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  • Writer's pictureDiana Wright

Jesus the Poison Serpent


11 MAR 2018

Christians can often recite three pieces of scripture from memory: the 23rd Psalm, usually in the King James version, the Lord’s prayer (Pater Noster) also King James and finally John 3:16. The latter is often recited as just that: John 3:16, ignoring the context in which it was written. Therein may lay the problem. We can either focus on the verse as expansive: salvation is there for the entire world and is not the exclusive providence of any group OR we can be contractive: salvation is there for those who personally accept Jesus as Lord and Savior in the way we believe.

To figure it all out, for there is no one way of looking at any piece of scripture, we need to go way back to Numbers and those stubborn children of God wandering around in the Sinai desert. For those of you who have children, were you ever exasperated with them? Did you ever think of them as spoiled and ingratiates? In truth, most of us and our own children were at some point exasperating. In the case of the Israelites we have the whiniest of the whiners. They did have food and water and for goodness sakes they had Moses. I don’t think it was just complaints that riled up God, it was the fact that they failed to live as the people of God and forgot God and all the good things done for them. They grew impatient, living for the moment, forgetting the past and not thinking of the future. Trust was lost. The poisonous snakes were not so much punishment as the price of abandoning God and perhaps trying to “go it alone.” How often do we, by our own actions, invite poisonous snakes to our side? Could our failure to deal with gun violence or climate change or even talk to our neighbor who is of another political view be inviting poison in our lives. What about greed? Perhaps the serpent on the staff, which among the heavenly host is a seraph, is a reminder that without God in our lives we remain ill and we die. God saves us. But it is also a reminder that God is all powerful and beyond our comprehension. As one person put it, God is not our safe and comfortable companion and one with whom we can snuggle up. We know we can complain TO God, for the psalms are full of complaints and laments, but we should not presume to complain ABOUT God.

The serpent on the staff hung around Israel, inside the temple, for a very long time. Like many things that linger, people forgot its meaning with the passage of time and went from being a reminder of the power and memory of God and the ability of God to heal, to being something that was worshipped in and of itself, an idol. For that reason, Hezekiah destroyed it hundreds of years later. He realized that the people, and that means us, need to remember and follow the God of the wilderness who is dangerous and unpredictable, but not capricious or unfaithful. By implication I do not believe that John 3:16 is a pass to heaven or and excuse not to remember the rest of the passage. This is not a passage that gives us the final answer, the solution. It is a passage that gives us a beginning. What if we were to think of this most famous of verses as not a ticket into heaven but a ticket to enter a new world, a world full of present danger but the real possibility of universal salvation for the entirety of creation?

Remember that it is Jesus is the one doing the talking in these verses; he is addressing Nicodemus, who has come to him at night, in the dark. In the dark he can not understand what it means to see the light and to be born again.

Jesus says it plainly to Nicodemus:

19-21 “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” (The Message)

It is not merely a matter of an assent or nod to Jesus saying I believe and a conversion experience is the beginning of your journey, not the end of your obligations. Without living into that journey you remain in the dark and remain part of the evil of the world.

As we journey through the remainder of Lent perhaps we can take a look at our own lives. I think you know when you are impatient. I need to start practicing patience in my life; it is not one of my gold star traits. But it is the bigger impatience that is the problem; the impatience with God. That impatience is experienced in many ways; thinking that God is not doing enough to bring peace and justice, not helping us stay afloat, rewarding the wicked and evil ones, allowing suffering and affliction of individuals and of peoples. If you think or feel or believe that, it is time for a Lenten re-do and time to turn to John 3:19-21. Let’s start flashing that at sporting events, along with Matthew 25, and let’s recite that every day.

St. Ignatius of Loyola told his followers to look back at the end of each day and decide what they had done that was good and what was bad. But more importantly he asked them to answer the question of where Christ had been in their life that day and if they couldn’t find him, what they needed to do differently to find Christ.

I think this method of examining one’s day and one’s life was a great gift to all of us and one that anyone can do; it does not require the instruction of a great theologian or the words of a preacher. It only requires we understand what Jesus brought to us in this world, not the next, and what is expected of us. Maybe, taken at its best, these passages tell us that Jesus offers us a better way but that for every person that way is unique and it is not my place to tell you how to worship or even how to perceive God. John 3:16 is not a one size fits all response to God; I personally believe that anyone who lives in what Jesus calls the light, that is justice towards all of creation, is “saved.” And I also believe, that at its best, it is telling us how to live life NOW, in community with God, our own self, and all of humankind and creation. It has nothing to do with what happens after death. As an Anglican I take a particular path; as an Episcopalian a branch of that (think of the Jesus Movement, Episcopal branch), and my path is further shaped by race, gender, location, history and who knows what other factors. It is my own and it is not your path. Yet we read in both Hebrew and Christian scripture about how to walk rightly with God: justice and mercy and steadfast love.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

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