Snakes, Snakes, Snakes
4th Sunday in Lent
Grace Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
This Wednesday is St. Patrick’s Day. In our Christian history:
“Patrick is one of the best-known of the missionary saints. Born to a Christian family in Britain around the year 389, he was captured as a teenager by raiders, taken to Ireland, and forced to serve as a herdsman. After six years he escaped and found his way to a monastery community in France. Ordained a bishop in 432, he made his way back to Ireland, where he spent the rest of his long life spreading the Gospel and organizing Christian communities. He strongly defended the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in a time when it was not popular to do so. His literary legacy includes several prayers and hymns still used in the church today.”
It is said that St. Patrick used the shamrock as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity as the young sprig has three leafs and is abundant in Ireland. Legend also exists that he drove all the snakes off the Emerald Isle. But, since that time, it has been proven that no snakes have ever existed in Ireland. New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica also lack any indigenous snakes and none have migrated across the oceans to take up residence.
Serpents and snakes, however, do exist throughout our Christian history. The account of the Garden of Eden had the Devil take on the form of a serpent to tempt Adam and Eve. Jacob’s last words to his sons spoke of Dan as ‘a serpent by the way, a viper by the path’ as a judge of one of the tribes of Israel. [Gen 49:16, 17] The staffs of Aaron and Moses became serpents to swallow up the magician’s serpents of the Pharaoh.
This morning, we have serpents in our Old Testament reading in Numbers and in our Gospel reading of John. The Gospel reading ties the Christ to the bronze serpent made by Moses and set high upon a standard, a wooden pole for all to see. That serpent certainly had great meaning to the former slaves of Egypt, the children of Israel.
I spent three months in a remote area of Panama helping our missionaries. There were really only two large cities in Panama when I was there. One was Panama City and the other, Colon. Panama City was on the west coast, or Pacific side of the isthmus and Colon on the east, or Atlantic side. The stretch between the two is only about 45 miles on a two-lane highway.
Just outside and west of the town of Colon, was a family who were members of the church. This family owned what they called a ‘farm’ but it was unlike any farm I was used to seeing. There were no great fields of grain or rows of orchard trees. The jungle surrounded the main house and outbuildings of the farm and there was a half-acre of cleared field with grass quite like a lawn with a few fruit trees.
This was a very small farm and the crops were scattered about throughout the nearby jungle. A person had to know the land and the hidden paths to get to the small patches of yuca plants whose grub roots are harvested like potatoes. Or to find the copse of Mango or Grapefruit trees. Coconut trees were everywhere, but the people there were not very interested in them.
One day, I was walking with a young neighbor boy through the jungle to a large swimming hole in the river that ran by the farm. He and I were trying to communicate as best as we could with my little Spanish and his little English. He was carrying a walking stick as we searched for the path in the trees that led to the water. Suddenly a snake slithers out from behind one of the trees right into our path!
The twelve-year-old boy immediately started beating the snake with his walking stick. Very shortly, the snake was dead. The young man grinned from ear to ear as he held up his vanquished foe. I asked him why he killed the snake and he looked at me like I was an idiot. He said, “It was poisonous.”
I asked, “How do you know it was poisonous?”
He looked at the dead serpent and said, “It was probably poisonous.”
With such experiences I can well imagine the fear of the Israelites in the wilderness of rock and sagebrush. Imagine setting up your camp only to find a snake in the woodpile, or in the blankets of your bed. How would you protect your children as they wandered about the camp? On top of this, the people hungered and thirsted while surviving on manna and later, quail.
The people started to complain about their situation. This was a lack of confidence by the people of Israel. It was a loss of faith in the God of heaven and earth. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the all powerful God who brought his people out of Egypt and fed them with bread from heaven! Yet still the people complained. ‘We had it better in Egypt’ they would say. How could anyone say we had a better life when we were slaves?
It doesn’t make sense. How can a person honestly say a life of captivity, torture and pain is better than freedom? Was this a form of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them?
Sounds sort of silly doesn’t it? Why would anyone give up a good thing in order to go back to what was killing them? We think that in our enlightened day and age, that only some person or persons with a weak will or easily manipulated psyche might fall into this devilish trap.
Look around you. This kind of thinking is the majority in this world. Here are a few examples.
- A woman would do anything to protect her child no matter what the child’s age; if an infant, she would be even more protective. Yet what do we hear? ‘It’s my body and my right to do anything I want with it; including killing my unborn baby.’
This sounds insane doesn’t it? This sounds like a person who is psychologically unbalanced to say the very least. We are being tortured by a fiery serpent who poisons our minds and we defend him.
- A person naturally wishes to be healthy, strong and of sound mind. Yet what is happening every day? ‘Life is depressing and boring, drugs are the only thing that makes it tolerable. It’s fun! It makes me feel good.’
We are asking to inject death into our veins. We lie, steal and even murder to get that magical substance that kills us and we will attack anyone who stands in our way.
- A man would not have his wife and children nakedly exposed to anyone. Yet what is available to billions of people on this planet? Pornography at the speed of light into the privacy of every home and with the mobility of every phone.
Many who promote these sites hide behind a distorted twisting of our first amendment rights to free speech. Are we at the point of Sodom and Gomorrah? Are we offering up our very children to the hordes of lascivious deviants of our society?
Now you may be sitting there agreeing with me. You may be saying to yourselves, ‘That’s right pastor. It’s just shocking that there are those types of people out there. I’m glad I’m not one of them!’ Before you pointing your fingers in your own self piety, I encourage you to look into your heart with all honesty. Take that moment for self examination and ask yourself if you have not sinned.
Maybe you drink too much. Gambling? Gossiping? Spending money you don’t have? Maybe you ignore your responsibilities at work or in the home. Do you raise your children in what is right or do they do what they want? It is time to face reality, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23]
The fiery serpents are everywhere and we are being bitten with their burning venom. We are surely going to die in our sin. We must turn away from our sin and return to God. In Him we will be cleansed of the poison of our sin and made healthy and new.
But we are weak. We cannot come to him through our reason, our minds cannot understand what is necessary to be righteous in His sight. We cannot come to him by sheer force of will, because our very bodies are like an anchor dragging us down and we cannot abandon our flesh without dying.
Moses, by the command of God, lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole. Those children of God who had lost their faith and lost their confidence in their savior could now look upon the serpent and live. They did not have to do any work of sacrifice or piety to be saved. They did the only thing they could do, which was to lift their eyes, have faith and believe.
We have been wandering in the wilderness much longer than the Israelites. For thousands of years the children of God have wandered in their wilderness of sin. In this wilderness are the serpents of our sin. We are bitten and we suffer. How many of us have died before we cried out to God to save us? This time we will not be saved by a brass snake on a stick.
This time God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ to be lifted up on a pole. A cross big enough to be seen above the barren earth. A cross where we as sinners can lift up our eyes, believe and be saved. This is all we can do. We are so sick with our sin that we cannot raise ourselves up to touch our Lord and be healed. We can only use our feeble strength to look upon our Savior.
Thankfully, we are saved by the grace of God and not by anything we do. Grace alone through Christ alone. As the Apostle Paul states:
“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in 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.” [Eph 2:4-7]
Those in the wilderness who looked upon the serpent and believed, lived. They continued in health in their lives until their final day. We now look upon the Son of God. A God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son to be killed in our place. Whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life.
Whoever believes is not condemned. Light has come into the world. We were in darkness but now we are in the light that is Jesus Christ. Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. [John 3:19-21]
God tells us He doesn’t like the snake that is the Devil. He doesn’t like the burning sin and the eternal death that the old Serpent brought into the world. God said, “I know what it takes to love you.” Because of this love, this grace, He sent His only Son into the world.
Jesus Christ banished sin, death and the devil from his creation. We no longer fear the great serpent that lured us into sin so many eons ago. That serpent and all his minions have been driven into the abyss forever.
Welcome to the love of God in a new life through Christ.