Look and Live! Wee report of Duncan’s sermon this morning

Bronze serpent 2

Next Sunday marks the start of Advent, Duncan told us this morning, the four Sundays running up to Christmas in which we explore themes of darkness and light. ‘The people who walked in darkness, have [in Christ] seen a great light.’  (Isaiah 9:2)

In fact, Duncan continued, we begin this study of light and darkness today in contrasting our final passage from the book of Numbers, 21:1-9 with some verses in John’s gospel quoting Jesus.

The early verses in Numbers 21 are ‘difficult’ in terms of our understanding of who God is. The Israelites make a bargain with God:  if you help us to defeat this group of Canaanites, we will utterly destroy their cities. (v2,3)  Genocide seems part of the story here, and this is  at variance with the passage from John 3, which speaks about God loving the whole world (v16) and Jesus not coming the condemn the world. (v17) but to save the world.

John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible. You often see someone at a major sporting event  holding up a card with thus verse on it, in the hope of it being picked up by the TV cameras. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’

But immediately before these words, Jesus spoke about the Son of Man being ‘lifted up’, and referred back to our passage from Numbers: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ (John 3:14-15)

Here’s the passage Jesus was referring to. The Israelites had been complaining again:

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.  (Numbers 21:6-9)

A very strange and unusual  passage, but as Jesus mentioned it, it’s important to have a closer look.

Duncan told us he’d been watching a segment of  I’m a celebrity recently, and had seen one of the celebrities being shut in an enclosed area with fifty snakes for five minutes. The producers are of course keying in to people’s fear -  many of us a phobia of snakes, and not surprisingly because some snakes are lethal.

Fear of snakes has haunted the human imagination, Duncan said. Some cultures have elevated snakes, seeing them as powerful, if dangerous.  In other cultures – Christian and Jewish culture, for example, snakes representing evil in the world, from Genesis 3 onwards.

‘The symbol of the snake,’ said Duncan, ‘raises questions as to how we deal with the reality of evil in the world. That’s the question which both Numbers and John are addressing.  Today, we want to look at Numbers through the lens of John’s gospel, and Jesus’ words about the original story.’

When the grumbling Israelites are punished by an infestation of poisonous snakes, God gives Moses a remedy, a cure: Moses had to erect a bronze serpent on a pole. If someone was bitten by a snake, all they had to do was to lift their eyes to the pole-mounted serpent, and they would live.

In referring to this story in John 3:14-15, Jesus is pointing to his own death. Just as the Israelites in the desert had to look at the bronze snake if they were to be saved, so the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

Humanity has been ‘bitten’ by evil and sin; the cure is to look at the Son of Man dying on the cross. Life and healing come through looking to Jesus. Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate antidote to evil, the healing remedy.

Says theologian Tom Wright ‘the evil which was an is in the world, deep rooted within us all, was somehow allowed to take out its full force on Jesus.’

God in the person of Jesus is lifted up, and takes upon himself the weight of the world’s evil so that we can be healed.  We are invited to look at Jesus crucified, to look and trust, to believe and live.

Duncan concluded:

Our lives are not straightforward. Often they seem like a puzzle.

Our story today is inviting us to look unflinchingly on that which would cause our death and destruction, and also realise that our looking leads to life.

The Israelites looked at the image of the snake on the pole, an image of what caused them fear and death, and they found life and healing.

Jesus invites us in our gospel story today to look at the Cross and see life and love.

Looking to the cross forces all of us to confront all those aspects of our lives which will take us towards Darkness rather than the Light. And it shows us darkness being overcome by God’s love.

Look and live!

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