Sermon: The Serpent in the Wilderness

John 3:1-17

During the Season of Lent, we’re going to be working our way through a series of stories in the Gospel of John. Each of them describes Jesus’s encounter with a different person: Nicodemus the Pharisee, the woman at the well, the man born blind, and Lazarus of Bethany. These are stories of people that we usually think of as marginal to the Jesus story. None of them are one of the twelve, for example. But in the Gospel of John, it is these encounters that reveal who Jesus really is.

The lesson for today is about Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who wants to hear more about Jesus, but he comes at night so that no one will know. It is what we theological-types like to call a “rich text.” In other words, it’s got a lot of good material in it. There is no shortage of things that could be said about it, because it is full of meaning. One could go in several different directions with this text. In fact, I estimate I could use this single text to preach 11 completely different sermons. Now, fortunately for you, I’m not going to give you 11 different sermons this morning. So I have to make a choice. I have to pick just one of them, and leave the other 10 for another time. I’m guessing most of you have probably already heard sermons 1, 2, and 3. Someone else has probably already stood here or in some other sanctuary and preached them to you. So I’m going to give you sermon number 11. We’re going to start with one of the most obscure lines from this text, and work back from there. And here it is: “Jesus said, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness. What on earth is Jesus talking about? Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember this one from Sunday school. It’s not one of the more familiar stories of the faith. To find it, we’ve got to go to the Book of Numbers, chapter 21, verses 4 to 9:

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 set 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.

This is rather an interesting story in itself. The Israelites are out wandering the wilderness after being liberated from slavery in Egypt, as they have been for some time. And once again they are complaining about their situation. There’s no food out here. There’s no water. And we are sick and tired of eating this miserable manna. I mean, it may be bread from heaven, but even bread from heaven gets old after a while. We were better off as slaves in Egypt.

So, God, apparently tired of listening to their complaining, sends a plague of poisonous snakes on them. And after the snakes start biting people, and some of them even die, the people have a change of heart. Alright God, we get the message. We were wrong. We’ll stop complaining about being out here in the wilderness. Just take away these snakes already.

So God tells Moses to make a bronze snake, and to put it on a pole, and to lift it up in the middle of the camp. And if anyone gets bitten by a snake, they should look up at the  bronze snake and the poison won’t hurt them; they will live. The snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness is a sort of divine cure for snakebites. Anyone who gazes on it will be saved from death.

Which brings us back to Jesus. He tells Nicodemus that just like that serpent in the wilderness was lifted up, so he, Jesus, the Human One, the Son of Man, is also going to be lifted up. And whoever is in the wilderness, and is dying of poison, if they lift up their eyes and look at the Son of Man who is lifted up, then they will be saved, they will live. Like the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus himself will become a cure for poisoning, a cure for death.

And how is it that Jesus will be lifted up? By being crucified. It’s a pretty ironic way to talk about capital punishment. All of the other Gospels talk about how Jesus suffered and died, but not John. No, John talks about how Jesus was lifted up and glorified on the cross. Somehow, being lifted up on tool of torture still managed to raise Jesus up into an elevated position, still managed to lift him above the earth toward the heavenly realm. And all those who gaze upon him will be saved, they will live.

But why? Well, let’s fast-forward a minute to the scene of the crucifixion. When Jesus is up there on the cross, John never says that he dies, like the other Gospels say. Instead, we are told that Jesus releases his spirit. And shortly later, one of the soldiers pierces his side with a spear and out of it flows both blood and water, something I have been told is a medical impossibility. Now, we can talk about the blood some other time, but the important part for us today is the water. Water came out of his side, and he released his spirit. That is to say that from Jesus, lifted up, comes both water and the Spirit.

Both water and the Spirit. Remember, that’s precisely how Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born in order to enter the kingdom of God. Water and the Spirit, that both flow from Jesus, who is lifted up, like the serpent in the wilderness. So those who gaze on the lifted-up Jesus receive both water and the Spirit and are saved, they will not die.

But what does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit? What does it mean to be born again? Born from above? It may not be what you think.

Let’s remember what society was like in first-century Palestine. Remember, there wasn’t really any such thing as individualism. You were who you were because of whose you were, because of who your father was. If you were born into an elite family, then you would most likely be elite from the day you were born until the day you died, and you would be treated with the honor afforded to the elite. If you were born into a poor family, then you would, with very few exceptions, be poor from the day you were born until the day you died, and you would be treated with the honor afforded to the poor, which was, not very much. There was almost nothing that you could do to change your birth status. You were stuck with it. And in almost every case, your birth status was determinative.

But, on the other hand, if you were to be born again… well then, you might have a chance to establish a new birth status, to win a different level of honor within society. And if you were to be born from above, that is to say, born from God, then you would certainly have the highest birth status that was possible. You would be treated with the same level of respect as would be afforded your father, that is, God. And in fact, if everyone in the community were to be born again, to be born from above, then they would all be treated with that same level of respect, the honor afforded to the children of God. With one exception of course. There was always a bit more honor afforded to the firstborn son, namely, Jesus Christ, the one who is lifted up, the one from whom flows both water and the spirit, the one whom if you gaze upon, you will be saved, you will not die, but live.

4000 years ago, that serpent in the wilderness performed a sort of magical function; it cured people of snake bites. What Jesus did 2000 years ago performs not a magical function, but a mystical function for us today. Because when we gaze on Jesus lifted up, humiliated by the standards of the world, but honored and glorified by God’s standards, then we receive the grace that Christ provides. Rebirth. Renewal. Inspiration. Direction. And a cure for the poisons that inflect our lives, the greed and selfishness and jealousy and pride and enmity that threaten to destroy us. When you are in the wilderness, when it seems like you are wandering endlessly with no direction, when you are sick and tired of the same spiritual diet, and when you feel attacked from all sides, when your life is poisoned by sin and guilt, there is but one thing to do. Look on Jesus, lifted up, and live.