SJF • Lent 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.
Anyone who comes from a culture in which the consumption of alcohol is a common feature will know that in addition to every culture’s favorite strong alcoholic beverage — whether rum or whiskey, bourbon or brandy — each culture also has its own favorite hangover cure. For it follows as the night the day — or more likely the day following the night!— that consumption of too much of any alcoholic beverage will have a definite impact on how you feel the next morning.
Some years ago, there was even a TV show called “Three Sheets” that formed the alcoholic equivalent to National Geographic. A man traveled the world sampling the strongest liquor in every country and getting royally — or democratically — drunk, depending on the country, and then the following morning seeking out each nation’s favorite hangover cure. The first episode of the series began with a search for Belize’s elusive cashew wine, high-power Viper Rum (made with real viper pickled in the bottle) and readily available Belikin Beer; and it ended with a dose of Michelada the morning after. Some of you may be familiar with these very products!
One of the things about many of the hangover cures is that they often include a certain amount of alcohol — including Michelada, which is part beer. The old saying is that you need “a hair of the dog that bit you” if you are to rid yourself of the hangover. And you are probably wondering about now what I may have been up to last night that brings forth this reflection on alcohol and its after-effects; but I assure you last night was not spent in a binge and I did not require a hair or any other part of a dog this morning in my coffee! Even being a quarter Irish I know how to behave on St. Patrick’s Day.
No, I raise this matter of the hair of the dog because of that curious incident from the book of Numbers that we heard this morning. God has Moses create a bronze serpent as a treatment for those suffering from the burning pain of snakebite. This is the same God who on Sinai had ordered Moses not to make any likeness of anything on the earth or under the earth or in the heavens — and yet here God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent; and not only to make it, but to display it before the people as a way to bring them healing from their snake-bites. Now, This is hardly modern medicine, hardly even medicine at all; and it comes from a time and a culture when such almost magical treatments for disease or injury were common. And a major feature of these cures is that they include something similar to, or derived from, the cause of the disease itself. Why, even today you can go to the drugstore and buy what they call “homeopathic medications” many of which contain small amounts of the thing that made you sick in the first place.
Now, this incident might have remained just one of those curious passages from the Hebrew Scriptures explained in a footnote but then quickly passed by if it weren’t for the fact that Jesus not only refers to this incident and applies it to himself — and not just to himself but specifically to his manner of death for our sake and for our salvation. He interprets this ancient incident as a sign: a sign of healing, not just for the snake-bitten few, but for the whole world, enslaved by sin. Originally this sign was just to heal a few people wounded by snakes for their transgressions. But its fulfillment — in Christ on the cross — where he is lifted up — is as a sign of healing for the whole world; for, as the text continues in that biblical quote so famous that it is even held up on signs at football matches — God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, displayed and lifted up upon the cross. It is not only saving from the pain of snake-bite, but deliverance from the death pangs due to all who have fallen under the sway of the great serpent who connived the fall of our ancient parents in the garden.
This is where the theme of a covenant comes in, the theme we’ve been exploring these four Sundays in Lent. We started with God’s covenant with the earth sealed in the sign of the rainbow, through the covenant with Abraham sealed in the blood of his flesh, through the Old Covenant chiseled on tablets of stone, we come now specifically to the New Covenant of Christ’s blood shed on the cross, not to condemn the world, but in order that Christ might be lifted up and call the whole world to himself, bringing healing to all who turn to him in faith.
There is an unforgettable line in Saint Julian of Norwich’s reflections on the crucified Christ. From the cross he displays his wounds, and says, “See how I loved you.” It is in his own wounded flesh that healing and salvation lies — in his flesh and in his blood.
And that is the hair of the dog that bit us — for it is in our own flesh and blood that we fell into sin; and it is in our own flesh and blood that we turned from God. In the person of our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve we rejected all that God had planned and intended for us, thinking we could do better on our own. And we have continued to sin, in our own flesh-and-blood, in the wrongs we do towards God and to one another. I would love to say that the church is immune from such ailments, but we need not look very far to see the evidence to the contrary. Our sins cry out like the blood of Abel from the ground. I find myself crying out with Saint Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death!”
And the answer Paul found is the answer that rings true still: Only the flesh and blood of one who was truly human — but was also truly God incarnate — could atone for, could heal, the breach and division caused by that ancient wrong, and all our wrongs done since. This is not, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, our own doing — it is the doing of one who is like us in every way, except only sin. But who is also God. For God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ, when he raised him from the dead. He was wounded for our transgressions, and by his stripes we are healed.
This is the covenant of the atonement — the drawing together of humanity at the foot of the cross to look upon the one whom we have pierced, through our own sins. This is the covenant of grace, of God’s promised forgiveness, healing the wounds that Satan gave us, and the wounds we give each other, by means of his own Son’s giving of himself. “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.” Let us rejoice that God has provided us with the means of our healing and salvation, in Jesus Christ. Let us turn to him, repenting all our failings and our wrongs, toward him who is alone our Savior and our Lord.+