The holy gospel according to John, the third chapter. Glory to you, O Lord.
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 so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved 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. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most of us prefer cuddly, furry kinds of animals. We like the cute and pretty ones: fluffy sheep, cats, dogs, and bunnies - the ones that are tame, the ones that don't bite. Today's lessons are about snakes!
Like most people, I really don't like snakes.
As far as snakes go, I am not afraid of the small non-poisonous varieties. I have even been known to pick up a baby green snake and show it to the kids, back in the day when I was a camp counselor.
Poisonous snakes are a totally different matter. I don't want one anywhere near me.
When I was at a Lutheran Retreat Center in Arizona a few years ago, I was never very comfortable walking around outside after they had warned us about the rattle snakes. I think snakes need to stay far away from people before I will even consider that "live and let live" is a good policy.
The Holy Land is a mainly dry, desert land and it is full of snakes, so they are mentioned in several stories in the Bible. The poisonous snakes in today's Old Testament lesson were called "fiery serpents" because the bites really burned and caused a fever which led to death.
In that story, the Israelites were complaining about Moses and bad-mouthing God. They had been wandering in the desert for a long time. They were getting pretty whiny. They were sick and tired of only having manna to eat and not much water. They kept nagging Moses with a chorus of: “Are we there yet?" And, "Why don't we just go back home?" and "You are the one who brought us out here and got us lost."
Then the fiery serpents started biting and many of them died.
The bad news for us today is that we have all been bitten by those fiery serpents, those poisonous snakes. We are full of their poisonous venom and we are dying from it. The snake venom in us is our original sin. Every human who has ever lived has been poisoned by the snake venom of original sin, and we will all die because of it.
We have all had our times of self-centered living, times of unwillingness to see the image of God in others, times of jealousies and rivalries, times of carelessness, times of hurtful words and angry deeds, times of idleness and wastefulness. We confess these sins each week.
Sadly, we know we are full of venom. Sometimes we even act like snakes and bite each other, figuratively, of course, and share the venom of our sin. Sometimes we are the ones bitten and feel the fiery burn and the fever.
One of the things we know about snake bites though, is that the cure, the anti-venom, is made from the venom of the snake.
When the Israelites are bitten, they ask Moses to pray for them and he does. God answers the prayer, not by removing the snakes, but by telling Moses what he can do to heal the ones who have been bitten.
That part of the story is hard for us. We want God to get rid of the snakes. We wish God hadn't put the snakes on earth in the first place, or at least that God would keep the snakes far away from us. But we are not God, and we must trust that God's answer is the right one. We must trust that God knows more about healing and salvation than we do. We must remember that we too, act like snakes sometimes.
God has Moses make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Whoever looks up at it will be healed. Even today, the snake wrapped around a pole, the caduceus, is the symbol of the medical profession. It does seem an odd symbol of healing. But an instrument of capital punishment is an odd symbol of salvation, too.
Jesus is the Good Snake. That does seem to be what he is saying to Nicodemus in the gospel lesson. He likens himself to the bronze snake Moses made in our Old Testament story.
Theologian, William Willimon, tries to explain all this. He says, “The Gospel of John therefore refers to Jesus, not only as the good shepherd, but also as the good snake. He surprised us, came in among us, slithering in to our illusions of stability and safety. We reached for the ax to beat him to death. He opened his mouth, and spoke words that cut us like a sword, venomous, prophetic words.
“And we beat him, whipped him, and lifted him up high on a pole. And in lifting him up from earth toward heaven, his poisonous, prophetic words of venom became the anti-venom, the means of salvation. And even those who had killed him, standing at the foot of the pole, were able to look up and say, ‘Truly this is the Son of God.’”
God brings healing in the midst of our worst failures and disappointments. God doesn't remove the snakes that bite us, but provides the cure, the anti-venom.
Jesus is the Good Snake, the anti-venom. He tells Nicodemus and he tells us, that looking up to him on the cross will give us eternal life.
God didn't send Jesus to condemn us, but to save us. Everywhere in John's gospel, John uses the word "world" to means the enemies of God, not the beautiful creation, but the evil corrupted place it has become.
Hear how that sounds in verse 16: "For God so loved his enemies that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life."
God loves enemies. This is very good news for us. God loved the Israelites who complained because their salvation from slavery required some wandering and that the food was boring.
God loves us even when we are at our worst, acting against the will of God. When we are disobedient. When we are following our own desires. When we don't do the good works we are created to do. God loves us and saves us even when we are complaining that God isn't saving us the way we think God should save us.
God's way of saving us involves a cross. God does not take away the suffering, but suffers with us. God goes with us as we journey through the wilderness and God gives us our daily bread. God provides all that we need.
Just keep looking up. Jesus is the Good Snake, the one who is lifted up. Look up to him and be saved.
Whoever believes in him has eternal life already.