by Phyllis Tickle
Being a writer by trade, and therefore a teller of tales, I want to tell you a story that belongs to the time of the Exodus. The Children of Israel had fled Egypt to the accompaniment of mighty signs and wonders and had come to the borders of the Promised Land. Twelve spies were sent across the river into this lush and fertile land, but the reports with which the spies returned were not as promising as the land itself. The country across the Jordan was indeed rich and fecund, they said, but it was also filled with mighty warriors—giants almost in their size and strength. Ten of the scouts said there was no way that the Children, a rag-tag band of exhausted migrants, could conquer, much less evict, such warriors.
But two of the spies filed a different report. Joshua and Caleb said the Children must cross over and enter, for Yahweh had pledged them this land would be the strength of their hands and the defense of their lives. Ten almost always takes precedence over two, however, and the Children of Israel, freshly come from the glory of a parting sea and a Passover angel, decided to follow the advice of the ten fearful scouts. They broke camp and returned to the desert across which they had just come.
Yahweh was angry at this faithlessness and decreed that the Children of Israel were to wander for forty years in that desert they had chosen for themselves, until every single one of the Children, save only Joshua and Caleb, was dead. So they wandered and tested God and one by one they died, until indeed only their children survived.
It was those Children's children, then, whom near to the end of the forty years, Moses, along with Joshua and Caleb, began to lead back toward the Promised Land. But like their progenitors, the men and women of this second generation began also to doubt and complain. They said things like, "Let us go back to Egypt. At least there we were fed, had homes we could live in one place." They said also, "Who of us has seen God? To which of us has he spoken? Who among us can say he or she believes all the tales our fathers and mothers left us? Who?"
And the wrath of Yahweh lashed out against them again. This time, the story says, Yahweh sent snakes into the camps to kill his apostate people. There were droves of snakes moving through the camp of the Children's children…snakes in the tents, snakes in the breadbaskets and the cooking pots, snakes in the bedrolls and snakes in the cribs. Then Moses, falling on his knees, petitioned God's mercy on the Children. God told Moses then to take a consecrated brass vessel at the door of the Tent of Meeting and hammer it quickly into the image of the serpents that were attacking the Children's children. Moses did and he wound the brass snake around the crosspiece of his staff and then he ran through the camp, holding the staff aloft and calling out to the people in the throes of their agony, "Look up! Look up and be saved! Look up! Look up and be saved!"
And the Bible says that those who believed Moses, those who stopped looking down at the snakes, who stopped trying to pull them off of themselves and their children, but looked up instead at the brass snake…those men and women did not die, but they were saved. This does not mean that they were not bitten, but simply that those who looked up and not down did not die of their wounds. Eighteen months later, it was these men and women who saw the Jordan part before them and who walked across its dry bed to claim the land of milk and honey promised them by God.
It's a good story, in fact, a very impressive story. And what the story recognizes is that all of us are going to be bitten—painfully bitten—in this life. Most of us learn that truth fairly quickly just from experience. But, according to the story, it is not the being bitten that we in this imperfect world can do anything about; it is only the how we respond to being bitten that we can control. When we look up, usually we are saved by that very act of faith for it is when we look down and struggle with what is tormenting us that we most often empower it by the very attention we are going to give it.
The story of the snake is, therefore, superb psychology and the stuff of great wisdom, and if we were to leave the story of the snake right here, I would hope you would deem yourselves as having been well served just by having heard it again; but we can't leave it there…or I can't anyway.
If in this country of ours where 97% of us say we believe in God and where 86% of us presently claim to be Christian in our exercise of that belief, if in this country religion journalists and analysts like me ask the 86% what their favorite verse of Christian scripture is, the answer overwhelmingly would be—and always has been—John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish, but have eternal life.
Jesus of Nazareth is the speaker, of course, and he is speaking about himself to Nicodemus, a leader who had come to him under cover of darkness to inquire whether or not this teaching carpenter might indeed just possibly be the messiah. So it was in the context of answering Nicodemus' query that Jesus spoke the words of John 3:16.
They are good words, and they sit reassuringly upon our ears. They were, however, troubling to Nicodemus, for John 3:16 is preceded by John 3:14 & 15, verses Nicodemus himself heard but which we today almost never think to be curious about, much less to actually look up and read. The whole of what Jesus actually said, according to these verses, is this:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish, but have eternal life.
It is one of the two or three times that the Christ whom we Christians name as Son of God ever reaches back into the Torah of his people and lays direct, specific claim to the events and actions of his human life as being re-enactments or realizations of specific events and actions in Jewish history. The minute he did, however, the minute Jesus said as was Moses' snake on a cross to a plan of release so is my death on a cross to a plan of salvation; the minute he did that, He stepped beyond wisdom and beyond psychology and into that component of religion which is mystery. To be specific, he took the religion of Judaism and applied a new and scandalous mystery to its wisdom, a mystery into which Nicodemus could not at that time follow him, a mystery of so great a creating love and so eternal, daring, and intricate a plan for the creature that only grace can make it palatable and only faith can receive it.
And that, finally, is what the story has taught me and what I hope to give away to you today; for if my years as a writer in the field of religion have made me aware of anything at all, they have made me wrenchingly aware that ours is the first generation in America's history for whom one of the burning questions will be how every single one of us deals with, respects, and inhabits a culture of many faiths and many gods while living with intellectual and spiritual integrity in allegiance to only one of them.
The truth of the matter—and we would be very foolish to not profess it—the truth of the matter is that all religions deal in human psychology. All religions likewise offer us wisdom—much wisdom, wisdom that is useable, effective, and of worth to all humankind; wisdom that, because it is sound, is also very similar in substance, from one religion to another; for it is in their mysteries and not their wisdom that religions differ.
How the wisdom of any given religion slips over into its mysteries—the mechanisms, the devices, by which it accomplishes that transport—these are how the followers of that religion slip the traces of time and space in order to enter awe. And ultimately we all—body, mind, and soul—come to be like that unto which and before which we bow.
All of which is to say that my yearning, keening wish for all of us in this time and place is threefold: First, that we may live out our lives deeply respectful of religion wherever it exists in our world and deeply appreciative of the wisdom within the various religions of that world; second, that in doing these things and exercising these attitudes of appreciation and respect, we will come never to confuse the wisdom of religion with the mysteries of religion; and last, that while functioning as a faithful citizen of the world, each of us may also live as one forever held in the amazement of a specific religion. Amen
The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up—Like the Serpent
by John Piper
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 3rd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)
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