The first thing that comes to mind when I hear this morning’s gospel is my years as a high school student. In the 70’s there was a seemingly large group of evangelical Christian youth who called themselves, “Jesus Freaks”. They loved to quote random Bible verses at other students, which made them feel a little superior, I’m sure. To the rest of us “unsaved” students, they were a curiosity, something to roll our eyes about at lunchtime. With Catholics like myself, they often used John 3:16 like some kind of proof that Catholics weren’t going to be saved. Didn’t they ever wonder what John 3:15 or say, John 3:17 says? They all form part of the same conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, but somehow, those verses never became as popular as John 3:16.
Luther may be right in saying that John 3:16 is “the gospel in miniature,” but what surrounds this verse? The answer is simple: a conversation between two people engaged in a serious conversation. We read these words:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
What strange words! Moses? The serpent in the wilderness? No wonder this verse gets trampled on in our haste to get to John 3:16. We have before us a reference to an ancient story that Jesus knew and that all his hearers knew. You would think that this reading from Numbers would have been our first reading tonight, but, no such luck. Anyway, here’s the story:
God’s people are meandering through the wasteland of the Sinai. The heat from the sand forms a natural oven that blisters the skin and dries up the water. Edible critters in the vicinity of Sinai isn’t much–a scorpion here, a stray hare maybe. In fact, manna seems to be the main course. In Hebrew it is pronounced, man-hoo, which means, “what’s that?” So after months of wandering and complaining about the desert, God graciously provided something, and just like you and me, the Hebrews, too, wondered, “What’s that??”
Then suddenly venomous snakes appear among them, and some people who were bitten died immediately. Suddenly eating “What’s that?” didn’t seem so bad, and the people cried out to God for assistance. Moses himself petitions God on their behalf and he is told to make a graven image of a serpent, to put it on a pole and those who look at it will be healed.” And that is what happens. (What is interesting about this story is the fact that the Jews of later years insisted that they had been monotheists and against idols from the beginning, but this surviving story from their past disproves their claim. If there was a strict prohibition on images, why does God command them to do what He has already told them not to do??)
This is the story that Jesus refers to in his conversation with Nicodemus. But what does this snake-on-a-pole story mean anyway? Maybe the story has survived because it has something to tell us in our own time.
Maybe the story reveals something about ourselves, namely, that when we harbor hatred and resentment and nurse bitterness we open the door to a deadly venom that eats away at us and kills our relationships. Medical science certainly seems to confirm this story. Hardly a week goes by without some medical reference to the longterm effects of negativity, anger and lack of forgiveness. When we nurture negative or hurtful feelings and cling to unforgiveness, we open the door to the snakes.
Only a few Jewish families live in Billings, Montana, but for some, one was thought to be too many. A few people began their own hate campaign. They donned silly KKK hoods and marched out and around the Jewish homes shouting expletives and verbal abuse. Understandably, peace-loving people in the community got frightened. Doors closed and curtains were drawn to shut out the racism, as if good peoples’ silence would make the problem go away.
But one faith community in town looked around with a more serious gaze at their community, and they decided to send a message of support to their Jewish neighbors. They hung little menorahs in their church windows and in their windows at home. As a sign of love and support, crosses and menorahs were seen all over town.
The circle of rage and hate against these families and now against their supporters grew larger. Within a week the faith community itself was pelted with rocks and paint and their doors were vandalized by the angry people. The Christians had made a decision to stand firm, however, and in time, the hatred diminished. The poison of racism had run its course, paralyzing some people’s hearts, but inspiring others to rise to the challenge, even at the risk of personal consequences. Whether we’re talking Billings, Montana, or Fort Wayne, Indiana, the outcome will always be the same for those who choose to stand for what is right. The truth will stand.
“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.” That’s the part of the story that Jesus changed, bringing something new to the ancient story. He doesn’t talk about hatred, racism, or other poisons. His listeners, then and now, realize by this time that all of them have at one time or another been bitten by poisonous snakes. Jesus goes right to the punch line, the antidote for the snake’s poison: “When I am lifted up people will find healing and the fullness of life.”
In the midst of this poison, in the whirl of hatred, healing came to the faith community I just spoke of. CBS picked up the story and instead of hearing self-righteous Christians proclaiming John 3:16, people all over the country learned about a little congregation and Jewish families who joined together to fight hatred and racism. Donations of labor and money for repairs came from all over America to that little congregation and Jewish neighbors. In the end, it was love, that won the day. People found a way to move forward, past the poison to the remedy that is God’s love. It will always be that way, because Christ has been lifted up. The Reign of God has already triumphed, and we are forever healing ourselves and others, and becoming who we were always meant to be.