On What Saves
March 14, 2021
John 3: 11-15
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.
Numbers 21: 7-9
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 the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Today’s sermon is titled On What Saves Us. I learned a new word yesterday: ophidiophobia, meaning fear of snakes. I grew up in North Carolina where there were poisonous snakes on land and in the water. Children there learn early how to identify a copperhead that likes to hide under piles of just about anything and the water moccasin that will drape itself from branches. It seemed that growing up every child claimed to know someone who knew someone who was out fishing and had a water moccasin drop into their boat from above or jump into their boat from the water.
Thirty-six percent of adults in America list snakes as their greatest fear. I wouldn’t say snakes are my greatest fear, but they are high on my list. I have always wondered why the symbol for medicine features a snake coiled around a staff, much like the snake and staff described in our reading for today that Moses fashioned. Perhaps it was this story that influenced the Greek, thousands of years later. The Greek god Asclepius was a healer and in temples built to Asclepius, the ill and dying would come for treatment. In these temples, snakes were regarded as an honor to the god, probably because of the snakes’ tendency to shed it’s skin. Non-poisonous snakes were encouraged to crawl freely around the floor of these healing temples.
It is a powerful symbol, the symbol for medicine, known as the rod of Asclepius. The staff symbolizes a stabilizing force that can, quite literally, give strength where strength is lacking. On every ambulance the symbol is featured…a single snake wrapped around a single staff, in the middle of a six-pointed star we call “the star of life.”
We put great faith in medicine, as we should, in my opinion. Medicine is an ever-evolving science, just like religion is an ever-evolving practice. With any dynamic system though, there is risk. When we seek treatment for an illness, we are required to open ourselves, to trust, and to try. The same holds true for religious practice as well. If we really practice what our teacher teaches us, we are required to open ourselves, to trust, and to try to let love be the force that leads us.
We all know how difficult it can be to open up ourselves to healing. To open ourselves to healing, we must face some of our deepest fears: our fear of pain, our fear of illness, our fear of being dependent on others, and (the big one) our fear of death. We question, “Why is this happening to me? Where is God in all this?”
These are the same questions the ancient Hebrews were asking, but they were not just asking these questions in the darkest hours of night as they lie awake with worry, they were shouting these questions in the light of day. They were scared; they were angry; they were tired; they wanted answers from Moses and they wanted answers from God and this is not the first time, either.
This story from the book of Numbers is the fifth in a row where the Hebrew people are truly suffering. It begins with a plague, then a drought, followed by a war with the Canaanites, starvation from lack of food and the people have had it. They have no home and they blame Moses for all their sufferings. Just when they think it could not get worse, here come the snakes. Remember, these people are not living in houses. These people have no defense; they are about as vulnerable as can be and they are terrified. I imagine Moses is terrified, too. We have all seen with our own eyes that an angry crowd is capable of unspeakable atrocities.
What does Moses do? He prays, then he knows what he must do. Moses makes a sculpture of a poisonous snake with the tell-tale triangular shaped head, I am sure. Moses takes the chance to turn this thing around. They have come too far to let it all fall apart now. Moses creates an image of what is now the people’s greatest fear. If they are bitten they are to look at the snake to be healed. Apparently, it worked and it worked so well that a few hundred years later, we learn in the book of 2 Kings that the King had the bronze snake destroyed because people were making it the center of their lives.
We are offered this story today as part of a progression we have been following. We began a few weeks ago with covenantal promises and then revisited the role of the law last week with the gift of the ten commandments. The promises and the law helped to shape an entire culture. The promises and the law helped to turn the hearts and minds of the people to God, but the promises and the law were not enough, especially in times of crisis like the Hebrews were enduring, times of famine, drought, war, deadly plague, and poisonous snakes. The people needed something more and in this instance, the image of what they feared most held the promise of deliverance from death.
Our modern day equivalent may well be the images of all those little bottles of vaccine moving through the manufacturing assembly line that we see featured nearly every day now. Within the vaccine is a snippet of messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA) that carries the instructions for how to build the spike proteins that allow the coronavirus to latch onto our own cells. Once the vaccine is in our bodies, the mRNA helps some of our cells to actually grow these spikes, then our bodies realize those spikes do not belong and our immune system begins to dismantle them. From then on, our immune system knows how to deal with the spike proteins. What once allowed the virus to, quite literally, take hold is what we use as a remedy. The science of medicine uses this all the time with antibiotics and homeopathics. Even the Greek word pharmakon means both “medicine” and “poison.”
This story of the bronze snake that saved the people from sickness and death is referenced thousands of years later by Jesus; Jesus compared himself to that bronze serpent, saying, “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.” This is the story we are approaching, the story of Jesus offering himself up to those in power, those occupying Romans that would sentence him to a public execution. Jesus speaks of belief and eternal life; it sounds hopeful. There is a deeper truth beneath these words. The deeper truth is foreshadowed in the words but the deeper truth is revealed in what actually happens. Jesus dies and death can not hold him. This is the good news; this is the gospel. There is a force more powerful than death.
In closing I want to return to that image that represents health and healing, that image from thousands of years ago, the snake and the staff at the center of the blue star of life. Look for it and you will see it on every ambulance, every EMT uniform, on highway signs and on road maps as a guide to where one can find help and care when one needs it most. We have another star of life in our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. The infinite love he embodies can heal us, even when we are not cured. The love he embodies is stronger than death. In that infinite love we find eternal life. So be it. Amen.
Beloved God, we can not exactly know Your ways, but we can feel Your grace in the sensations that most capture our attention. In both delight and despair, we become focused in ways that bring us closer to whatever You really are. Save us, most Holy One, from the unfeeling; save us from autonomy; save us from ourselves. Help us to be in this world without losing our hope and faith in humanity and inspire us to find our role in being solutions to the problems we find most troubling. For those who are in pain, Lord, I pray for comfort. For those who are in their final hours, I pray for assurance and peace. In the ways we are anxious and stressed, Lord, I pray we remember to breathe and remember to be kind and remember the power of prayer in bringing a sense of calm. Guide us, I pray, in expanding the ways we worship out and into every aspect of our lives. Remind us, Beloved, to let thankfulness for our many blessings be ever-present in our hearts. One of the gifts we have received is this prayer that Jesus gave his disciples so long ago… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction: Beannacht Blessing by John O’Donohue
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you,
An invisible cloak to mind your life.