There are two texts I am dealing with these week, one the prominent text from the Gospel of John and the other a text from Numbers meant to give context to what John is saying about Jesus. Here is the text from John 3:11-21. You will notice I enlarge the lectionary reading so as to not arbitrarily cut off verses 11-13:
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you [all] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not be destroyed but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the created order to condemn creation, but in order that the created order might be rescued through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be called to account. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that their works done in God might be put on full display.”
The text from Numbers 21:4-9 reads:
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze serpent, they lived.
On one level, the reading from John is intimately familiar, yet it is peppered with the references to this strange text from Numbers. What is going on here?
The first thing I will say is that there is great theological richness in both texts, and far too much for a single sermon. Therefore, I am going to have to make a few choices about what I will focus on. I think it is prudent this go around to focus on the imagery of the serpents in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up, and secondly on what is going on in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus as it applies to human beings. Let’s begin with those fiery serpents.
Let’s cut to the chase: Numbers 21:4-9 is a very, very strange text, and hard to parse. First there is the issue of what, exactly, God sent into the Israelite camp to bite and wound the people. Was it just a batch of poisonous snakes? The Hebrew term for fiery serpents in verse 6 is hannehashim haseraphim. You may recognize that term seraphim. For example, Isaiah 6:2, it is winged seraphim who fly around the throne of God and cry out the holiness and splendor of God, and eventually take hot coals and cleanse the prophets lips so that he might speak. Seraphim ARE NOT cute, little, harp-wielding chubby angels with big smiles on their faces! No, they are awesome creatures that shimmer with the dazzling light of God’s glory.
So, here are the children of Israel, now forty years in the wilderness, slogging around waiting for one generation to die so that a new generation may take possession of the Promised Land. They are tired, and their complaints are bitter. They long for the fleshpots of Egypt, and while the water seems to have run our presently, the quail and the manna sent to them for food by God no longer satisfies palates that long for the delectable delicacies of Egypt. As their complaints rise to the heavens, God seems to have had enough and sends among them not just serpents, but seraphim serpents — fiery serpents. If you have ever seen Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and particularly that scene at the end when they open the ark and the Nazis’ faces melt off, that may be the closest parallel to what is going on here. In short, God sends out serpents that are a-glow both with the glory of God and God’s righteous fury over the people’s complaint. The seraphim serpents seem to spell doom for the people for God is sending out a harsh judgment.
It is here we must pause and ask a natural question: what sort of God are we dealing with here? Is God cruel? Does God delight in inflicting pain for what seems to be more of a temper tantrum on Israel’s part? I think if the story stopped here, we might well be moved in that direction. Thankfully, it is not. The people, having undergone this punishment and the suffering it entails cry out to God in both tones of repentance and intercession. “God, please, we have seen the errors of our ways, and we ask you to deliver us from this,” is the essence of their cry.
If God were hard-hearted towards the people, or lacked compassion, then we would expect God to ignore them, but God does not. At the heart of this passage is a God who, yes, judges when necessary, but in that judgment itself offers the source of healing and restoration. Let me say that again: God’s judgment has, in its very essence, the seeds, the foundation for the healing that will come. God is both Judge and Redeemer for judgment always has redemption as its aim.
We see this in the cure offered to the people. God instructs Moses to make a representation of the seraphim serpents on a pole so that those who were bitten might look upon it and have life. Interestingly, one could riff here on God saying they will have life, vahay, and the name of God, yidyeh asher yidyeh or Yahweh, which shares the same root which means life/being — John certainly makes the point because we have “life” in Jesus’ name (John 20:31). But back to Moses; Moses fashions a bronze serpent, places it in front of the people, and when they look upon it, they live. Yet, how does this work?
As I suggested, God’s judgment possesses in itself the seeds of redemption. In gazing upon a symbol of their own judgment; in coming face-to-face with the consequences of their own disobedience and faithless hearts, they are confronted with the utter hopelessness that awaits a human life lived on its own terms. The people must face the harsh reality that life is given and has meaning only in relation to the One who bestows it. In the moment of realization that attends upon the act of judgement, the healing and life that flows into them in this act of contrition becomes a platform upon which the covenant faithfulness, mercy and compassion of God is put on display for all to see.
And it is here that I hear John making two very important parallels in 3:11-21. The first is in Jesus himself. In the incarnation of Jesus, both the judgment and the reconciling will of God present in God the Son is made flesh. Who He is both illumines the present darkness of our condition, and in that act, begins the process of healing, redemption and giving of life. His coming into the world as one of us both wounds us — bites us, if you will — for who He is convicts us that we are not and cannot be as we were created to be given our darkness of heart. He is raised up on a cross as the serpent was raised up in the wilderness, and in committing this act, our sinfulness and depravity are put on display in such a way that God puts to rest questions about our inherent goodness and capacities for self-redemption/actualization.
Yet, this act of judgment carries in it the Good News of life in Him. Gazing upon the fruitlessness of our own wickedness as his body hangs lifeless from a cursed tree (Tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Serpents in the garden, anyone?), we see him raised again on the third day. Raised by the glory of the Father, in Him truly human life that houses the very presence of God is made manifest (phanerothe), giving life to His once dead body. As He is in the Father, and we in Him (John 17:23), we too are filled with the life-giving Spirit of God so that we may finally become what we are always created to be: human beings abundantly alive in fellowship with God (John 10:10).
As Jesus is raised/exalted to the right hand of the Father, the full unity of His being both Judge and Redeemer are put on display in, through, over and with the entire created order as he sustains us and leads us into the fullness of the promises of God. Our gaze, filled as it was with awe at his resurrected body, is directed toward’s our Father’s house (John 2:13-22; 14:2) that awaits fulfillment in a new heaven and a new earth bathing the old world in the new of God’s life-giving presence. Truly through Him we have life eternal!
At every step of this journey, both for Israel in the wilderness and for us as the redeemed people of God, it is faith that leads our gaze upwards so that we might be healed and redeemed. Our complaints are often as bitter — if not more so — than Israel’s in the wilderness, yet it is in the continued process of complaint, confrontation with our own faithlessness through judgment, and redemption that is seeded in that act of judgment that we grow in trust of a God who always hears and heals. God is never far from us (Acts 17:27), and God is always prepared to heal and restore, shown ultimately through the giving of the Son so that we might have life.
In my next post, I will pick up another prominent theme, namely, God’s redemption of the world, or as I phrase it, the entirety of the created order.