissing through the night.
And that’s how my discomfort with snakes was born.
Maybe you like snakes, but I don’t. And so this story of Moses and the serpents is an uncomfortable one for me!
You remember the story: the Israelites have been freed from bondage in Egypt but are in sojourn in the wilderness, wandering for forty years (that is to say, a long time) until they enter the land promised them. And they’ve grown weary--impatient, the story tells us, and they’re complaining. “Why’d you bring us up here to die? There is no food, there is no water, the food is terrible.” (Num 21.5) And it gets worse. There’s no food, the food is terrible--and also there are snakes. Poisonous serpents, our translation says; firey serpents, the Authorized translation says. And they bite--and people die.
And when the people acknowledge their sin in speaking against God--in this complaining, this being caught up in the bad so much that they miss the good--they pray to God to remove the snakes. And so God tells Moses to make a staff with a bronze snake on it--and when the Israelites are bitten, they can look upon the staff with the snake--and live.
Now, there are lots of questions that come up for me in this story. What are the snakes about? When I was a child I was pretty sure these snakes were the spreading adders in the pine thicket! But the language isn’t so clear about them. One of the Hebrew words used is generally translated as serpent or snake--the same word used about the serpent in the garden of Eden, the wily one that convinces Adam and Eve that they can be like God. Another word used is seraphim, which gets translated fiery serpent, or poisonous snake. It’s the same word as the seraphim in Isaiah that touch the hot coal to Isaiah’s lips, blotting out his sin, as scripture says, and Isaiah replies to God’s call, “Here I am, send me.” (Is 6.1-9)
Are these seraphim, these snakes, literally desert vipers that bite and kill? Are they seraphic messengers from God, as Isaiah’s visitors were, calling God’s people back to right relationship with God? Are they a holdover from an ancient Babylonian god, a signpost on the road to monotheism for the people of Israel?
Whatever the serpents are, when one of them is lifted up, the people that look upon it, even though they are bitten, do not die. And what is that miracle about? Is this some sort of ancient medicine, that gazing upon the agent of the poison somehow renders it ineffective? One might reasonably wonder if the serpent and staff that Moses raises up is connected somehow to our modern day medical symbols, the staff and serpent in the Yale School of Medicine crest, for example. (That symbol is actually the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, whose temple feasts we heard about in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians just a few Sundays ago.)
I can’t offer an explanation about exactly what the snakes are, or why the bronze snake on a pole makes their bite less deadly. But this instance was so important for the people of Israel in their journey that the staff with the snake on it was apparently kept and, when the temple at Jerusalem was built centuries later, the staff was raised in the temple, only to be destroyed along with the hill altars and sacred poles in King Hezekiah’s reformations three centuries later.
The problem, the sin, of the people of Israel was not that they were complaining. It wasn’t even the snakes, though they were a whole other problem all to themselves! The problem was that they had forgotten God’s mercy. Here they had just been freed from bondage to Pharaoh--set free from slavery--and they were complaining about the food they had in the wilderness! They’re complaining so much that they’re exaggerating. “We have no food, and the food we have is terrible!” they say. They have lost sight of the main thing. They’ve lost sight of God’s mercy.
Perhaps the image of the serpent on the pole helped them remember God’s mercy--that they were spared from slavery, that they were spared from death. Whatever it was, or however it worked, that ultimately was the message--that, through God’s mercy, God’s people were saved.
And isn’t that the message we hear today?
Today, Laetare Sunday, when the introit invites us to rejoice, we begin to make a turn--in the lectionary readings and in our hearts--from a self-examination of our sins, a focus on those things which separate us from God and creation, and towards the joy of God’s saving works. We turn our gaze to the marvelous mercy of God, the ways in which God reaches out to us, even when we try to separate ourselves from God, drawing us back to God’s own self.
The gospel of John proclaims that “… 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.” (Jn 3.16) That the entire point of Jesus, God’s son, coming into the world was to draw the world, us, all of creation, closer to God--back into relationship. That the world, through Him, might be saved. (Jn 3.17)
That God wants to be with us so much that God comes among us, even amongst our sinfulness, our willfulness, our neglect--our disregard for God; that God comes amongst us even as we complain and moan about how bad our lives are and forget for the moment how very good God is; even in the midst of our blindness, God comes in the person of Jesus Christ, to live and die, to be among us, all for the sole purpose of drawing us closer to God.
The Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent on the staff, we look upon the crucified body of our Lord, raised on the cross, raised as a standard, showing whom we follow, whom we believe in. This is a God of mercy, a God of love, who comes among us, empties himself, and triumphs over death. And we rejoice indeed at this great love--this love that has first loved us--that invites us to love one another, in God’s name.
We know that love. We know that sacrifice. We know that triumph over death. We celebrate it each week, here, as we walk under and through the roodscreen, as we receive the Body of Christ in the Sacrament, and as we bear that love out into the streets of New Haven and beyond.
There’s something about lifting up that banner--about lifting up that cross--that’s important. It’s only when the Israelites gaze upon the bronze serpent that they are healed. It’s when Jesus is lifted up that the world is given life. And next week in the gospel reading we’ll hear a reprise of Jesus’s insistence that he must be lifted up: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Jn 12.32).
That’s the verse on the reverse of the rood screen here--on the back of the beam that holds the cross, just there where we enter the choir each week to go up to the altar to receive communion. When you receive communion today and rise from the rail, you can turn around and see it there, carved into the wood.
And when you turn around and look, you’ll notice something else, something that Father Bob Fix, who served as a seminarian here at Christ Church in the early 80’s, has pointed out. When we enter under the cross, under the rood beam, we can see the figure of Jesus suspended, crucified. When we kneel at the altar rail, we receive the Body of Christ in the sacrament. And when we turn around from the rail, after we’ve received the Body of Christ, the rood itself--the cross--is empty. And it’s so. The back side of that cross is completely plain; there’s no corpus, no body on it.
Fr Ficks points out that, in our communions, the Body of Christ is now present in us. Through the gift of the Incarnation, God has come among us. Christ, through the grace bestowed in the Sacraments, now inhabits us. And we go back out into the nave, back out into the streets of New Haven, back out into our daily lives, carrying Christ with us. Bearing him forth. Carrying that banner, that staff, that cross, lifted up, out into the world.
When you find something so good, don’t you want to tell people about it? I can’t tell you the number of folks who want to tell me about their fitness regimen, or a new restaurant they’ve found, a book they’ve read or movie they’ve watched, a trip they’ve taken--something that’s caught their imaginations for just a second. Something worthy of their attention, something they think is worth sharing.
We have received the greatest love imaginable; God has come among us. Christ has given his life in love and service to all of creation. And the good news is that he has triumphed over death--and that he invites us into that new, everlasting life. That’s good news. How can we NOT share it?
Now, let’s be clear, I’m not telling you that we should go out and argue with folks, convince them to follow Jesus, coerce them even. The work of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. All I am suggesting is that we are called to lift the standard, to lift up Jesus. To claim Him in our lives, in our work, in our very being. “I volunteer at the Soup Kitchen because it’s what Jesus teaches.” “I believe this because of my Christian faith.” “I chose this line of work because it’s a way that I can share the love that God has shared with me, that I meet in Jesus.”
Whatever word or phrase we put on it, lift high the cross of Christ in our work, in our lives, each and every day. Share Jesus’s love with the world, because he has first loved us. Let us this Lent turn our eyes to the cross. Let us show people Jesus.
 See “Going Vegetarian for Jesus,” a sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany at christchurchnh.org/sermons, and Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.