Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy
There are snakes in the camp. In the kitchen sink. In the bathtub. In the beds. Under the blankets. Snakes! What a story. This is no bedtime story for children. This is even more awful than your mother teaching you to pray, “And if I should die before I wake.” What? Die? You want me to pray about dying before morning?
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone reports that a black person had “to watch his step” all the time. A group of white people could show up around any corner at any moment and for a perceived insult they could get a rope, throw it over an oak tree limb, and lynch the black man.
There should be a warning sign at the edge of the wilderness: “Watch your step.” Once I went squirrel hunting in a forest where the undergrowth was all palmettos. These broad-leaf, hard leaf plants make a sound that reminds one of a rattlesnake shaking its rattles. And the woods were full of rattlesnakes. We wore protective shin guards on our legs in case we were bitten by a rattler. So I know a little bit about watching my step.
The snake on a stick was a one-time magical cure. The lamb on the cross was God’s answer to evil and the salvation of the world. The snake lifted up in the wilderness is a weird story; Jesus lifted up on the cross gets mixed reviews.
We have snake stories on the margins of our faith. In the mountains of Appalachia, there are churches where the preachers handle poisonous snakes to prove their faith in God. These sincere Christians read Mark 16:18 which says, “They will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” They gave a literal interpretation to this verse and snake handling was born. Dennis Covington, a New York Times reporter, wrote a fascinating book, Salvation on Sand Mountain, about a snake-handling preacher, Glenn Summerford and his congregation, the Church of God with Signs Following.
One night in 1991 Summerford got drunk, put a gun to his wife Darlene’s head and forced her to put her hand into a box full of rattlesnakes. He was convicted and after he went to prison, the church kept meeting. Covington attended the first service and said that there was no preacher and no snakes. A lay person stood to give the sermon. He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” and sat down. Now, that’s a short sermon. But even among snake handlers there’s the basic truth of the gospel: God loves the world.
Mostly we figure this is just crazy, but still we want to know what snakes are doing in the camp of the people of God. The text never actually says that God sent the snakes because the people were complaining about Moses, but as a preacher I am tempted to make the connection. But I don’t linger over the thought of being able to say, “At my command bring the snakes.” A church full of snakes ought to be sufficient cause to discourage complaining about the preacher.
Maybe God did send the snakes; maybe not. Maybe it is a magical story, a misplaced pagan story that found its way into our Bible. Either way, there’s truth we should not miss.
Maybe the story reminds us that we only come to life when we stare in the face of what could kill us. Montaigne once wrote an essay, “To do philosophy is to learn to die.” I like that but I don’t think God’s intention here is to make us more philosophical. An entire world of philosophers would probably bring civilization to a halt. Who would build the bridges, construct the buildings, and make the roads if we were all philosophers? Thank God there are so many people who do not have a philosophical gene in their brains.
So what happened? Moses prayed and asked God to get rid of the snakes. Instead of getting rid of the snakes, God told Moses to make a replica of a poisonous serpent, set it on a pole, and if anyone bitten by a serpent looked upon the snake they would live.
“Look at the snake on a stick and live.” It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Our survival depends upon learning how to trust God’s mercy enough to look up instead of down. Why are so many of you are looking down this morning, down on yourself, down on the present, down on the future?
Moses tears around the camp, shouting “Look at the bronze snake and live!” The snake on the pole stands for death – all the death in the world – but God turns it into life. I hear Jesus saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, and whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Later, Jesus says, “I will be lifted up from the earth and draw all people to me.” We must look on this man’s death if we are to have life. God turns death into life. That’s good enough for me.
Look! Look! And be saved! There’s more to looking than meets the eyes. We can’t merely look at the cross as if we are tourists at a Bible museum, a Creation museum, or an Ark Encounter. The problem with museums with biblical themes is we become tourists, spectators. When a church becomes a museum, a sacred depository for past spiritual glory, there’s not much church left. Jesus has left the building, hung a mourner’s wreath on the door. The glory of God has departed and the name of the place is now Ichabod. Like the psalmist intones, “And God went no more to Shiloh.”
The Israelites saved the snake on a stick. They packed it with the luggage and carried it to the Promised Land. It shows up in the 7th century in the house of God as an idol. It’s become a museum piece. There’s no telling what God’s people will cling to and drag around after it has lost all practical usefulness – a literal creation, an inerrant Bible, a script of doctrinal answers, a male clergy. God gives us gifts and we, subtle that we are, turn them into idols. Look at our idols and be lost!
Looking is not just seeing. Hearing in the Bible means listening and obeying; looking means seeing and participating. We have to participate in the cross. This is why museums have no real spiritual value, there’s just a repeated script of a story of creation that has been literalized. There are images and words but there’s no life because there’s no participation.
That God would save the world with a son on a pair of sticks on a garbage pile is no stranger than a snake on a stick bringing healing. God has made God’s mark on the world of death with a Son on a pair of sticks. Tilt the cross to the side and it becomes an X – it becomes God’s mark. And as the atheist Strang tells his son in the Broadway play Equus, “The cross can mark a man for life.” And so it is. We are to bear the mark of the cross, the sign of the cross, saying to all who meet us on the road that we belong to Jesus. We participate in his life, death, and resurrection. We are his people.
Looking happens in two directions. We look within and we look at Jesus on the cross. Both ways of seeing are hard. Sometimes we don’t want to see what we have become. Paul does this two-way looking for us in the Ephesians text. Looking inward, we see that we were dead in trespasses and sins. Looking out we see “but God was merciful.”
We have eyes that do not see! We look and see nothing. Are you able to see those hidden images in those colorful squares? The instructions say to move the picture close to your eyes and then move it away. You then see the surprise image. “I GOT NOTHING!”
Hazel Motes, tortured character in Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, sees “Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” This ominous Jesus haunts young Motes. Raised by a hell fire and brimstone fundamentalist preacher, Motes is dragged along as his grandfather preacher makes his circuit in East Tennessee. “Like a drill, his grandfather bores religion into Motes.” Never able to make peace with Jesus, Motes tries to violently reject him. He often stood on the hood of his rattletrap automobile, parked outside a movie house and preached sermons filled with anti-Christian vitriol: “I preach the Church without Christ. I’m a member and preacher of the church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”
O’Connor shows us a man haunted by Christ, a man who looks and can’t stop looking, a man who tries to get away from Christ and yet is drawn near to Jesus in a real search for Jesus. The cross of Christ is lodged so deeply within Hazel’s gut that the more he tries to deny it, the more it scores him from the inside out.” Out of all this struggle Motes faces the folly of his denials of Jesus. He blind himself by putting quicksand in his eyes, wrapping himself in barbed wire and dropping glass in his shoes. A misfit Christian ascetic, he stumbles into a ditch and dies. O’Connor wants us to know that looking at Christ is a matter of life and death. She forces us to see that the grace-infused distortions that serious submission to the cross of Jesus can provoke. No wonder we avert our eyes.
We are more likely to be be turned off by O’Connor’s exaggerated tales, the snake on a stick, and a savior on a cross. In the dramatic series, House of Cards, President Frank Underwood is in a church, speaking with a priest, and he says something that resonates with his power-hungry character. Looking at a large crucifix, he says, “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear. But him, he turns to the crucifix . . . . Love. That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.” To the brutal, the powerful, the Machiavellian, the love of God doesn’t make sense.
Look at the cross and participate in its suffering. That is faith. That is life-giving. Jesus is lifted up on high, exalted to the right hand of the Father, and then he draws us to him. Being lifted up we have access to the throne of grace where we may receive mercy. When Paul reaches for words to describe what happens on the cross he puts it in terms of life and death: “You were dead . . . . But God who is rich in mercy . . . . made us alive together with Christ.” Then, as if he can’t wait for the punch line, Paul injects, “by grace you have been saved.” The words tumble forth as a cascade of good news. For by grace you have been saved through faith.”
To look and believe are inseparable. We must see that the cross is not empty. Jesus died on the cross. The empty cross favored by Protestants has its own peculiar problems, but neither can a crucifix ensure we will avoid looking on the cross as a spectator. We can have a crucifix and still think that the cross has nothing to do with us only something to do with God.
We become spectators instead of participants. This is a particular problem around a church. At church you are taught to listen to sermons and music. You critique, you observe, you listen. At church you are taught to believe certain doctrines, and you then decide which doctrines are correct. We end up having discussions that have little to do with what it means to participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are a people stuck in the mode of believing this or that about God and defending our beliefs against those who have different beliefs.
We are not allowed to be passive spectators only active participants. Are we ready to say with St. Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
There is an alternative to being captives to death. We are invited to not only look on the cross and live, but to eat the bread and drink the wine which becomes for us Christ’s body and blood.
We are a people bronzed and lifted up by God so that the world may see there is an alternative to being captives of death. We are free to be the light of the world. No longer frightened by insecurity we can embrace the outcast and the enemy, be free to walk the wilderness without fear of snakes. Everything is possible to those who look to him who is the eternal dispenser of freedom and life.