Fourth Sunday in Lent
Jesus makes a curious comparison to an even more curious story. Jesus says that “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.”
The reference is to the story in Numbers 21, where “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.’”
God’s response? “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people.” Notice that it does not say that God was angry. It does not say that God punished the people. God simply “sent poisonous serpents among the people.”
The people are being led by God and Moses to a land of abundance and to a place where the presence of God would reside with them. And yet they have the brazenness to claim that God and Moses are leading them to die in the wilderness.
And so if the people will not trust that God is leading them into this kind of world, then God will reveal to them the kind of world in which they already live — a world where poisonous vipers are ever-ready to strike at people’s heels.
This in fact is the kind of world that humanity has created. Whenever the children of Adam and Eve would encounter a serpent in the wilderness, they would be reminded of the choices their forebears made in the garden. The discord between the serpent and humanity is a reflection of the greater discord between humanity and God. To live in conflict with God is also to live in conflict with creation. And living in conflict with God and creation leads to death.
The golden serpent that is lifted up in the desert is both reminder and remedy. It is a reminder that when we trust in our own way, and doubt the guidance and provisions of God, we will encounter death. And this very act of remembering is bound up with the remedy. It is a reminder that we cannot cure ourselves, nor can we lead ourselves.
The golden serpent that is lifted up in the wilderness is a reminder of the choices that humanity has made. Jesus is lifted up as a reminder of the choice God has made. Trusting in God as we walk this pilgrim way of Lent is like trusting God in the wilderness. Indeed, the way of the cross can lead us to cry out with words very similar to those of the Israelites: “Have you led us out here to die?”
But we hear from the prophet Hosea, “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” God is leading us out of an existence of discord and death, and into the abundant life of Christ. However, this journey must pass through the wilderness and we may feel like God is killing us. That is why we need to constantly lift up a reminder — and the remembering is connected to the remedy.
In the desert, the golden serpent is lifted up as a reminder of the choices that humanity makes. In the Eucharist, Christ is lifted up as a reminder of the choice that Jesus makes. In the desert, the wounded Israelites turn their gaze towards the image of the one who wounded them. In the Eucharist, Christ is the image of the one who is wounded “for our transgressions…and by his wounds we are healed.”
Christ is leading all people to a life of abundance and to a place where the presence of God dwells richly. Therefore, let us “fix our gaze upon Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Image Credit: Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Augustus John