Numbers 21:4-9; Ps. 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 Oremus Bible Browser

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

One of the delightful experiences of Lent is that there’s a sense, or more of sense, of a sharing in the theological enterprise. As a community it’s as if we all get involved with a bit more intent about unfolding the word of God. So we’ve got ‘Living the Questions’, we’ve got Lent Reflections, EFM, the various discussions and the conversations that are all happening and weaving, during Lent, all of them pointing to the fact that it is not the priest in a community that is the holder of wisdom, but rather it is us together in our seeking to know God, that we move and are shaped and perhaps find ourselves. And the readings today I think provide an opportunity to have more doors opened, give us an opportunity to more fully appreciate the place of Christ and the place of ourselves in the impending Easter mysteries.

They’re stunning readings this week. The reading from Numbers - I don’t know for you, but on first hearing it and reading it through the question that comes up is: what place, does the symbol of the serpent play? Why do we get that reading here and now? We’re not that familiar in the modern world with serpents, snakes - what place does it - what part does it play? What does it tell us about God and our relationship with the Divine? And I think that it’s as we read and as we see the world in symbols that we have the opportunity to move beyond the world of our senses. What we do is, if we read the world in symbols then we find a world that is beyond the world of the everyday; we move from the seen to the unseen.

In our contemporary culture there are many that are considered wise because they have knowledge of the seen, what can be seen. We have scientists, teachers, all sorts of information to discover and teach us about what is seen. Yet somehow we know that this is not wisdom: this doesn’t satisfy, there is something else. Is not wisdom the seeing and the seeking to understand the unseen? The realisation that if we read the world in symbols we will see beyond that input that we receive through touch, through taste, through smell, through sight, through hearing - there is something more, something that our soul desires and thirsts for.

So let’s go back to this first reading and just have a look at a couple of aspects of it. Let’s have a look at the symbol of the serpent: ‘The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, set it on a pole and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and shall live.”’ For me, I can’t help, as soon as you get the bit, ‘serpent’ there, I go immediately - I pick up the Garden of Eden story and the serpent there, the part that the serpent played in the Garden of Eden story. My guess is that most of us are very familiar with the ‘Adam and Eve and the serpent’ story. I wonder if we’ve ever, if we’ve ever taken it apart and said, ‘This actually is part of my story; this is my beginning and my creation, this story’. It’s not the story of the beginning of the world, for the world begins in the moment, this is my beginning. What is that story about, what is that serpent about? Is it the same serpent that we’ve now got in this reading from Numbers - the brass one on top of the brass pole? If we carry on we’ll eventually get to the Book of Kings and we’ll read this - we’ll read this. This is in the third year of King Hosea: ‘He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in 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.’ Whoa, that tells us a little bit more about this serpent - somewhere that serpent seems to play an important part. We have Moses, who we’re always told to think of as pretty right with God, he gets told to create the serpent - this is a life-giving serpent - and then later on we’ve found it has got to be torn down and broken into pieces for it’s being worshipped. Where is it all going, what place does this serpent have?

The reading that we’re given between the Old Testament and the Gospel is this reading from Ephesians, and I think we’re given it because it provides us, if you like, with a later, a later thought, that’s unpacking some of the symbolic story that we’ve just read. And what we find in Ephesians, verse 1: ‘You were dead - you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, you were dead, following the course of this world’. And then we find later on in the same reading, in verse 5: we were made alive together with Christ. There is something in this reading of Ephesians about our being dead and being made alive - being dead and being made alive. Now the serpent seems to have that symbolism as well. The serpent leads to movement within the Garden of Eden; God says death will come, the serpent says, don’t believe God, you’ll get life. So there’s an interplay of the serpent there. In the Numbers reading we hear - there’s this other really interesting interplay - the loving God sends poisonous snakes down to kill people, and then tells Moses to put a serpent on a pole so that those who look at it might live. Death and life - somehow are linked and they’re linked with the symbol of the serpent.

What we also find in Ephesians is there’s this notion of being saved by grace, and again it’s important for us to unpack words like ‘saved’. It’s one of the last things that you’d want to be, is to be saved by the Church. Just imagine it - walking down the street, on your way to the Sail and Anchor for a couple of nice Dogbolters, and a bunch of Christians come and save you! That’d be awful! What is the notion of ‘saved’ about though, when we read of it in scriptures? It’s not that at all, because the great thing is the saving that’s being talked about here has got nothing to do with the church. These letters were being exchanged while the church was forming, it was actually forming, it wasn’t there, it wasn’t the bank which saved people.

So it means something else and I wonder whether we get some understanding of that when we go down to the Gospel reading, because what we get in John in verse 17 is, ‘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.’ Brilliant! That’s what this word ‘saved’ is about. Now the other interesting thing is that in verse 6 of the Old Testament we had God sending poisonous serpents, now in John’s gospel we’ve got God sending his son. And the interesting thing is that John makes the link for us, just in case we didn’t quite get it: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. We’ve now got a link between the serpent and Christ. We’ve got a link there, what’s the link about? Well, it hinges on that verse 17: ‘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.’

To condemn is not so much about judging and writing off, but rather when something is condemned, it is given an orientation towards death. The house was condemned - it is no longer a place to live, it will be pulled down; he was condemned in prison; he’s condemned to be hung - there’s a limited time, an orientation towards death. Likewise in saved: saved isn’t so much the giving of life. If we picture someone being saved it’s almost as if they’re being taken away from death, so that they then have an opportunity for life. So this idea of condemned and saved is very much about the orientation that we have. Do we condemn ourselves, do we condemn each other, do we condemn the universe, do we condemn the planet by the way we live? Or do we move towards life, do we save those around us, do we save the planet, do we save the universe, do we bring life rather than death? And somewhere, somehow, that’s linked to this symbol of the serpent, for the serpent throughout scripture seems to speak always about life and death, and there’s very little separation in the two. In fact the Church misunderstands so much of what the serpent says. The serpent maybe, has got a voice that leads us towards life.

I followed a link and the link started in that Old Testament reading; it then took me down to the reading in Kings and I wondered about that link: why was this life-giving serpent broken? ‘He removed the high places, broke down the pillars and cut down the sacred pole, broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made.’ The name given to the serpent, the bronze serpent that Moses had made was Nehushtan. I followed that link - I hadn’t even heard the word before: ‘a Semitic serpent god whose idol was made by Moses, the Hebrew Nehushtan or Nahash, "serpent" descended from the Vedic serpent-king Nahusha, that once ruled all the gods, but cast down to the underworld.’ Whoa! So I followed that link, let’s have a look - maybe we need to cast our eyes a bit wider because we’ve moved now from the Old Testament into the Hindu scriptures and in the Hindu scriptures there’s a story of Nahusha, a serpent king after which the serpent that we find in the Old Testament was named and created. What an amazing link!

The opening up of the word of God will take us beyond the little bits that we’ve been fed throughout the years by the church. There is whole world that still waits to be uncovered and discovered. The story that we have of the serpent is probably a Sunday School theology that we’ve just held onto, simply thinking that yes, there’s a truth here. We must push further than that, because the symbol of the serpent perhaps is one of the keys to our life or to our death. It goes beyond the three readings of the Old Testament that we’ve touched on this morning; it goes beyond the gospel reading that we heard this morning; it goes beyond the other parallels in the gospel which mention serpents, it goes beyond the gospels that weren’t canonised in the Bible. It takes us into other scriptures and other traditions. And what we will find I think, is that in every culture, in every - in every place where God is sought, there is the serpent - the serpent of the dreamtime, in China the serpent takes on the form of the dragon - everywhere there’s a part played by the symbol.

Our choice is to continue to read the world with our senses and think that this is it, in which case the quest that we will have will be a quest for long life, good health and wealth. That is a stunningly simple quest - many people have achieved it and there are books written about how to get there. There’s another quest though that goes beyond all that and makes that look such a small part and that is the fullness of life that we are called on to be. It’s touched on again in John’s gospel: ‘Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’. And it’s in coming to the light that we find ourselves in Christ, Christ-like - we move into a realm beyond this world. Jesus said ‘the pharisees and the scribes have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They did not go in and those who wished to go in they did not allow. But you, you be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’.

The Lord be with you

Peter Humphris

Textweek Fifth Sunday in Lent