I do not like snakes.
I do not like the way that snakes move, I do not like the way they look, I do not like the way they slither around and sneak up on you when you’re not looking, I do not like the often unacknowledged fact that snakes are secretly out to kill all humans and take over the world.
This world might be a beautiful and diverse place, but I, for one, would be just as happy if it did not include snakes.
Some suggest that snakes are beautiful and do great things like keep rodents at bay; others suggest that snakes are more afraid of humans than we are afraid of them; still others suggest that snakes are peaceful and gentle creatures.
To all such people, I say, you’re out of minds.
Snakes are not our friends and even the ones that try to convince us that they are supposedly harmless – the garter snake variety, for example – are actually just decoys, trying to warm us all up to their nefarious presence among us so that their venomous kin can play on our innocent naïvete and attack us.
When I was a kid, I was never particularly bothered by the possibility of monsters under the bed, but what sometimes kept me awake, late into the night, was the troubling fact that it was difficult to know, with absolute certainty, that a massive king cobra had not quietly snuck into my room and taken up residence under the bed. Moreover, I was simultaneously conscious that it was difficult to figure out how to check if there was a cobra there without exposing myself to the possibility of being bitten if I leaned over the side of the bed to investigate – since the cobra was, in all likelihood, poised and ready to strike.
I take some consolation in knowing that I am not alone in this entirely rational and perfectly justifiable dislike of these abominable legless creatures. The ancient biblical storytellers tried to warn us, right from the second creation account, in Genesis, that snakes are bad news. After all, which of God’s wonderful creatures is described as the most cunning of creatures, who placed questions about God’s goodness into the minds of the early humans? A snake.
Moreover, centuries later, John the Baptist – and Jesus Christ himself — compared their opponents to “snakes” and to “a brood of vipers”. Clearly, in Jesus and John the Baptist’s minds, therefore, one of the best ways to describe a bunch of the bad guys was as a bunch of snakes.
Which was, I believe, quite insightful on the part of Jesus and John. The bad guys are snakes, and snakes are the bad guys.
Today’s suggested reading from the book of Numbers invites us to reflect upon the dangerous nature of these slithering entities. The passage is set during the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness. Overcome by hunger and thirst, the people had started to grumble about the difficulties that they were being forced to endure. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
One cannot help but sympathize with the Israelites – Moses, Miriam and Aaron had made some pretty great promises to the enslaved people of Egypt. Follow us, they said; God has sent us to you to set you free, they said; we’re going to lead you to freedom, they said; we’re on our way to a land flowing with milk and honey, they said.
But what the people were experiencing was something less than a land flowing with milk and honey.
Rather, what they were experiencing was hunger, and thirst.
But it got worse. In verse 6, we read “then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” Having been promised freedom, milk and honey, what they had actually come to experience was hunger, thirst…and snakes.
I’d be grumbling too.
We might ponder the strange dynamics in the story – and why God is depicted as acting in such a merciless and cruel way – but regardless of how we understand God’s motivations, what is interesting for us to notice is what God chose to send in order to exact such terrible judgement.
Snakes. Poisonous snakes. Which only serves to remind us that even God, and the Israelites, would agree that snakes are not our friends.
Both in this passage and in so many other parts of religious history and world literature, snakes are one of humanity’s most enduring images of something that is to be feared, something that is deadly, something that is to be avoided, if at all possible.
Snakes represent a threat, something that is not to be embraced, something that should – quite rightly – fill us with dread.
But then something really strange happens in this story from Numbers 21.
Realizing the error of their grumbling ways, the people appeal to Moses to pray for them and to appeal to God on their behalf. In verse 7, we read, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”
And then things got really strange.
Moses was told to fashion a symbol, a totem, an image of a serpent, and put it on a pole, and prop up the pole. As verse 9 describes it, “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
It is a strange story, and one that we do well to ponder, not for a specifically historical description, but rather for the dynamics that the scene describes.
The image of a serpent, which had been experienced as a bringer of death and destruction, of suffering and danger, was suddenly transformed into a symbol of healing and hope. That which had been – rightly and wisely—feared became a symbolic reminder of God’s powerful, life-giving power.
And it is that transformation of an image – from dread and fear to hope and healing – that serves to remind us why this ancient story of snakes in the wilderness is suggested for our reflections during this season of Lent.
After all, the image at the very heart of Lent, after all, should provoke even more dread and fear within us than snakes do.
The cross was one of the most gruesome, torturous and vile images in all of human history. Most of us have become so accustomed to images of crosses adorning the walls of our churches and hanging in jewellery around our necks that we no longer realize just how horrendous the cross actually was.
Consider, after all, the horror that we would experience if any one of us, on our way home from church today, saw a group of angry people dragging an already beaten and bleeding person through the streets, and then we followed along after them, until we came to a place where they held the beaten man down long enough to strip him and drive nails through his hands and feet before roughly propping him up, still nailed to the wood, to bleed and gasp and eventually die. We would – rightly and wisely — be shocked, sickened and terrified. But that is what the cross actually was – a brutal tool of torture and execution.
Yet it is that very image the biblical narrative takes and transforms into one of this world’s most enduring and most powerful images of life and of hope.
So it was not just the image of snakes that are transformed by the power and presence of God. Everything gets turned around when God intervenes.
Years of wandering in the wilderness are transformed into one of the most transforming experiences of learning to trust in God.
Years of languishing in exile are transformed into a time to realize that God is with people in times of suffering, and is not confined to one solitary holy place but is sovereign over all things.
A manger in a dirty little cattle stall is transformed into the pedestal on which the incarnate Word enters reality.
Words and stories about a time when the poor begin to be lifted up and the powerful cast down from their thrones, and in which grief and mourning are signs of blessing and comfort, and in which hunger and sickness become opportunities for grace and glory and generosity to be revealed in this world become the foundation of a new vision of how God’s presence is to be witnessed in this world.
And, ultimately, a crude wooden cross upon which an innocent man is tortured and brutalized is suddenly transformed into the world’s most enduring and powerful sign of life and hope.
In the stories of Lent, as in the entire biblical narrative, everything gets turned upside down when God shows up. Which is good news.
And if a cross can become a symbol of hope, well, maybe there is hope for snakes too.
Consider, after all, the vision that the prophet Isaiah set before the eyes of the people, and consider the images that the prophet used to articulate that vision – we read that it will be a kingdom where the wolf shall live with the lamb, where the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling will dwell together and a little child shall lead them. A kingdom where the cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And…wait for it…where the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. Or as the NIV translates this verse, “the infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.”
In that peaceful kingdom, even snakes will be transformed.
We are invited to rest and to dwell in that vision of the world as God intends, and as it shall be. And when things do not align with that vision – when suffering and pain and grief and anger and hatred and injustice and oppression and evil and snakes and crosses warp our lives and block our vision – well, we are called to use our lives to change those realities, while at the same time resting and dwelling in faith, in the sure and certain knowledge that there is One who can take the worst that this world has to offer, and make it all work together for good.
It happened with the snakes in the wilderness. It happened on the cross of Jesus Christ.
And it can happen in our lives.
And so now, to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever, Amen.