Numbers 21:4-9 | John 3:14-21
The story of the snakes in the book of numbers is one of those that I’m pretty sure we would never read in Church if it were not for the fact that Jesus made reference to it in what is probably the most famous passage of the Bible – his conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3. But because of that connection we find it in our lectionary, almost apologetically, as a sort of background, and explanation of what Jesus was talking about in those verses just before his famous “for God so loved the world”.
But perhaps it might be wise to ask why it is that Jesus chose this somewhat obscure and, let’s face it, rather unpleasant story to lead into his great and profound declaration of God’s love? Was it just a play on the words “lifted up”, as if to hint that Jesus already, even at the start of his ministry, knew just the form of death that he would face? Or was there something in the story of Moses, the people, and the snakes that Jesus wanted to be in the minds of those who heard him, and that John thought important to be in the minds of those who read his account?
Obviously you’ll have guessed that I rather think that it is the latter – that this juxtaposition of stories is no accident; that there is something of the story of the snakes that finds an echo in – or perhaps, is a pre-echo of – the salvation that Jesus described himself as bringing.
So what is it about these snakes? There role in the story as told by the author of the book of Numbers is complex and rather ambiguous. For a start, of course, the snake represents the enemy from the earliest days of the Jewish tradition; the tempter, the one who leads people astray.
And here too, the snakes are certainly an enemy – they are venomous, they bit the people, and people die.
But at the same time, the snakes are the tool of God: God sent them among the people as judgement for their rebellion. And then as if to just make it more complex still, the snake is turned into the symbol of the solution – the sign by which the people can be saved (by God) from the very judgement that the snakes were sent (by God) to bring.
The snakes are the judgement, the problem, and the solution, all rolled into one. And this is the image that Jesus chooses to apply to himself, when he comes to speak of salvation.
Which really brings home the central question of John chapter 3: a question which theologians, with a certain flair for pompous language, refer to as the question of “soteriogical necessity” – why, or from what, or for what, do we need to be saved?
Why do we need to be saved?
Now for some the answer to that is rather simple: we have sinned against God, God is just and so there must be consequences of our sins – a penalty, a punishment. Our need to be saved from the righteous anger of a just God; Jesus saves us by taking the penalty upon himself.
And that is an image used in the scriptures – indeed, it fits easily with the story from Numbers. God, the just judge, sends the snakes as deserved punishment; but also sends a way that the people can turn back to God, and avoid the deserved consequences of their sin. I have no problem with that sort of description of salvation, except to the extent that it becomes the only description of salvation.
For Jesus’ description of judgement and of salvation in the passage from John offers a rather different flavour to that judicial, legal, understanding. He doesn’t offer us as image of judgement a just judge, measuring us against a standard and declaring the rightful punishment.
Instead he offers the image of light.
this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light
Light has come into the world. And those who see the light, those who experience its brightness, have a choice. They can believe in the goodness of the light, they can walk into it, proud of what is good an noble in themselves, and prepared for what is broken and rotten to be seen and dealt with; or they can hide in the shadows. There is no judge saying ‘you may enter the light, but you, you are not worthy’. There is just the light, and the choice: come to the light, or choose the darkness.
The light doesn’t judge; it just reveals. The judgement is one we bring on ourselves.
Hear Jesus words again: he doesn’t say “those who do not believe will be judged”. This is not “believe in me, or you will be subject to judgement”. He says “those who do not believe are already judged”.
Those who do not believe in the goodness of the light, those who do not believe in the love of God that is fundamentally about saving, giving life; they have judged themselves. They have seen the light, and said no.
Our deepest need for salvation, it seems to me, is not to be saved from God’s anger because of the things that we have done wrong – for God is far, far more ready to forgive than we are to receive that forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is free, ready, available to all who will choose to step into the light and see that they need to be forgiven. To be saved from God’s anger is not a great need – it is a given.
Our need to be saved is not the need to be saved from God’s judgement; it is the need to be saved from our desire to hide the truth about ourselves from that judgement. To be saved from our preference for the darkness that hides who we are and what we have done. To be saved from our denial of our guilt, our resistance of anything that might show us as less than perfect.
people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed
Every one of us has things in us, things in our lives, of which we are rightly, nobly, proud. Things we’ve done that are simply good. Times we’ve made the right decision, done the hard but good thing, gone the extra mile, taken trouble to help, given of ourselves out of love, stood for justice. Every one of us has these crowns, these jewels, these nuggets of gold, that we are, in a good sense, proud of. We probably wouldn’t make a thing of them – that would seem to devalue them somehow – but if someone quietly said to us “that was good, that thing you did” we would accept the praise – humbly, but knowing it was fair.
And every one of us also has our parts of darkness and shadow. The things we hope no one will ever know. The decisions we’ve taken that we are ashamed to think of, that we wish could be forever left behind.
We all carry with us, in us, the gold and the shadow. The life giving, and the life destroying.
And this is the judgement Jesus speaks of in John chapter 3: when the light comes, do we believe that that light is the light of life, and not of condemnation. Do we believe that the Son of God came not to condemn but that we might have eternal life? Do we believe that the love of God is big enough to take our darkness and burn it away?
Or would we seek to hide our shadow side, even from God?
Lent is traditionally a time of reflection, of self examination. But self examination all too easily drifts into self flagellation. I want to challenge each of us, in the remaining weeks before Easter, to be honest, at least with ourselves and God, about our shadow. Not to embrace it, not to be proud of it, but to recognise and acknowledge it. To say “yeah, that is part of me too”.
If we choose to hide our shadows from God, then we judge ourselves, condemn ourselves to continue to live with pain and guilt and shame.
Come into the light, and all will be truly seen. An uncomfortable, embarrassing, terrifying thought.
But the gospel of Easter is that there is nothing so dark, nothing so mean or ugly, that Jesus will not take into himself, nothing that, when brought into the light, will cause God to turn away from you.
In the light of God, there is hope, acceptance, forgiveness, and even the power to change.
For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Not saved from judgement – but saved by judgement. Saved by the light which shows us our right and our wrong; the same light that will burn away that wrong and leave us to walk in the day, in the freedom of knowing that we are known, and even so, we are loved.