March 11, 2018
I suffer from this horrible thing called ophidiophobia – the fear of snakes. I hate snakes! I mean I really hate snakes! They are my number one fear. In fact, I hate them so much that even reading today’s scripture made me uncomfortable. I am so afraid of snakes that even reading about them or having to think about them creates a bit of anxiety in me. Apparently, I am not alone as in a recent Harris poll, 36% of adults in the United States report a fear of snakes. About 8,000 people in the US are bitten by snakes each year and 7,995 of those survive… only 5 die. (You have no idea how challenging it was for me to do the research on this topic! At 3:30 Friday morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep because every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was rattlesnakes!)
On my hike from Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon last fall, my prayer was to see no “S’s” – no Snakes, no Scorpions. My prayers were answered. I saw neither, but one of my hiking buddies did and of course she had to tell me. There were 6 of us on the trip, but we all hiked at our own pace and met at whatever destination was on the docket for the day. When Barb caught up with me, she said, I have to tell you, I came across a rattlesnake that was about 3 feet off the trail. I heard the warning sound and froze in my tracks until it slithered away. I was then terrified to make the hike back through that area to our hiker’s dorm at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the canyon. Barb offered to lead the way and I followed at a safe distance and in the snakiest area, she watched to the left of the trail and I watched to the right. I hate it that my fear almost immobilizes me. I must do a lot of self-talk and a lot of praying to hit the trails and pursue my passion for hiking. I was grateful to have my friend “snake sit” me for a few miles that day.
Moses was the “snake sitter” for the Israelite people who were encountering asps and dying right and left, presumably for grumbling against God. How quickly their gratitude for being delivered from slavery in Egypt gave way to griping and complaining in the wilderness. Their complaints sound almost comical if closely followed: “There is no food and water here and we detest this miserable food.” It sounds like something that could be attributed to Yogi Berra: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food”. In other words, we don’t have any food, and it tastes terrible, too! (The wording of the complaint is reminiscent of the wonderful line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck tries to speak well of a farmer-preacher by proclaiming that he “never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.”)
Moses’ serpent-on-a-pole shows up again in the Old Testament, at 2 Kings 18:4: “[Hezekiah] removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke to pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” Cameron Howard writes in Feasting on the Word: The Israelites had forgotten the living, free, dangerous God who commanded the construction of the serpent of the wilderness, and they focused instead on a bronzed, domesticated, manufactured idol that they could see and understand. Perhaps (we need) to break up our bronzed serpents and to turn our attention instead to the God of the wilderness: dangerous, maybe, and unpredictable for sure, but always present, always faithful.
(Doug Bratt:) “That bronze snake, however, has no power to grant any generation eternal life. Those whom the snakes bite but whom God heals eventually still die. So Someone Else had to dangle from another kind of pole in order for people to live forever.
When Jesus discusses his earthly mission with Nicodemus in John 3, he refers to this story of the bronze snake. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
Jesus follows that simile with the memorable description of God’s redeeming love. “For God so loved the world,” he tells Nicodemus in John 3:16, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The cross in John’s gospel, like the Numbers’ bronze serpent on the pole, doesn’t just symbolize God’s righteous fury with God’s children’s sins; it also points to the Lord’s gracious life-giving power.
Yet there’s a difference between the life-giving bronze serpent and Jesus Christ. Numbers 21 doesn’t say that that the Israelites had to believe God would heal them when they looked at the bronze serpent. God simply tells Moses that anyone whom the snakes bite can merely look at the bronze serpent and live. There were probably skeptics who doubted that God could heal those who merely looked at the bronze snake. Once they were bitten, as theologian Scott Hoezee notes, you can imagine they stared pretty hard at it. (I definitely could have hiked that grand canyon with more confidence if I had had a sure remedy for a snake bite in front of me.)
Jesus, by contrast, doesn’t claim that just looking at his cross or him will save anyone. Instead he insists that those who believe in the power of the crucified Christ to save us from our sins will be saved. Jesus refers to Moses’ lifting up the bronze serpent to give life to the people as a metaphor for Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross and then raised from the dead.
Snakes in the ancient world were a symbol of both death and danger and fertility, life, and healing. A snake represented Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. The modern symbol of the medical profession is also a snake wrapped around a branch. The medical professionals at Mayo Clinic offer this advice if you are bitten by a rattlesnake:
Remain calm and move beyond the snake's striking distance. (Well, it seems a little to late for that! And remain calm??? Even as I write this about snakes, my heart rate has increased…)
Remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start to swell. (Not in case you start to swell, but before you start to swell.)
Position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
Clean the wound, but don't flush it with water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing. (Doing all this while remaining calm!)
During Lent, we give something up or take something on as a discipline to call our attention to our need for God. Snakes have been associated with temptation since the Garden of Eden. I wonder if we might apply some of these Mayo Clinic steps to our temptations in life?
When faced with temptation, remain calm and move out of striking distance. Do not be impulsive but remove yourself from whatever wants to have a chokehold on your life and interfere with your walk with God.
Be aware of where your heart is. Remembering the love of God, who sent his son Jesus that we might have life – life abundant, life eternal.
When life gets snaky, and it sometimes will, remember God is with you and promises to never leave or forsake you. That is God’s covenant to us, a covenant of love, a covenant of life, a covenant of life eternal. Amen.
Tucked away somewhere in my mother’s attic is a small, 5-drawer cardboard jewelry box from my childhood. It is white with bright yellow flowers on it and a little stuffed doll that snaps on top. In one of those drawers, cheaply lined with felt, are my Sunday School attendance pins collected during elementary. One of my prized possessions was my 5-year pin from the United Methodist Church. I was so proud to have never missed Sunday School for 5 years straight.
Then fast forward some 20 years Jesus’ call to ordained ministry tiptoed onto the horizon of my life. I have shared with you how I ignored, even laughed at the prospect for 3 years, until my nearest and dearest friend got on the band wagon and said, “I think this is seriously a call and you should pay attention to and stop brushing it off.”
So clearly, I was not as bright the first 4 disciples who responded immediately to Jesus’ calling. Did you catch that in the reading? “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” And then again, “Immediately Jesus called the next two,” who obviously immediately followed as well. The word “immediately” shows up over 40 times in the Gospel of Mark, so we are sure to come across it again in Year B of our lectionary. The tempo of the story is hastened by the use of this word. It is almost as if Mark can’t wait to tell the story of the Good News of Jesus and his actions.
The foreshadowing that occurs in this reading is in the first sentence: “after John was arrested,” which indicates to us that proclaiming God’s kingdom is not free of danger and challenge, though few of us experience the danger of being imprisoned for sharing “The Good News.” And that is how Jesus ministry begins in this gospel. John the Baptist had preceded him in preaching, “Repentance,” but Jesus added something VERY important: believe in the good news. Repent, yes, but also believe in the good news. It is peculiar how so many traditions get stuck in the repentance mode and completely neglect the “good news” part.
When I lived in California, we frequented the Hollywood Bowl for lovely symphony performances in a beautiful outdoor setting in the foothills and under the stars. There was a tunneled walk way leaving the bowl and leading back to the bus stops for easy exit. There was always a man with his bull horn in the tunnel preaching repentance: “Sin no more. You are going to hell.” “Repent now. God is coming.” I feel sure he believed he was fulfilling his “call” to preach and his dedication can’t be belittled, but he only got half of the message. It was disturbing really. I wonder if anyone ever turns to God as a result of a such a message? It is sad really. And I passed a billboard yesterday that read, “You WILL meet God when you die. Call 1-800… for the truth.” The truth is, we are meant to meet God in our living. We are meant to meet Jesus along the way. We are meant to experience the Holy Spirit in our living and not just wait for our dying to “meet God,” where presumably that repentance piece comes into play.
Repentance is important. That is why we do it almost every Sunday of the year. Our Confession of Sin disappears in the triumphant season of Easter when we focus on the fact that Jesus died for our sins and rose again in glory. (Just as a point of instruction: perhaps you notice I pause after saying, “Let us pray also for the forgiveness of our sins.” It is my hope that in those few seconds of silence, you will search your heart and actions and truly repent of anything that has interfered with your relationship with God in the prior week. So, if you haven’t before, maybe today you will take advantage of those few seconds of silence before we repent of our sins.)
Repentance is for us and for our good. In The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr, the Women’s Book Study is reading, the author states: “We are not punished FOR our sins – we are punished BY our sins! Sin is not some arbitrary list of little bad things that God tests you on. Sin is not a word for certain things that upset or hurt God. Inside the Perfect Flow (which is how Rohr describes the Holy Trinity – F-L-O-W, flow), inside the perfect flow, God could only be “hurt” if we are hurting ourselves, just as, in effect, the risen Jesus tenderly says to Paul in the book of Acts, “It is hard for you when you push back against the goad.”
Therefore, when the Holy Spirit moves and invites us to fuller life and being and we resist that, we are pushing back against the goad, we are costing ourselves a deeper walk with God; we are denying God’s grace and falling short of our true nature and calling.
In reflecting on my lack of immediate response to Jesus’ call, I found another piece of Rohr’s book poignant. He says, “It’s our vocation to become who we are and all that we are.” My therapist asked me this week, “Who are you?” (I really thought it was a rhetorical question until the 3rd time she said it!) “Who are you? What is your true nature?”
Who I am now is a compilation of all the experiences life has brought -- and sometimes thrown -- my way. I believe I am still becoming who and all God created me to be. I believe it is a lifelong journey. I can’t imagine a life that is stagnant and unchanging where opportunities to say “yes” to God stop coming. Isn’t it wonderful that God created us to continue growing, changing, becoming… and that God’s grace is sufficient to cover even when our response is not “immediate”? Life is a mystery really, a beautiful, unfolding, life-giving mystery.
Following up on Lainie’s sermon last week, I hope you are listening. I hope you are experiencing Jesus’ call in your lives. It is not a once and done experience. Our initial response to Jesus is just the beginning of becoming fishers of people. Responding to God’s call, immediately, or slowly, once or over and over again, is saying YES to a new way of being, a whole new life, a whole new identity. And saying “yes” is just the beginning, not the end.
Perhaps the beginning is early in life, stored away in the memories of a jewelry box, or perhaps the beginning is today, right here, right where you are. In all times, Jesus’ invitation is to “repent and believe the Good News”… the Good News that God is for you, God is with you, God is within you. Let go of the things that cause you to push against the goad and be embraced anew by the grace of Christ that empowers you be all that you can be.