Number 21:4-9+Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22+Ephesians 2:1-10+John 3:14-21
Almost six years ago in a tour of the seven churches mentioned in the Revelation to John in what is now Turkey, we – Tim, me, and several traveling companions – visited the northernmost of those ancient cities, Pergamum. One of the ruins we visited here was the Asklepion, the temple for healing, named after Asclepius, son of Apollo and considered by the Greeks to be the god of healing and medicine. It is the rod of Asclepius that we see symbolizing doctors’ offices and pharmacies even today.
I can’t help thinking about Asclepius when we hear the story of Moses and the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus refers to it at the beginning of our gospel lesson for this morning, but is also the lesson from the Hebrew scriptures that we did not read. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for a long time. They have become like those children who, on long trips, are either hungry or thirsty or bored or need to use that restroom…over and over again. On this occasion, God gets tired of listening to these hangry people and sends poisonous snakes among them to deal with them. It is one of the more bizarre episodes in scripture. We don’t usually think of God as one who sends death, but here we are. Moses, being Moses, intercedes on their behalf, so God relents and tells Moses to make a snake and mount it on a pole so that when the people who have been bitten look on it, they will be cured. And it works. This bronze serpent is the antivenin for the snake bite.
I don’t know enough of the history of medical science to know when there developed an understanding that a tiny bit of the poison that infected a person could be the cure, as well. I would not have wanted to be the guinea pig for that little experiment. That bastion of unreliable research, Wikipedia, says that it wasn’t until the late 19th century, but it’s curious that this bronze snake of Moses had curative properties and that the rod Asclepius, that god of healing, would have a snake wrapped around it, too. If anyone can explain this to me with greater reliability, I’d be happy to hear it.
And all this brings us to Jesus. We are right in the middle of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus who came to Jesus under cover of darkness because he was a respectable Jew, a Pharisee, and couldn’t risk being seen with Jesus. But he’s curious, and so he comes. This morning, we hear Jesus refer to that bronze serpent of Moses:
And 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. For 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. (John 3:14-16)
Look upon Jesus lifted high on the cross, and escape the sin that leads to death.
But wait, you say. It was snakes that caused the death in the wilderness, not sin. Wasn’t it? The people of Israel may have escaped from pharaoh, but were they truly free? Given the number of times they look back longingly to the safety and security and steady supply of food and drink in Egypt, I’m not sure they were. Moving into the unknown, wandering and wandering and feeling no closer to the destination can be a scary thing. The poison of the snakes was just a physical manifestation of the poison of fear and uncertainty, fear and uncertainty that can lead to death. Following Moses, the one to whom God spoke, was the way to life and freedom if the people would trust that promise that God had made.
Jesus frames this fear and uncertainty in language of darkness and light, inviting people to come out of the shadows, because in him, in that radiance, nothing is hidden. We are not created for condemnation but for salvation.
But God, who is rich in mercy, (we read in Ephesians) out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:4-8)
Enough with the death-dealing of fear and shame and guilt. God has freed us from all of that to glorify and enjoy God forever, as it says in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Enjoy God. How did so many of us come the conclusion that we were to be afraid or mistrust the One who created us and called us good?
Although it has been a while, I have made several retreats at Holy Cross Monastery on West Park, NY, right on the Hudson River. It’s a beautiful and peaceful setting for some time away to pray and reflect. When you enter, just above the door there is a plaque that says “Crux est mundi medicina” – the cross is medicine for the world. More than Asclepius’s rod, more than Moses’s bronze serpent. It is the cross in which we find our health and our salvation.