John 3: 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
I was taking time out from my sabbatical studies last summer at Eastern Mennonite University to walk in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in the George Washington National Forest, when I met this strange character, just laying across the trail. (cue the picture of the timber rattler) Upon seeing him I was immediately transported back to my childhood, at the age of 8 or 10, while in Boy Scouts or with school mates on a field trip in the woods, when someone would suddenly lean over, snatch something off the ground and hold it up for us to see: usually a garter snake or a dark gray rat snake. Neither kind is poisonous, they’re harmless to anything bigger than a squirrel, common to the Midwest, shy, and devilishly tough to catch. They’re so shy that the only way you usually know they are around is when you hear a rustling among the dry leaves, you see stalks of grass wiggle and you catch just a fleeting glimpse of the tail before it vanishes. So when someone would actually hold one up from just behind the head, if there were any girls with us, most of them would say, “Eeeyuuuuh!” and us boys would be jealous, jealous of someone so observant, so quick, so brave and coordinated.
Now, I’m not afraid of snakes. Certainly not of the common rat snakes like this fellow in Virginia appeared to be. But something made me resist the impulse to get a closer look. For one thing, he didn’t slither away like a common rat snake. He held his ground and faced me. Odd. Then I heard the tell-tale sound, something like castanets or a a baby rattle. The color said “rat snake,” but the behavior and the sound said, “rattlesnake.” I went with two out of three and treated this as a deadly, venomous member of the viper family. Which it proved to be. Doing a Google search that same evening, I found that there is a black phase of the Eastern Timber Rattler, that looks just like the fellow I met. Otherwise, timber rattlers are usually brown and tan.
Don’t worry, kids, there aren’t any dangerous snakes in Minnesota north of Wabasha, about an hour south of here. Nor do they want to bite us; they’re as scared of us as we are of them, so they try to warn us away with their rattles just like this one did.
But the zoom lens on my camera was good enough to get this picture, from a good 15 to 20 feet away. Then I left the trail and went around him by a good 10 or 12 yards. When I later posted his picture on Facebook, a childhood friend replied, “Why’d you let him go? He would have made a good pair of boots or a belt.” Right. Like I went to the Summer Institute of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University with a loaded pistol.
I’m glad we both survived our brief encounter. Because snakebite is a terrible way to go, I’m told. Growing paralysis, cardio-pulmonary failure, so that your heart speeds up and you start suffocating. Eyuuhh. As you lose power, heart and inspiration, your vision narrows, goes gray and then finally, darkness, lights out, death. Spare me. Numbers 21, in the Hebrew Bible, tells enough about many Israelites getting snakebitten and dying as they tried to go around Edom on the way into Canaan. It was an environmental consequence of rebelling against God and Moses, says the story. Which tells me that before they got bitten by deadly serpents, they had already been bitten by the same snake in the grass who told Eve, “You can be like God, knowing good from evil.” Before the literal snakes got them, they were already showing the symptoms of spiritual snake-bite.
God came up with a strange and arresting remedy: make a snake, God told Moses. Make it out of bronze, put it up on a pole, and every snake-bitten person who looks at it will recover. Just by looking at it! That sounds mysterious and magical. But when you think about it, there’s a message in that strange medicine: there’s never any healing from anything until we get over our denial and take a good, hard look at whatever it is that ails us. When those Israelites fixed their gaze on that bronze snake, not only were they looking at a representation of their physical ailment and their enemies, they were looking at a representation of their own inner, spiritual condition.
We could even say that spiritual snakebite is an important and unfortunate part of the human condition, along with the joys and delights. Jesus referred to the Numbers 21 story, while talking to Nicodemus. He lists some of the symptoms of spiritual snake-bite: not all that different from the symptoms of real snakebite, they are mistrust of God; condemnation, and turning away from light toward darkness, for the love of darkness over light, failure of vision, heart and inspiration, then death.
He says this not to condemn people, and nor should we. Not like the person I saw again recently on the corner of 7th and Nicollet Avenue, with a sandwich-type placard on his back and chest naming all the sins that his audience was probably guilty of at some point in their lives. In case we couldn’t read, he was yelling them out at us.
Maybe it was safe to say that most of us had done something on his list at least once, but there was nothing about his demeanor that would make us want to ask, “So, can you help me?” And if I read Jesus correctly, maybe what he really should have done was wear a placard naming all the good things that would come our way from following Jesus, like peace, eternal life and the assurance of God’s love. And in case we can’t read, he could shout them out. That way he wouldn’t need to waste any more time and energy condemning anyone. We would have condemned ourselves whenever we turn away and refuse such gifts: another sure symptom of spiritual snakebite.
God doesn’t condemn us. He condemns certain behaviors and attitudes, yes. But people condemn each other well enough, I’m sad to say. And we condemn ourselves, Jesus says, especially whenever we turn away from the light of God for the love of darkness, and of evil. In fact, that is how Simone Weil, a French mystic, defined sin: “Sin is not a distance, it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction.”
So to get our attention, and to get our heads on straight, God did like he told Moses to do in the wilderness, among “the fiery serpents.” God’s surprising remedy was to Make Like a Snake. God has given us a remedy, a medicine for our snake-bitten souls, a remedy that appears at first to take the shape of our disease, of our spiritually snake-bitten condition: Jesus on a cross, the One “who, for our sakes, God made sin, who knew no sin.” The One who mirrors back to us most starkly, yet most graciously and lovingly, on the cross, our condition of bondage, of degradation, condemnation and humiliation. The Man of Sorrows who was “wounded for our transgressions,” who was “bruised for our iniquities,” by “whose stripes we are healed.” The One who took in the serpent’s poison to the full, in our place. This is a medicine that we take not through the mouth, not intra-venously, but through the eyes, the eyes of our spirits. Its a medicine that we take by looking at it, with the eyes of our hearts.
If that sounds impossible, or complicated, honestly, I confess, I don’t entirely get it, either. Jesus on a cross, lifted up like Moses’ bronze snake, for us to contemplate, is not a remedy I would have come up with for all that ails our souls and spirits, not according to conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says, “Look upward, at the Conquerors, to the imperial spectacle of power, prestige and popularity, to the parades of armored cars, tanks and missiles in Moscow or Pyongyang or Washington, DC, or to the celebrities of Hollywood or politics or the Fortune Five Hundred, for inspiration and salvation.” They offer us healing and salvation as long we identify upward with them. Then again, maybe such conventional wisdom is what got us into our spiritually snake-infested desert in the first place.
But the divine wisdom says that God has broken into the world in the shape of what we would least want to see, in a cruciform shape. So look downward for your healing, downward on the social scale, to the Cross, and to the One who stepped down from the highest of heights to the lowest depths of shame and suffering, the Blessed One who took the curse for all of us, the curse of “hanging on a tree,” for whom the nails of the cross were like serpent’s teeth, injecting all its poison into him, so he might become our antidote, taken through the eyes of our spirits.
Again, I don’t get it. But I know I need it.
Why would the Son of God do such a thing, to take on the very image and experience of what ails us and frightens us most? Remember our theme for the season, “for the joy set before him.” What joy is to be found in such suffering and desolation as the cross? I’ve already alluded to it. Its the same joy that came to the snake-bitten Israelites whenever they looked up from the real snakes that bit them, to the bronze snake on the pole: the joy of healing. It was for the joy of our healing that Jesus “endured the cross and despised the shame.” The best I can describe it as is a “Healing by Identification.” The healing power of Jesus comes through his identification with us in the depths of our spiritually snake-bitten condition, and through our identification with him, lifted up on the cross.
Like the other joys I have mentioned this season, it is a joy that Jesus offers to us, and shares with us: two joys really, the joy of our own healing, and the joy of offering healing to others, being the tools and agents of healing for others.
The healing God offers us is the reversal of our current snake-bitten spiritual state; a change of heart, a change of loves, from a love of death and darkness, to a love of light and of life, eternal life.
For example, a man was in a particularly snarky and cynical mood one day when he was walking down the street of a major city, passed a cathedral and saw on the door that it was just about time for the priest to show up to hear confessions that day. What a joke, he thought. So for sheer entertainment value, he went in, took his place in line, and thought up some particularly comical and outrageous things to confess to the priest, just to prove how clueless and mechanical this process was. It could also provide some entertainment, for his friends, he thought.
It didn’t take but a moment for the priest to figure out what this man was up to. So he gave the comedian an unexpected penance to perform. Instead of having him say twelve Hail Mary’s, or twenty Our-Fathers, the priest told him to go to the front of the sanctuary, face the crucifix and repeat a dozen times, “You did this for me, and I don’t give a rip.” By the seventh or eight repetition of “You did this for me, and I don’t give a rip,” the man found himself starting to give a rip, to care, even to marvel and appreciate, to melt and to change, in spite of himself.
There, in that cynic’s change of heart, you see the kind of healing that comes when we turn our gaze toward the One who was “afflicted and forsaken of men,” to turn ourselves toward the light who is also “The Light of the World.” Our cravings for darkness, evil and paralysis start to change toward a taste for life, light, love and powerful possibilities.
As for the healing we can help others find, it flows through us when we start to identify downward, to find that we can love and live for others who are afflicted and forsaken, that we are willing even to risk being afflicted and forsaken in order to live in light and love toward God and humanity. Methodist missionaries of 19th Century Georgia and Tennessee understood this healing by identification when they were willing to live with the despised and displaced Cherokee Indians, to learn their languages and customs and throw their lot in with them. For this they were often hated, rejected and worse both by fellow white people, as well as by hostile Native people. And when the U.S. Government revoked Cherokee treaty rights and forcibly removed them to Oklahoma in the dead of winter, on the infamous Trail of Tears, many of these Methodists traveled, suffered and relocated with them, even though they didn’t have to.
This healing change of heart, toward God and others, is captured in our hymn of the month, the words of which were written by a Scottish saint in the last year of her life, when she was struggling with what she knew was a terminal illness (would you say it with me?):
Upon that cross of Jesus,
Mine eyes at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me.
And from my smitten heart with tears,
Two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love
And my unworthiness.
(With an emphasis on “the wonders of redeeming love” please)
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,” Jesus said. By that he meant “lifted up” on the cross. Not a pretty sight. In fact, the very picture of the worst of our condition: paralyzed by the fear of light and the love of darkness and evil. But in that very image lies the healing of our spiritually snake-bitten world. For the joy of such healing, Jesus “endured the cross” and all that it meant by way of shame and pain, to identify with us, to become our healing vision, as well as to make of us agents of his healing to the world.