“The healing promise”
Last week the bulletin cover photo brought spiders into our awareness. This week our Torah story involved poisonous snakes. On the first Sunday of Lent, when I asked you all which animals you’d least have liked to see boarding Noah’s ark, weren’t the first responses “spiders” and “snakes?” Well, “all God’s critters got a place in the choir,” according to that camp tune we’ve sometimes sung (by Bill Staines). Even snakes and spiders.
I’ve never known exactly what to make of that episode in the book of Numbers where God sends poisonous snakes to the wandering children of Israel, thus giving them something to really complain about. In a way, this story portrays the Almighty as a bit thin-skinned. Grumble enough to the One who rescued you from slavery in Egypt and see what you get. But, you know, there is a stage between “eat your vegetables” and “go to your room,” and I don’t think it’s “or the boogeyman will come get you.” Is that how the Torah is portraying God here?
Granted, there are other murmuring stories in the wilderness portion of the first five books of the Bible. In one, God responds to the people’s hungry complaints by providing manna and quail to feed them (Exodus 16). In the very next chapter, to quench the thirst of these mumblers and grumblers, God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and out pours a spring of water. But poisonous snakes? Isn’t that a bit extreme?
Some of us might say that God is God, after all, and enough is enough. There’s no room for belly-aching on this journey. But people are people, others of us respond. What about divine compassion? Therein lies some of what tends to divide us, the boundary between justice and mercy – that we get what we deserve versus the power of love and forgiveness. The truth is: this book of books weaves its way through both of those. They aren’t diametrically opposed to one another. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
While I’m not sure what to make of the snakes – I, after all, would be among those who’d have preferred not to see snakes on the ark, though I’ve got to say I’d have even more not wanted to greet any spiders getting on board (I’m just saying, the “ick” factor is higher in me for the latter); while I’m not sure about the snake portion of this morning’s Torah story, I rather like how the snake figures into God’s response to the people’s pain. The very thing that caused their illness and death is lifted up in a way to leads to healing.
Now, there are some problems to this part of the story. That statue of a snake on a stick smells a bit like a graven image. Didn’t God have something to say about not making such things? Don’t worship idols. Isn’t that what we heard last week among those ten words or commandments? There is danger in here. However, aware as we may be of that peril, in this wilderness episode there is healing in seeing the object of your fear lifted up, naming it, and in remembering that there is a larger story, a bigger picture… “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
By the way, this snake on a stick looks a bit like the Caduceus, which features two snakes winding around a winged staff, that is used today as a symbol of medicine. I could go to town on how this symbol is tied to this story, but it really isn’t. It’s actually the staff of the Greek god, Hermes, not connected to Moses and the Hebrew God. But, maybe we could nudge our way into that symbol by saying that even today we need to be careful not to worship medicine. The practice of medicine (and the science behind it) is a means to get somewhere, not an end in itself. It’s not God. Maybe some doctors wish to be seen as gods, but most recognize the limitations of treatments. Yes, miracles happen, but healing is a wilderness journey. Because, you know, there are still snakes along the way. Cancer, for instance, still slithers… “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved…”
Let me turn our attention to another symbol, which is somewhat central the story of the Bible, especially the portion of it we claim as followers of Jesus. Last Sunday we removed the gold plated cross from our worship center and brought forward the larger wooden one, to which we earlier this morning nailed some of our present struggles and concerns. Brothers and sisters, we need to be careful not to make a graven image of this symbol, just like we should beware of idolizing the Bible itself – this vast story of God and us.
Nothing is gained by waving this book around as if it were God, without opening and doing the hard work of seeking within it the Word revealed through the cloud of human hopes and fears and dreams and failures it contains. Likewise the cross, a symbol we tend to plaster everywhere. By the way, if I could have taken down the larger cross embedded in our front wall so that we’d have just this simple wooden cross, I would have. Too much of something can cause it to lose its value and meaning.
It’s probably a good thing I couldn’t take the larger cross down, as it is emblematic not only of our salvation, but also of how we can’t avoid the struggles of human existence. You do know, don’t you, that God did not create this symbol? Yes, the Gospel, the good news makes use of it in a transformational way. But the cross was a human invention. The Romans (and others, down through the years) used it for torture and terror. It’s part of how they kept occupied people in line. It was a horrible way to die, and it sent a message for people to keep in line – much like being drawn and quartered in ancient Britain, and being lynched in the southern United States.
We have to be careful with this symbol or we might pass along the wrong meaning of it for us as followers of Christ. When we look upon it, we are not to hear God saying, “Mind your P’s and Q’s or this is what will happen to you, so stop your complaining.” That, my friends, is not the voice of the One who “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.” Jesus was lifted up on a cross as a healing promise, not a judgmental decree, somewhat like the snake Moses crafted upon a staff and held up for all to see and be healed.
Dale Brown, one of my teachers in Seminary, used to say that whenever we speak John 3:16, we need to include the very next verse, which states: “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.” The focus is not upon punishment. It’s upon healing, restoration, redemption; it’s about saving. It’s also not just for the chosen few. It’s for everyone. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” This is for everyone who sees and walks in the light, and trusts the Great Shepherd of our souls, even through the valley of the shadow of death. The cross is for the healing of the nations.
Sometimes, however, healing hurts before it gets better. When I was growing up, my mom had two go-to medicines for cuts and scrapes. One was mercurochrome, the other was merthiolate. Anyone remember those? Thankfully, there are better medicines today. However, as a child I recall that while both seemed to work, even as they stained the skin, one would really sting at first, and then the pain would away. Even though it hurt really bad, and I hated it, I preferred when mom would use merthiolate.
Yes, sometimes healing hurts before it gets better. I’ve got to tell you there are days when physical therapy is the last thing I want to do. There are muscles that do not at all like being stretched, and they let me know it in no uncertain terms. I could complain, but everyone else in the therapy room would have no pity, for they’re going through the same thing. So, I murmur through my sweat, and add one for good measure to every exercise.
The cross is a bit like that. It reveals God’s healing promise, but heaven forbid when we forget the cost. Yes, it’s about justice. As Christians, we approach this cost from a couple angles. One says that God, being a just God, demanded a sacrifice to make things right between himself and humanity – we being the complaining sinners that we are. Out of love, God sent his Son to be that sacrificial lamb in our place. We deserved the cross. Jesus died on it instead, paying the price of justice. That’s one view of the atonement (the big theological name for this doctrine) – Jesus as our substitute.
Another way of seeing things recognizes this cost, but understands that the cross was not God’s invention. It’s how the world turns. God didn’t require a sacrifice, humanity did. Think about what it took Moses to convince Pharaoh to release a bunch of slaves. It was the shock of death that shook the foundations enough for the ruler of Egypt to finally let God’s people go, and even then it involved parting the sea to accomplish it. Insert however you understand evil – as a person (the Evil One), or as an impersonal power – let this stand in for Pharaoh, and here is an older understanding of the atonement. Jesus defeated the power of sin and death by dying on the cross. It wasn’t God who demanded his death. It was God in Christ who accomplished it, however. That’s another view of the atonement – Christ the victor.
Actually, these views are not necessarily opposed to one another. Some might see them as two sides to the same coin, just like justice and mercy. Regardless, in either case God took the initiative. As the apostle Paul put it, God is rich in mercy, and while we were in the middle of our wilderness of sin, our wasteland of heartache and struggle, our grumbling and murmuring, our fear and trembling – okay, let’s just say it, when our story was finished, kaput, dead because well, we are who we are, and we treat each other and the world and the One who made (and even ourselves) in the corrupt way we do; while we were doing this (in fact, while we still do it), God embraced us in Christ.
Why? Because of God’s crazy love for us and for the world. Because of a grace that is so incomprehensible (I mean, why would anyone go this far?); so incomprehensible that the word “amazing” doesn’t even do it justice. We are saved by this grace, this love, this gift, this healing promise… Now, here’s the kicker, the part that blows me away. You know that symbol in the wilderness Moses lifted up so that when the children of Israel looked upon it, holding as it did something they had grown to fear as the cause of their pain and illness and death. Yes, the cross is sort of like that symbol. But, guess what, so is the church.
“We are what God has made of us,”
Paul says. We are God’s accomplishment through Jesus on the cross, through
the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We are created in Christ Jesus and
lifted up (raised up) for good works, for helping one another to be whole
in him. Like an alcoholic in an AA meeting, we stand, speak our name,
identify our ongoing struggle, and God’s healing promise is lifted up in
this wilderness… May it be so.