4th Sunday of Lent, Year B
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
I’ve never been bitten by a snake – at least, not in the literal sense. Bees, spiders, dogs, fish, and even my younger sister once or twice while growing up, yes. Snakes, no. I don’t suspect it would be a very pleasant experience. Depending on the breed of snake, it could cause permanent damage or even be lethal. Thinking about snake bites is probably not something many of us do when we want to be comforted or regain our composure after a hard day.
It might seem strange then, to realize that snake bites are the immediate context for the most famous and beloved line in all Scripture – one people turn to for comfort and assurance in the storms of life. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
The Church provides us this comforting passage on this rose-colored Laetare (“Rejoice!”) Sunday as we pause to be refreshed in the midst of our Lenten journey through the desert. But the full power and joy of this verse cannot be unleashed without understanding the snake bites that precede it in John 3:14-15, where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
This cryptic statement refers back to the People of God’s first journey through the desert, as they were led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They had their setbacks along the way as they learned to trust in God alone and to live as the free sons and daughters of God he was calling them to become. Though God consistently provides food and water for them every day, they still find reason to complain, and God sends “seraph serpents” (literally, “fiery ones,” perhaps describing their venomous bites), which bite the people, and many of them die.
Admonished, they repent and beg Moses to intercede on their behalf. The Lord’s reply to Moses’ prayer is very strange. He says, “‘Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.’ Accordingly, Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
The lesson was this: entrust that which causes you to suffer to the Lord, and he will heal you, not by your running from it, but by looking at it squarely as a filial act of trust in the Lord who provides life in the desert. It is a lesson that had and has to be learned again and again on account of our weakness. Our reading from 2 Chronicles this week provides another perfect example.
In our Gospel this week, Jesus is helping Nicodemus understand what it means to be born again of water and Spirit. As Nicodemus strains to understand, our Lord draws on this strange story of Moses lifting up the serpent and reads it spiritually to pair it to the mystery of his own being “lifted up,” which becomes a theme in the Gospel that refers to his being lifted up on the Cross and ultimately in the Resurrection – his two exaltations that cannot be separated from one another.
The lesson is this: we have all, in fact, been snake bitten. We are infected with the poison of sin and bear its difficult effects in myriad ways in this fallen world. Left unaddressed, the bite becomes toxic in our system and is lethal. The only way to get it out, the only way to be healed, is to face our brokenness, to look squarely upon the very thing that is wounding us, but to do so in a very particular way. We cannot simply ignore the situation, pretending it is not a problem or hoping it will just go away. But we also must not simply look at our brokenness as an end in itself, just as the Israelites did not simply look more at the actual snakes that were biting them. Rather, we look quite specifically at our brokenness as it is united to Christ lifted up on the Cross. In him, it is transformed, and our gazing upon it becomes an act of filial trust in the merciful God who provides life in the desert. In this mystery of Christ’s love revealed on the Cross, we receive true courage to face our sin and brokenness, not to run from it; and, perhaps surprisingly, to discover Jesus there, uniting himself to it and so lifting it up, redeeming it and healing us of its poisonous venom.
Christians around the world rather strangely find it perfectly normal to look upon an instrument of torture when we seek to be comforted or regain our composure after a hard day. But this instrument – this Cross – is our strength and our joy, because in its grit, God’s love becomes relevant to our lives here below, in constant need of being lifted up from the dust. In its mystery, we are known and loved and redeemed. And in its mystery, we are given strength and courage to press on in our own small portion of the Cross that we have been privileged to bear with Christ.