Sunday, March 11, 2018

“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!”

“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!” You remember that line from The Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Snakes are the one thing that Indiana Jones is afraid of and suddenly he is faced with the prospect of crossing a pit full of them.

Why do snakes make our skin crawl? Maybe for you they don’t. Some people seem fond of snakes. Strange people. Speaking for myself, I am terrified of them. Even a picture of a snake has the power to creep me out. I never visit the Reptile house at the Zoo.

Sometimes I even have nightmares about snakes. Nightmares strangely reminiscent of that scene from the Raiders of the Lost Ark which still haunts me. Sometimes I dream the snakes are in bed with me and I jump up screaming.

Studies suggest the humans have evolved  the innate ability  to sense snakes — and spiders, too — and to learn to fear them. This sensitivity helped our ancestors survive in the wild where a bite from a snake was an immanent and life threatening danger.

The symbol of the snake as a deadly threat is imbedded deep in our collective unconscious. I think this must be why they appear in my nightmares so frequently. I tend to have these dreams when I am feeling stressed, anxious, fearful, or even guilty. My mind is preparing my body for a fight or flight situation.  

Of course the snake is almost universally depicted as a sinister creature, not least in the Bible. The snake is humanity’s primordial enemy beginning in the Garden of Eden when the serpent lead Eve and her husband astray. God even promised to place enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the snake. He says, “he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

This is more than just a folksy story meant to explain why people dislike snakes. It is description of the battle that goes on within all of us between our lower and higher natures.  

God cursed the snake for his part in the Fall,

Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.

The snake represents our lower nature, the flesh, the part of us that is tied to the earth, cursed to slither in the dirt. It is an irrational beast full of deadly poison.

When human beings rebelled against God they fell under the power of the serpent. Each generation struggled in vain against the snake. Each generation was stricken by the serpent’s poison and died.

This drama plays out again in our Old Testament lesson. The people of Israel rebel against God in the wilderness and as a result the Lord sends fiery serpents against them.

This is how God’s Judgment works. If we rebel against him, he lets us have our way. If we will not serve him, then we will serve our passions instead. To serve God is life but to refuse God and serve our sinful nature is death.

Saint Paul said it this way, “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, He gave them up to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done.”

In our Lenten wilderness journey we struggle against the destructive passions and impulses that draw us from the service of God. We war against the deadly attacks of our sinful nature.

Why does God allow us to suffer these things? Is it because he is cruel or vindictive? Is it because he has abandoned us?

Psalm 78—recounting the people’s rebellion in the wilderness—says,

Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.”

God disciplines us, he punishes us by handing us over to the consequences of our sin, not in order to be cruel, but in order to draw us back to himself. He lets us hit rock bottom because he knows that it is the only way that we will come to see the error of our ways. Only when we have come to the end ourselves are we truly prepared to look to God.

God does not allow us to be afflicted without also providing a solution to our affliction. He has not allowed us to fall under the power of sin without also providing a redeemer. He has not allowed us to suffer death without also breaking the power of death.

When the people of Israel were perishing from the bites of the poisonous serpents, God provided them an antidote. He instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. When ever someone was bitten, they could look up at the bronze serpent and he healed.

It seems an odd solution. Didn’t God punish the people of Israel for making a Golden Calf? Why is he here encouraging Moses to make a bronze snake? We know from later in the Biblical record that this Bronze serpent would later become a stumbling block for the people. They began burning incense to it and worshipping it almost as a God in itself. Under King Hezekiah’s reforms, the serpent was destroyed.

It was never the Bronze statue itself that was the source of the people’s deliverance, it was the thing that the image represented. In looking to the serpent the people were to look beyond the serpent to the one who himself bore their sickness, who died that they might live.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Jesus was the one who was promised even in the garden. He is the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. The serpent would indeed strike his heel, Jesus would suffer the same death that all mortal men are bound to suffer, and yet by virtue of an indestructible life and the power of the spirit  would rise from the dead and trample death itself under his feet.

When we gaze by faith upon our crucified savior we see he who without sin become sin for our sake. We see the poisonous serpent defeated and nailed to the tree. We understand and receive the deliverance that was promised and we are healed. We perceive that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This one who is lifted high for our salvation is the light of the world. That light shows us the depth of our rebellion and sickness, but it also chases the darkness away and leads our feet into the way of righteousness.

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