From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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.”
Snakes in the wilderness, and sinners living in a broken world. Poison that seeps through the blood – either as a neurotoxin from the fangs of a viper or as the wicked inclinations that lodge in the heart and manifest in our actions in the world. Christ, in telling Nicodemus how he can be born again of the Spirit, reaches into the history of God’s salvation of God’s people. To understand Jesus, we must understand the work of the Exodus, to understand the Exodus, we must understand the bronze serpent lifted up for the people of God. If we want to know what God is doing, we must see what God has done.
When the people of God were taken out of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery, they were not led directly into the promised land. That journey would have taken them only a few months in the worst of circumstances, however we are told that they spent years moving in a circuitous root around the desert. They went from Egypt to Sinai, or Horeb as it is sometimes called. This took them down through the Sinai Peninsula and then back up to the land of Edom. From Edom they circled round into Zin and Paran, and then back again. Finally, they went through Edom and Moab to the land of Canaan – crossing the Jordan river to enter Jericho.
The route they took, long and complicated, was far longer than it needed to be. However, we cannot see this journey as only about reaching a destination. The long journey the Israelites took is similar to our own journey. For many of us the “point” of becoming a Christian is that when we die, we get to go to Heaven. Blessed gift that our eternal presence with God is, that presence permeates all our life, not just our afterlife. We must understand that the strange and complicated journey that we take is not a distraction from the end goal, but part of the process of becoming people who can enjoy that eternity with God.
In the wilderness, the people constantly long to return to the evil they knew, rather than face the promise of what could be. They suddenly remember Egypt as a place full of good food and plentiful shade. The burden of slavery, the abuse and death suffered in Egypt was forgotten, all because the path to the promised land was not the walk in the park the people expected. While we could easily sit and judge the shortsighted Israelites, I think we all know we are not far off from them. While we are not often migrating from one place to another over miles and miles and months and months, we do have destinations in mind and that we simply cannot stay motivated to reach.
How many times have we had our self-improvement plans fall flat? When we want to be more active or study more intensely or be better organizers? A great example is how the average Bible reading plan lasts only about two months, being generous, and many people go most of their life having never read the scriptures cover to cover. In the same way we all have bad habits that we simply cannot part with – whether they be simple things like leaving the lights on in the house, or large things like a tendency toward mocking others. Sometimes they are issues of excessive consumption, sometimes they are a consequence of our lacking moral imagination.
Yet, the constant nostalgia of the migrant Israelites was the source of conflict. They doubted Moses, and they doubted God, they doubted their eyes and ears and preferred illusionary scenarios and conspiracies. The people longed for Halcyon days that never existed, they saw in hardship the antithesis rather than the method of their deliverance. When the going got tough, they and we got out of there.
Except, not really, because you can never actually escape hardship in life, especially when you are working through a process of improvement. Change is never pleasant; we would much rather stay the same than ever alter our course. Even if the end of our path is ruin.
The emergence of snakes in the wilderness is presented as an outcome of the Israelite’s nostalgia. Their longing left them sitting in the same dangerous space, not moving forward into the promise that was ahead of them, they sat still, and danger manifested as a result. As a consequence for their foolishness, for their unbending love of their own destruction, death found its way to nest among them. Burning snakes, striking out, ripping and tearing and the community. When they realized their need to be saved, when they sought deliverance, God offered a strange source of relief – something that would have seemed an anathema to those in the desert.
God commanded that a graven image be made – a thing forbidden by the first commandment! – And that that image be raised up within the Israelite camps. The bronze serpent, the burning serpent, the Nehushtan, raised up above the community to be looked upon if ever they were in need. How strange that God provided an image to deliver people from their torment, how scandalous that it be lifted up above them, how strange that God should save God’s people in this way.
We can see how Jesus saw this as the best way to explain his own passion. We as sinful people lost in the world needed deliverance. The consequences of our sin plain to us – the death we all must face, the degradation of relationships we cherish, the erasure of the good gifts we are given in the sea of greed we create. We cannot find a way out, no matter how hard we try, and the path that has led us to where we are has been long and winding. We have suffered a great many hardships inherent to all living people, and if we are living a truly Christian life, a few unique to that calling. The death of the self, the denial of sinful desire, the destruction of our tendency to deny others and increase ourselves. We are lost in the wilderness, we are tormented by the consequence of our actions, and we need a deliverance.
Sometimes we may be made to wonder if there couldn’t have been another way for our sin to be washed away. Could God have erased our sin with a wave of the hand? Could God have instituted purification sufficient to erase our sin? Why do we need a cross? Why should Christ have to suffer the way Christ did? We may never know every reason the scandal of the cross was necessary, but we know that it is the way we are made whole. More than that, this image, like the Nehushtan in the desert long ago, brings us to be freed from death, freed from the punishment of our sins, freed and truly free.
God did not see it as sufficient to give us a clean slate without an image. God did not give an order from on high to deliver us and then give us nothing to look to that we might remember our deliverance. God took on flesh, sending the eternal Logos, the eternal word of God, to live among us. In the image not only of a person, but a slave, not as someone born to glory, but as someone written off as a ne’er-do-well and sinner. He took on the image of sinful humanity, his colleagues abandoned him, people across Judea justified the execution of a rabble-rousing minister who should have just followed orders. Jesus became everything despicable and rejected by society without once warranting an ounce of this treatment.
All this to then die on a cross, a Roman punishment for treason and sedition. To suffer under the cruelest death imaginable, drawn out over hours and following a previous night of torture and abuse. The image of our sin, and the punishment for it, was lifted up. Yet, instead of being looked upon and bringing healing in that moment, the world turned away, and only two among Jesus’s closest confidants remained to look up at him – the beloved disciple John and his mother. The image of our deliverance was hung up for the world to see, but we could not stomach it. Faced with the reality of sin and death, we rejected both and with them, we rejected our savior.
Yet the image of Christ was not limited to the image on the cross. Christ rose from death and lives today in the blessed company of the Father. This image of our affliction raised up again, not as an example of shame and sin, but of glory and victory. For us who remain on earth, we strive to find that image. We work to become more like the ascendant Christ, more perfect and lovely, more good and loving. Yet, we must work through the wilderness we have created for ourselves, yet we must suffer the consequences of our actions and those of others.
This is why it is important for us who are called to follow Christ to not only look to the resurrection, but like Jesus informs us of in our text, we must look to the cross itself. For as the people in the wilderness looked upon the bronze serpent and were saved, so too do we find salvation in the cross. Our savior, haven taken on an image of sin and death, hanging above us for our salvation. This is what can inspire us to persevere in the midst of hardship. The fact that Christ suffered for us, with us, as one of us, gives us the strength we need to face anything.
The cross is the ultimate sign, not that we should get over the troubles that we face, but that we can overcome them. Even if not in victory, then in loss we can find gain because we lose alongside Christ, we suffer alongside Christ. At the end of all things, we will be raised victorious in Christ, but we are not at the end of all things. We are very much caught up in the middle. We are not in Egypt where our sin ruled us completely, nor are we in the promised land of perfection and union with God. We are in the wilderness, between our first meeting with God at the holy mountain and our final and eternal communion with God in eternal rest.
Yet this image, found not only in artistic representations but in our celebration of Communion every month, this icon of our salvation and of our hardship, it stands above us as a reminder that we can make the journey. It is the image of all our failings, and an image of the promise of our redemption. For God so loved the world, that we were given this blessed sight to inspire us onward, and this blessed savior that we may be reconciled to God once again.