The problem with the story about the snakes in Numbers 21:4-9 is that it seems to be about magic. And the problem with Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 is that Jesus’s use of the Numbers story is completely bizarre. It would be easy for preachers to dismiss this, to move too quickly to clever theological explanations or, worse, obscure textual analysis, and ignore the fact that the majority of people sitting in the pews are bound to be completely bewildered. In fact, most people in the pews will be in the position of one of John of Patmos’s first listeners. They’ve wandered into a kindly space, full of good light tinted by stained glass, and they know from previous visits, or just from observing the behavior of others, that a certain decorum exists in this place, and maybe, hopefully, they appreciate that calm decorum. And then someone gets up and reads something weird about people looking at a snake on a stick in the wilderness. And then someone else gets up and reads about Jesus talking about eternal life and connecting it, somehow, to that snake on a stick. The proper reaction to this is absolute confusion.
As far as the Bible is concerned, we live in a post-literate society. Even dedicated church goers have rarely dipped into Numbers. They and their children have, hopefully, heard and understood the main stories: Jacob and his ladder, Joseph and his coat, Moses and the Red Sea, Joshua and Jericho, David and Goliath. But this is probably the first time they’ve heard about snakes in the wilderness. Most have spent some time thinking about what it means that Jesus died on the cross for them. But these are the church-goers. Only about 40% of the general population. Which means that the majority of Americans don’t know these stories, even if they claim to be Christian. Preachers should assume that at least a few people in the pews are hearing even the most popular stories for the first time. And preachers should avoid the temptation to be erudite or clever. The person who wanders into church for the first time is looking for something, and it’s probably not an experience of being wowed by the cerebral accomplishments of the person in the pulpit. They are looking for meaning, for an understanding about themselves and their world. And the proper question to ask of a set of readings such as those kicked up by the Revised Common Lectionary for the fourth Sunday of Lent, is whether they can help answer those questions of meaning.
I think they can. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and pays him a compliment: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answers him obscurely, to say the least: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now Nicodemus has problems with this. How can anyone be born twice? We can’t crawl back into our mothers’ wombs and insist that she give birth to us a second time. Jesus tells him that there are, essentially, two births. One is from the water of one’s mother’s womb. The second is from the spirit. We are born from above by being born from the holy spirit.
All right, so far so good. But what on earth does that mean? What does it feel like to be born of the spirit? How do you get it to happen? What will happen to you if you do get it to happen? Jesus answers the last question, but not the two previous questions. When you’re born from the spirit, you’ll know it, because the winds of life, all of those troubles and joys, blow past you without you getting too anxious and upset over them. To me, this sounds like a beautiful thing – to be born of the spirit is to become skilled at being at peace. Peacefulness, that’s the spiritual good that is promised to us. But how we attain it is a question that is left unanswered.
Or, rather, answered in a very obscure way. Jesus keeps talking. He talks about himself. He is God’s son, sent to bring eternal life to the world. How? Not by condemning the world, but by trying to show us the light, to lead us into enlightenment. And if want this enlightenment, we must respond by coming into the light, by seeking it. This involves action. Our actions in the world must be open and honest, available for the consideration of anyone.
So those are the elements at play. Seek enlightenment and act honestly in the light, so that you may know the spirit in your life and be at peace. But the question remains: what does this have to do with snakes?
I heard a story this week about a woman who had served as a cancer nurse for thirty years. Thirty years of sorrow and loss as she saw patients worsen and die, and knew that even the moments of hope couldn’t be called cures, but only remissions. A huge psychic weight of suffering. And after thirty years, she found that her work place had changed. She had a new boss who was very demanding. It wore her down, to the point where she collapsed. Who could blame her? She left nursing for awhile and sought help. And after some months passed she felt better, and was ready to return to nursing. She wouldn’t be a cancer nurse anymore, but she would be at the same hospital, and with the same demanding boss. The day before she went back to work, she was terrified. She told her husband that she didn’t know how she was going to handle being in her boss’s presence again. Her husband told her “You’ve got to face the snake.”
That’s what the snake is. It’s that little piece of darkness in anyone’s life that is keeping them from walking in the light. The shame of feeling that you’ve failed a demanding boss. The pain of a childhood memory that keeps coming back. The fact of a rejection, the grief from a loss, the ingrained dissatisfaction from not getting something that we really wanted.
For the Israelites in Numbers 21, the real, physical snakes appear after the people have become impatient and complained about the food. Their impatience and complaints prompt the Lord to send poisonous, biting snakes among them. Many of them die. They recognize their mistake, go to Moses, and ask him to intercede on their behalf. Moses consults with the Lord, who tells him to “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” It is, unquestionably, a bizarre story, and it doesn’t make the Lord look very good. But it does have spiritual value. It suggests that we get over our snakes by facing them. You have to face the snake. Whatever little shard of darkness is keeping you from the light, you don’t get over it by ignoring it. You get over it by facing it and moving through it.
And this is why Jesus compares that snake on a stick to being lifted high on the cross. For people who aren’t used to the story of the cross, and who hear it for the first time, it sounds like foolishness. The idea that the world would be saved by a Palestinian peasant being tortured to death doesn’t make much sense. And for the disciples, the cross represented the end of their hopes and ambitions. It wasn’t the salvation they were looking for. But they walked to the cross with Jesus because they couldn’t help themselves. They loved him too much. He had taught them how to live. They watched him die, and if that was the end of the story, they would’ve been sunk. But they spent two days in hiding, and on the third day, Jesus rose again from the dead. They had stared at the snake, and moved through the pain of its darkness, and found themselves blinking in new light.
This is what happens to us when we face our darkness. It hurts to face it. It leads us into deep grief. But if we look on it with steadfastness, we move through it, and find ourselves emerging into a new life. Being born, as it were, from the spirit.