Sermon in CR church Lent 4.

As the serpent was lifted up

Let’s begin with a little Natural History – with that particular branch of it known as Ophiology – the study of snakes and serpents. I assure you that it is not my intention to give you the creeps or make your flesh crawl but I think that we are required by this morning’s readings to give some attention to the subject.

For most of us, serpents are not the best beloved of God’s creatures and yet throughout history human beings have been fascinated by them – which of course is precisely what serpents are said to do; they fascinate their prey and with their unblinking gaze transfix and immobilise them.

None of us would choose to tangle with a snake; they are extremely dangerous, being both cunning and venomous. They move silently and strike without warning. Often they are indistinguishable from their surroundings, whether it be lush and verdant vegetation, or bare sandy scrub. They creep on their bellies but they can also rear up. They shed their skin and seem to be re-born, rejuvenated. In legend, some are said to be able to fly, others to swallow their own tail and others to have a head at each end of their body.

In Jewish tradition the serpent is the embodiment of evil, particularly of treachery and deceit – indeed to this day we speak of someone harbouring a serpent in his bosom, or of being a snake in the grass.

Yet the snake is also the embodiment of wisdom – as Jesus himself pointed out. Because of its apparent ability to renew itself, it is also the symbol of timelessness and eternity.

Perhaps it is because of that capacity for self-renewal that people have believed serpents have the power to heal. Apollo, the healer-god, was associated with snakes, as was Asclepius, the god of medicine. Indeed, his staff with a serpent coiled round it is the symbol of the medical profession. Similarly Hermes – better known as Mercury – the messenger-god, with his winged helmet and winged sandals – was represented in ancient times carrying a short wand with two snakes twined round it; with it he tamed the Furies, turning them into the Kindly Ones and with it he conducted the souls of the dead to the Underworld.

That association of snakes with healing is clearly what we have in the story of the bronze serpent, set up by Moses at GOD’s command which, if they looked at it, cured the Israelites of the venomous bites of the ‘fiery serpents’ sent by GOD to punish the people for their faithlessness and their spirit of complaint. It is a pity  that the translation used in this morning’s reading from the Book of Numbers describes them as ‘poisonous’. The Hebrew text says that they were ‘fiery’ and the significance of that is that the Hebrew for ‘fiery’ is ‘seraph’. So these are no ordinary serpents; they are the seraphim – the fiery guardians of the Throne of the GOD whose presence is revealed in fire – the GOD who answers by fire – the GOD who (as the Psalmist tells us) makes flames of fire his servants.

As they trekked across the desert wastes to the land which had been promised them, many of the Israelites lost heart and became impatient with the GOD who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Liberated though they were, they found  their GOD-given  freedom difficult and not at all what they had expected. They complained that ‘there (was) no food and no water’ and that the daily quota of manna was ‘miserable’ fare.

So the seraph serpents were sent to punish them for their grumbling and ingratitude. Only those who obeyed GOD’s instructions and looked to the bronze serpent on its pole survived. For them this was the sign and means of salvation, the sign that death was defeated –  that it had lost its ‘sting’.

It is a strange story - about a kind of sacred homeopathy -  and some of the details are puzzling. Perhaps not the least strange aspect of it is that the GOD who had expressly commanded the people that they were not to make an image or idol of any creature, whether ‘in heaven...or on earth...or in the water under the earth’ here tells Moses to do what had been forbidden and to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole for the people to look at ‘and live’.

The story certainly impressed itself deeply on the Jewish imagination. Many centuries later we shall hear of the bronze serpent ‘that Moses had made’ in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and that as part of King Hezekiah’s reforming policies it was removed and destroyed. Even so, the story about it remained in Scripture and is referred to by Jesus in his nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus – as we hear in today’s Gospel reading.

For the people of Israel in the Wilderness, the bronze serpent on its pole was the means – if they would avail themselves of it – whereby they could be saved from death; those who had been bitten by the fiery serpents had only to turn to it and look to it and they would live. In other words, the bronze serpent is the means of  both health and salvation. In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus speaks of the reality of which the serpent on its pole was a foreshadowing: ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’.

In the early days of the Christian faith the word for healing – in Latin ‘salus’, in Greek ‘soteria’, was taken by the first  believers as the word for ‘salvation ‘. Jesus is Soter or Salvator – he is the healer, the new Apollo – the reality of which Apollo and Hermes were mere insubstantial shadows.

More significantly - and more precisely - he is the Good Samaritan, the one who comes to us on the road of life where we lie stricken and wounded and left for dead: he comes to where we are and has compassion on us, binds up our wounds and takes care of us. He is the physician, the healer and the saviour of our human nature. To speak of Jesus as ‘saviour’ is to speak of him as our healing and health. He is the one in whom we are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven; the one in whom and through whom human nature as it is meant to be is revealed and made available to us, if only we will look to him and believe. ‘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’.

According to Jewish belief the Son of Man would be ‘lifted up’ to GOD’s Throne at the final judgement. However, the lifting up which Jesus refers to has generally been understood by Christians to be a reference to the Crucifixion and to his going to the Father. As the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent and were healed of their afflictions, so for Christians – it is by contemplating the mystery of the Cross and by allowing it to enter into the depths of our own inner being that we find that this Son of Man is not only our Judge but also our Healer and our Saviour.

For although ‘we were dead through the trespasses and sins in which (we) once lived...GOD (has) made us alive together with Christ...and (has) raised us up with him and (has) seated us with him in the heavenly places’.

As the serpent was lifted up as a sign and means of healing and salvation, so Jesus was ‘lifted up from the earth’ that he might ‘draw all people to (himself)’.

In him the promise, foreseen by the prophet, is fulfilled.

‘Look to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth’.

It is the Lord who speaks.

Eric Simmons CR