Sermon on Numbers and John, including surprises about John 3:16 and the meaning of the Cross!

If there’s any reason to come to Bible study, it’s texts like these…

We won’t be able to get into the nitty gritty of everything in the next 10 minutes, but I do promise I’ll unpack some of the craziness of the snakes and Jesus on the cross to the best of my abilities.

If you want to talk more about this text or about issues relating to what you hear today, please don’t hesitate to call me, and we’ll get together and work through it together.

So before we get into revealing why on earth Jesus is compared to a bronzed poisonous snake, I want to share with you a quick story that demonstrates the principle that I believe both the book of Numbers and the Gospel of John are trying to demonstrate,
which is that sometimes, in order to heal, we need to take a closer look at what’s causing us pain.
A few weeks ago, my friend took action to investigate something that was causing her a lot of personal distress, her lack of sleep.

So she downloaded an application onto her phone that tracks how much sleep she gets.
It’s simple. She pushes a button when she goes to bed and when she wakes up.
The app also connects to a program that’s integrated with her watch to monitor how much she’s tossing and turning during the night.

Now she downloaded this, because she was feeling tired all the time and she thought she wasn’t sleeping well.
After a week of monitoring, it sent her a graph, and what she saw surprised her. It turns out that she’s actually sleeping quite soundly. The issue is, she’s just going to bed really really late.
Here, she thought she was being responsible. She was IN bed by 9 o’clock, but she was reading or looking at emails on her phone until much later.

Before she downloaded the app, she was blind to that reality.
But a simple graph helped her see where she was going wrong.

As a result of this new information, and her personal commitment to caring for herself, she’s slowly changing her habits. She’s increasingly getting more sleep and feeling less tired during the day.
There are lots of places in our lives where we too, seek improvement.
Maybe it’s our eating habits. Or our personal relationships. Our work/life balance. There are always places we can improve.

But often times, it’s difficult to know how to do that.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize there’s a problem until someone else invites us to take a closer look.

And a closer look at the source of pain is exactly what Moses and God intend to do with the snakes in the desert.
The poisonous snakes aren’t just a random plague from God.

Snakes in the Bible often represent evil, and specifically, poisonous speech and actions.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus repeatedly calls his adversaries “a brood of vipers.” Snakes represent corruption and forces of evil that separate people from God.

There’s also the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, who twists the words of God and Eve to make it sound like God is keeping something valuable from them.

God may be protecting Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but the serpent twists that reality in such a way that Adam and Eve are compelled to act against God.

There are a lot of different interpretations of that story too, some of which include some redemption for the snake, but the most common interpretation is that the snake represents evil.

So it’s no coincidence that the plague we read about in today’s text is a plague of poisonous snakes.

When the people begin to complain to God and Moses that they’re tired of walking in the desert, and they’re tired of eating magical mana from heaven, and they’re tired of Moses’ leadership, God sends snakes as a metaphor for the way their complaining and conspiring is poisoning the group.

Remember that God liberated these people from slavery in Egypt. Complaining and saying they’d be better off back in Egypt IS ungrateful. And it’s the kind of thing that would distance them from God and create conflict within their group.

Thankfully, God gives them a way forward.

God tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake, and whoever looks at it will be healed.

God invites them to look directly at something that represents their poisonous words and attitudes.

And by looking directly at it, by looking at something that represents their separation from God, they are able to heal and reconcile with God and with one another.
Fast forward to the Christian scriptures, which are written hundreds of years later. The author of John tells his followers, who would have been familiar with the story from Numbers, that just as Moses held up the bronze snake in the desert, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

It may seem odd, but John IS saying that Jesus is equivalent to the bronze snake.

He’s a symbol to look at for healing.

Specifically, a symbol that reminds us of our corruption and poisonous words and actions.

Remember that Jesus spoke out publicly about love and healing and economic justice, and he was crucified as a result.

There couldn’t be a more clear demonstration of human separation from God than the cross, where we executed the man who represented God’s message of love and hope.

And I say we, because even though we weren’t there, we certainly participate in systems and structures and behaviors that continue to damage God’s work for justice in the world.

This invitation to look to the cross is not intended to make us feel ashamed or embarrassed as much as it is intended to open our eyes to the ways we are creating distance between ourselves and God and take that recognition as an opportunity for healing.
Sometimes, we have to take a hard look at ourselves and recognize our shortcomings in order to begin the process of transformation for good.

In my opening story, my friend wasn’t able to change her sleeping habits until she saw the hard facts about what was actually going on with her sleep pattern.

Likewise, in 12 step programs, one of the key steps to recovery is taking a moral inventory and admitting to God, ourselves, and to others the exact nature of our wrongs.

Healing begins with recognition that healing is needed.

And one of the places healing is needed most is in the Christian church.

The text from John today is one of the most misused and abused texts in scripture, and I can’t stand in the pulpit today without addressing that.

So let’s take a closer look at the bronze snake and see what healing we might find.

First, there is a text from 2 Kings 18 that is essential to understanding today’s texts. It reads, “King Hezekiah did was right in the sight of God. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.”

What this tells us is that many years after the events that take place in the desert with Moses, King Hezekiah, one of the greatest and most honorable and faithful kings of the Bible, smashes the bronze serpent, because people in Israel had started making offerings to it.

They had taken it out of context and perverted its original power.

Likewise, the words in the Gospel of John have their own specific context.

They too were a way to bring people healing and wholeness. And yet taken out of context years later, they have been worshiped and idolized on their own in the form of John 3:16 bumper stickers and dangerous theology that says that all you have to do to be “saved” is to believe that Jesus died for our sins.

We cannot forget that John was writing to a specific group of people, a small sect of Jews who were outcast from the temple and who were facing severe persecution, imprisonment, and even death as a result of their unorthodox beliefs.

Because they refused to give up their Jewish practices, Christian groups ostracized them as well.

When John says, “God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it,” he’s speaking directly to a group of people who feel condemned by religious authorities on a regular basis.
And when John says, “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already,” he’s not saying that all people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell.

He’s simply saying that those people who are attacking John’s small group, those people who are going after them – the attackers are condemned by their actions.
That’s clear if we read down to verse 20, where it says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, “We, Jewish followers of Christ, have found a meaningful way to connect with God. Those who accuse us of falsehood and who attack us in the public square and abuse our bodies and imprison us – they don’t have a monopoly on truth.

In fact, their evil deeds will be brought into the light and God will see them for what they are. Evil done in the name of righteousness is still evil.”

So THAT is the context of John’s words, but just like the people who years later worshiped the bronze snake, many Christians, years later, idolize this text as something set in bronze, something permanent and immovable.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg puts it this way: “In 2 Kings we see how the symbol of the serpent has hardened. It no longer points beyond itself to God. Instead it has become a simplistic formula: if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple. But God cannot be reduced to a formula…Just as in Hezekiah’s day, the idol of John 3:16 needs to be broken. Like the bronze serpent in Hezekiah’s day, John 3:16 alone is an insufficient guide for healing and salvation. Instead, we need an authentic encounter with the Mysterious, Loving, and Gracious Presence that we call God — and concrete steps transforming one’s life to follow the way of Jesus.” (read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/lectionary-commentary-john-316-the-rest-of-the-story-for-sunday-march-18-2012/)

The translation of John 3:16 is misread and mistranslated anyway. We hear “God so loved the world” as “God loved the world a LOT,” but it actually means, “God loved the world in this way, in this manner.” God loved the world in this way: God sent God’s only son.

The way God loves the world is to become incarnate in it. To live among us and within us that we might live lives connected to the divine.

My challenge to us this week is to consider what snakes there might be in our lives, what poison we may need to address, but also to not make those reminders of separation from God the final word. To remember that making an idol out of the sins of the past and looking at them forever isn’t the way to healing.
God doesn’t end our story with condemnation. God ends with forgiveness, and healing, and connection.
Amen.