Holy Cross | John 3:13-17, Numbers 21:4-9
The story of the bronze snake comes from the exodus journey of the Israelites. Poisonous snakes (literally ‘fiery serpents’) in the wilderness were biting people. Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole where it could be seen. When any of the Israelites were bitten by snakes, they were saved by looking up at this bronze serpent on a pole.
Like the story of Moses’ staff turning into a snake to impress the Egyptians, it was magic.
The ancient texts do not explain how this system worked. The stories simply demonstrate the presence of God among a chosen people. These are stories of power, showing how God intervened in the normal working of the world to deliver people out of their troubles.
We like these stories. A powerful God acts to save people with miracles. Yet, we feel removed from them, sensing that this is not how God works any more. We see no parting of the seas, no water from the rock, no manna from heaven, and we have no magic bronze serpents to heal us. Even by the time of Jesus, these stories were remote, part of a distant past.
Then John pulls out this old image of a serpent on a pole and applies it to the life and death of Jesus, as though this literary artifact were a prophetic image of the messiah. What are we to make of it?
We might offer many explanations, one as good as the next. We may be more honest and say that we do not know.
We do not know. That is something we should admit more often. If we believe we understand a thing, we stop thinking about it. Libraries are full of explanations of what Jesus did, of what his life meant, of what happened when he was lifted up on the cross for everyone to see. Yet, the Gospel simply says that this is how God worked—again, there is no explanation, or very little. Most of the explanations have been supplied by later writers, not by scripture.
We look too much at our explanations and too little at Jesus.
We think we understand, and so we stop paying attention. The third chapter of John is a perfect example. We explain serpents as symbols of evil and of temptation. Yet of all the many symbols available, John pointed to the bronze serpent on a pole as an image of Jesus on the cross. How does that fit within our popular soteriology?
Explanation is not faith. Explain less, and look to God.
Here is a chapter from I, John, a new novel just released. As it happens, the serpent imagery of John’s Gospel plays a part:
I saw him coming along the street with a lamp in his hand. Even though the sun had gone down and there was little light, I could tell he was well dressed, well made sandals on his feet. He had been at the temple, had been with the Pharisee group who were talking amongst themselves. He had looked up and seen us, and while the others seemed unimpressed with us, this man had met our eyes and acknowledged us with a simple nod of his head.
Nicodemus was his name, and he came asking to speak with Jesus. Actually, he came asking to speak with the Master, an odd approach given Nicodemus’ age and his own position of respect. Jesus received him without comment, neither demurring from the title of rabbi nor appearing flattered.
The old man began with a bow, and said to Jesus that he and others like him knew that Jesus was from God, that he acted and spoke from God.
“We know that no one can do these things unless he has been sent by God,” said Nicodemus. “These are the signs of a prophet.”
This was more like it, we thought. Finally, Jesus was getting the sort of recognition that he deserved, though it was not in the temple. Still, if such a one as this man would come and speak to Jesus this way, then surely the others would follow?
We understood so little, so badly.
Jesus sat staring at the fire, not even acknowledging the old man. Nicodemus began to look at one and then another of us for an indication of what to do. None of us knew. Then Jesus turned his back on the old man and walked to the window. He stood there staring out at the stars.
“Truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born into the kingdom of God. If you would see God, you must be born of God.”
Nicodemus looked around at us for some idea, but we didn’t know what to make of it either. Finally, the old man walked over to Jesus.
“How is it that a man may be born of God?” Nicodemus asked. “I have no mother left to me, and I am old.”
I also hoped for some explanation.
“You must be born of water and of the Spirit,” Jesus said. “What is born of the flesh is only flesh, and what is born of the water has been made clean, and what is born of the Spirit indeed is spirit. If you would see God, then you must be born of the flesh and of the water and of the Spirit.”
Jesus looked at Nicodemus as though he should know these things. I was thinking that nobody knew these things, because they were crazy.
Then came the weirdest part of all.
“If you would know that which is above then you must be born of that which is above. You are born of the flesh, and you see the things of the flesh. The wind blows, and you hear the sound of it, and so there is hope for you. Yet you do not know from where the wind comes or to where it is going.”
No one was eating or drinking now. All of us were quiet, trying to find some way to make sense of what we were hearing. This was an audience with one of the leaders of the temple, and Jesus was saying such things as to make himself sound crazy.
“Are you amazed at these things?” Jesus asked. “These things are nothing to what you will see. I tell you things about the flesh and you do not understand. How will you understand if I tell you things about that which is above? If you cannot look at the flesh and see what is within, how shall you look upon the faces of those in heaven and understand what you see there? No one has entered into the heavenly realm except those who are of the heavenly realm, but the son of man is also the son of God.”
Jesus paused a moment and looked around at us. Nicodemus was quiet, his brow wrinkled in thought.
“And how will you understand when you see the son of man lifted up, as Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness for the children of Israel to see? Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son of man, for though he were dead, yet shall they live. Like the serpent in the garden, so also the son of man comes to give knowledge to all who would be the children of God.”
No one spoke, least of all Nicodemus. I was clueless, and from his expression so was he. Even we who followed Jesus wondered whether something we had just heard might not offend the teachers of the temple, and we knew nothing compared to this man. He seemed amazed by what he had heard.
Jesus looked around first at one of us then at another, until I thought that he must have gazed into the eyes of all who were there.
“God loves you all. Did you not understand? For God loves you and has given you the son so that you might know that the Father loves you. If you have faith in the son, then you walk in the eternal life. Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son and believe be saved. Those who do not seek my voice are already lost, for even as they have not heard and do not listen, so also they shall not enter into life, for they have not heard the words of life. My words that I give to you, these are truth and life, and those who believe them shall never be condemned. For this is the judgment of God, that light has come into the world, and people love darkness rather than the light, for they know their own deeds. Those who come into the light are of the light. Those who come in darkness are yet of the darkness.”
Jesus stopped speaking, and suddenly it seemed as though he was pointing at Nicodemus, though he was not. He was not even looking at the old man, but all of us were looking at him and at the lamp that he held in his hand. He had come in the darkness, truly enough, but surely he came to find the truth?
“I will think on your words,” said Nicodemus. “I confess that I do not understand them, but I feel that there is truth in them.”
“I am truth,” said Jesus. “And I am the way that you have come to seek.”
Nicodemus seemed as though dazed by this answer. He took a step back and opened his mouth to speak, but he said nothing. He turned and walked slowly away.
After the old man left, I sat by the fire and wondered what it could mean. I could not get the image out of my mind, Moses standing there with a snake on a pole, holding it up for the people to see. I never understood the story, not even when the Rabbis tried to explain it, and I did not understand why Jesus had started talking about it.
Later, most of the others had gone to sleep. Jesus was still standing by the open window, looking up at the stars. I could not sleep and sat staring at the embers burning themselves down. Suddenly I realized that Jesus was standing beside me. He was watching the fire, then looked down at me.
“You are puzzled about the image of the snake,” he said. It was not a question. I nodded.
“One day, you will see me lifted up so that all the people can see me. That day, you will understand what I meant,” he said. He went walking outside after that. He often would go for walks by himself, sometimes in the night, as a way to have time alone, away from the crowds, away from all of us.
That day came, and I did see him lifted up above the crowd, hanging on a cross. I saw them stick a spear in his side, saw them taunt him, and I saw him die. And he was right that I remembered he had spoken about being lifted up, and he was right that I remembered about Moses and the snake, but he was wrong about my understanding any of it.
The snake was evil. Everyone knew that. There was a snake in the garden. It was the story we learned from childhood. The snake had lied and brought evil into Eden, or else it knew where to look for it once it got near enough. But Moses’ staff also turned into a great snake, like the Egyptian magic. And the Lord told Moses to lift up an image—an image of all things—of a snake to save the people from snake bites. Like pagans. And Jesus laid claim to the same image, a snake on a pole, as though it were a good thing.
One day I realized that he might have been right. Maybe the snake wasn’t evil. Maybe the snake was simply wise, if there ever had been a snake. Maybe it recognized that a moment of realization had come along for the humans in the garden, if there ever had been a garden. What if the snake in the story whispered that first revelation, the moment when humans embraced their mortality and their self-awareness? And so it helped them to make the next step, to understand the consequences of choice. What if there was no curse? What if there was no sin, no original fault, no first cause of our mortality? What if they simply left the garden of ignorance and walked out to embrace their new knowledge, to embrace the blessings of work and of children, the only two things that live beyond us?
That left me standing, weeping, staring at him on that cross, lifted up for the sake of others. It was a moment of revelation, God dying on a cross, hanging on a tree made by men. The good and wise snake had once again come to pull humans along, to raise us to a new understanding. When Jesus died, it was finished, this work of the old snake, opening the eyes that could bear to see something new—God himself hanging dead on a pole at the hands of humans—and all that I could do was weep.
It was Nicodemus who came to take him down from the cross. He brought burial clothes, brought permission from the Romans to take the body down to wrap it before sundown, brought a donkey to carry him once again along the streets. I held Jesus while the old man wrapped the clean cloth around him, holding Mary back from his body long enough to cover him, to clothe him in death. We brought the body to Nicodemus’ tomb, newly carved no doubt for the old man himself, but he had not foreseen this day when he bought it. None of us knew what God had foreseen, had planned, in the carving of this tomb, if anything. We carried the body inside the darkening vault, and we laid him on the stone bed carved into the rock. We stood there for a moment, mindful of the setting sun, mindful that we should seal the tomb and go to our homes. Why we cared about the start of the Sabbath was beyond me. Here in this tomb, it no longer mattered what day came with the setting of the sun. We had buried God.