Bitten and Blessed ~ Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3: 14-21
Snakes get our attention. Even hearing the word snake can get most of us squirming.
I bet each of us has our own snake story of some variety. Snakes in sleeping bags on camping trips; snakes being thrown at you by the gross neighbor boys; snakes at the zoo wrapping around the reptilian keepers; the famous basilisk in the Harry Potter book; the 2006 horror movie, Snakes on a Plane.
In recent news: the Burmese Python, one of the world’s largest snakes, is reported to be rapidly reproducing and spreading throughout Florida wreaking havoc on other wildlife. And, of course, the symbol for the American Medical Associate is a snake curled around a staff. This is not from the biblical story as much as it looks like it. It is the staff of Asklepios, the ancient mythical god of medicine.
Snakes get our attention.
It’s no surprise that snakes have made their way into the scriptures. Right from the beginning in the garden, the serpent is a central character. This morning we have another chilling story about snakes sent by God to punish his people.
And just what are their sins?
Whining, complaining, and accusing God for the umpteenth time of not taking good enough care of them. We’ve seen this before in the beginning of Exodus. God liberated the people from the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Their leader, Moses, led them into the desert where together they were free-wandering around in the desert, yes, but free nonetheless. They were in the wilderness no more than a few weeks when they started complaining against God and looking longingly backwards to their life in Egypt. It was bondage, they agreed, but at least they knew who there enemy was. In this story, they treat God as if they they’re still unsure if God is for them or against them.
They disparage and detest God’s gift of manna-God’s heavenly food. “Manna in the morning, noon and night. Manna yesterday, manna today, manna tomorrow. Oy. Enough with the manna already.”
Their complaining brought to mind my years as a college chaplain. No matter what the cafeteria in any college was serving, the expected response from students was “We hate the food.” Every student loved to hate cafeteria food. It always struck me as ironic that even though most complained bitterly about the food, they would eat Top Ramen, Kraft mac n cheese, and cereal! Not exactly sophisticated substitutes.
The children of Israel are outrageously human in these stories. They are frustrated over their past, and worried about their future. They are angry. The journey was taking way too long, and the God they had put their trust in didn’t seem to be holding his end of the deal. Forgetting the provisions of food, water and guidance God had provided along the way, they were again tired of God and his servant, Moses.
In response to their ingratitude, there is no glossing over God’s reaction: God is ticked at their distrust and sends the snakes to punish them.
It doesn’t take the Israelites long to plead to Moses to communicate their remorse and repentance. Just how many times must this leader intercede on behalf of the people to ask God not to wipe them out?
Just how short are our memories? Remembering the good in our lives seems like an insurmountable challenge. Instead we are quick to grumble when things are not going as we would like them to be.
I know I grumble most not over significant problems, but over the everyday annoyances. No wonder the daily practice of naming the good in our lives is a spiritual discipline. It takes practice to do what the Apostle Paul said, “If there is anything excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things.” It takes work to think on the good things.
After hearing Moses’ plea for forgiveness yet again, God provides a way for their salvation. When bitten, those who look upon the bronze serpent-image are healed.
What was a once a curse has turned into a blessing. The image of death is turned into a conduit for life.
What wisdom do we draw from this story that sets us on edge?
What help are we offered to face our own version of snakebite?
First, we have to face our own serpent-self dead on. Whatever form it takes. We have to look it in the eyes.
We’ve all been bitten in one way or another. We’ve all felt the sting of death-disappointments, loss, failures, betrayals-they create a poison of their own inside of us; our own unique snakebites–we might name them demons, snakes, monsters or weaknesses. By whichever name we choose, they symbolize the struggles in our lives that torment us.
I was reading about grief work this past week, and one counselor wrote: “Many terrible and tragic situations happen in life. Learning early to look at difficult situations on an emotional level can help you process your grief and pain. Deeply delve into your emotions; ask yourself what do you need to make it better for you? Self-pride, holding grudges, staying angry and other behaviors will only keep you chained to the event. Holding on to unnecessary pain or conflicts build over time and fester inside you.”
We can be held captive by the unacknowledged pain we so carefully keep inside of us hoping that no one else will notice. A wise person has said, “We are as sick as the secrets we keep.”
What is your snakebite?
Are you struggling with an addiction? Name it.
Are you living with an eating disorder? Name it.
Do you live with debilitating anxiety? Name it.
Have you been told you have an anger problem? Name it.
Do you carry crushing guilt and shame over something you’ve done ? Name it.
Did you grow up in a dysfunctional family and want to be freed from the same dysfunctional patterns in your own life? Look it in the eye and get honest about it.
As Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Some might prefer to leave the truth in the shadows. But it is in the bringing to light the truth that we are healed.”
By opening ourselves up to the Source of Love, we can see beyond our snakebite to the One who offers healing.
Second, curses can become blessings. The salvation God offers is to transform our pain into power. Our poison into cure.
Madame Marie Sladowska Curie, the scientist and two-time Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry and Physics, discovered the power of radium and its effects in treating cancer. Of course, the tragedy of her diligent and brilliant work is that while Curie was working to discover the healing powers of this element, she herself was being contaminated and eventually died from its poisoning effects. What was a poison for her became a cure for all of us.
Befriend your poison. Acknowledge that what has bitten you might become a very blessing to you. Your dysfunctional family of origin might give you the compassion and experience of pain that becomes the vehicle of healing for others. I know my best therapists have been folks who have done the hard work of looking at their own demons – and have allowed their pain to be transformed into wisdom and strength.
Truth be told, I don’t want to see a therapist who hasn’t had their own problems and worked through them. Nor do I want to have a minister, or be a minister, who can’t relate to human struggles; who hasn’t faced her own demons.
The church is not meant to be a community of perfect people who have exorcised their demons themselves. On the contrary, we are a community of collective weaknesses, not strengths. I know it’s contrary to what we’ve been led to think that we can’t get our heads around it. To celebrate in our weaknesses is extremely counter-cultural.
Third, our snakebites actually give us power when they compel us to turn to the One who offers the healing. Our snakebites force us to look upward toward our God.
To deny them keeps us from facing them. And if we don’t face our weaknesses-our struggles, our demons-we can’t move toward wholeness or healing which come from the same root.
Paul prayed that God would heal him of “the thorn in his flesh” – exactly what that temptation or infliction was he suffered with we don’t know. But the response from God was this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is no room for false piety or spiritual arrogance.
Lastly, did you notice that God does not remove the snakes entirely? The snakes remain with them on their journey.
“What doesn’t kill them makes them stronger,” as the saying goes.
We must face that our serpents might never leave us.
In the film, A Beautiful Mind, about John Forbes Nash Jr., the Nobel Laureate in Economics told the story of the man who was both brilliant, and tormented with the mental illness of paranoid schizophrenia. His bondage to his illness grew more profound over the years: his research and teaching, his marriage, his social network were all affected. Gratefully, Nash finally did receive healing through treatments. At the end of the film, Ron Howard the director, portrayed Nash’s character healed and functioning well, but not completely cured. Healed . . . but not cured.
And here’s the part I loved: the three fictional personas – Nash’s own demons – who had tormented him for so many years through their voices in his head remained with him even after he was well. They never left him. In the ending scene, the personas were still walking alongside Nash. But at a distance. Nash had befriended them in his own way, thus no longer was he controlled by them.
In Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus in the shadows of the night, Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so God has provided the way for healing through the Son. It is through the cross, through his wounds, that the world is healed.” Isaiah 53. 5
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 1 Peter 2.24:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,* so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds* you have been healed.
Just as the Israelites looked upward for healing, so we look upward toward Jesus. Just as it was God and not the image of serpent that rescued them, so it is God’s work through the wounds of Christ that offers us new life.
Not the cross itself, but the compassion of God through Jesus shown on the cross.
Look and see.
The wholeness we desire is offered to us, but it comes to us by our choosing it.
Name your serpent. Bring it into the light. Look it in the eye, and then turn upward to God who offers you rescue from its power over you. The snakebite does not have to kill you. Who knows, it might even become the very poison God transforms into cure– for you and for the world.
Thanks be to God.