It’s been a just a year since COVID19 lockdowns began. In person worship cancelled. People suddenly found themselves working remotely, sharing their table with their children who were taking virtual classes. People moved out of city to the suburbs. Remember the shortages of antibacterial wipes, Lysol, even toilet paper? Debates have raged about wearing masks, social distancing. The efficacy of vaccines. We witnessed an extremely combative and hostile political climate which added to the deep divisions in an already fragile nation. We endured profound social divisions, such as hate crimes against Asian Americans because China was blamed as the source of the outbreak. Racial tensions grew exponentially, arguments about sexual identity and gender exploded, and we are experiencing all sorts of reactions – schools in Manhattan are discouraging the use of “mom” “dad” for grownups, folks or family, and the teaching of the proper use of pronouns in an era of the awareness of gender fluidity. Who has heard of the recent fury over the six Dr. Seuss books (removed by the author’s estate) because of stereotyped images within the books? We are living in cancel culture where ghosting has become common – dropping people from your lives with whom you disagree – with no explanation, no warning, no recourse.
We are, clearly, in pivotal times. Times that call for courageous, faithful stance. Times that call for discernment and self-examination. Times that call for prayer, repentance and healing. Times that call for us to know what we stand for and why. Times that demand of us to reflect on our discontent, to ask ourselves what is more important – to feel right or be kind? If we care about matters of faith, if we care about the future of our church, indeed of our nation of our earth, then we will indeed get involved.
Our texts today remind us of a time where people were struggling with ongoing unrelenting tensions. The people of Israel have been traveling, led on detours for months on end, and they are fed up. Just like us, they had gotten to a point of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. They are hungry. They are thirsty. They have become impatient with God. They say there is no food or water, but in the next breath with disgust they say, “we detest this miserable food!” – referring to the manna and quail God has been faithfully providing for them for years. Thus was cancel culture displayed in the wilderness.
As a punishment for their endless complaining, God sends poisonous snakes to bite them, and many die. The people beg Moses to intercede, and he prays for them. God orders an interesting thing: He tells Moses to make a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole and anyone who looks up at this bronze serpent shall live. Why a serpent? Why not a lamb? Why not a lion? The image of the serpent is multi-layered: the serpent was feared and revered in the ancient world as they are today. Snakes were often a metaphor for sin, temptation and evil in the Bible: think no further than the form of the tempter in paradise. Yet snakes in popular culture were also symbols of fertility, snakes shed their skin thus they were symbols of new life and healing. Snake venom was believed to have curative powers. The icon of a serpent entwined around a staff is still familiar to us. The staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, is the symbol of the American Medical Association.
Yet God uses this challenging symbol. A snake. God declares that by looking up at this bronze image – an image people would clearly relate to as an idol of local cultures --the people would be healed. This image of the snake on the pole became so popular among the people of Israel that the Kings of Israel would ultimately mash this image to fight against idolatry.
God had a reason to use a snake – both to inflict punishment and to bring healing. To put the snake on a pole like this was a act of full exposure. Looking up to the bronze serpent exposed the sin of the people – looking up at this symbol was an admission of sin, and its defeat at the hand of God. The symbol is a reminder of where the true power lies. God was sending a message: look up and understand – God uses this image of death and use it to bring life, wholeness and healing to us. All they had to do was look beyond themselves, look beyond their sin, and turn to God. God teaches that the ongoing murmuring, resentments and complaints of the journey results in a poisoning of the spirit. The only cure is lifting up our eyes to the source of our pain, confess our sin and allow God to heal.
No wonder Jesus would relate to this story. The story of the bronze serpent is the story of Jesus himself. Jesus would identify with this serpent. Jesus took on the sin of humanity, Jesus became sin, as the serpent represents, and he endured the bite of death. Jesus on the cross exposes the sin of the world, and those that turn to him are healed.
Our scriptural texts warn us that constant complaining and bickering is poisonous and leads to spiritual death. Who hasn’t felt this poison in our veins, in one shape or another, given what we have lives through in recent history, even this past year? So, in this era of complaints, disagreements, struggles and fighting, we are asked to look away from this pit of serpents we have found ourself in. We are asked to look up, look beyond ourselves, our role in the murmuring and complaining. We are asked to look up to Jesus and know the love and forgiveness of God.
As we process the changes of this last years, these past twelve months, we are asked, where has the serpent struck? Where do you feel the bite? If we don’t find healing and renewal for ourselves, how can we hope to tell anyone who is hurting out in the world that Jesus matters? This is what we have to figure out. It isn’t an easy journey. We are not promised a comfortable journey. We are not even promised a journey full of success. What we are promised is we will be healed if we lift our eyes to Jesus.
. Gaze upon the one on the cross – the one who freely associated with all sinners the one who gazes at us with love. Let that love be our source of healing of all the pain, disappointment and grief and rage of this past year. Let us look up so we can engage our upside-down world – with this very love and promise of a better future for all.