The Covenants God Keeps (4): Broken

2015/03/15 Christ Church, Mountain Top
Call to Worship, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22
Children, John 3.14-21
Message, Numbers 21.4-9

As we continue working our way through the covenant story in the Scriptures, using the curriculum of covenant to discern the grace of God and the obedience of faith, we have discovered that, over and over, God is the initiator of covenant. Our God desires a relationship with us, longs to know us and love us, and hopes to receive our love in return. Yet, over and over, we break the covenant. We reject God’s love. We turn upon one another.
      It’s been that way since the first human encounter with a serpent. “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3.4-5). Well, then, since you mentioned that … I’ve been thinking that this fruit does look pretty tasty, and I’d enjoy being god-like – isn’t that the goal, anyway? The serpent was lying. “The serpent struck Adam in paradise and killed him, Israel in the camp and annihilated him” (Ephrem the Syrian, ACCS, OT III, p 242; see Bede, ACCS, p 241).

So we come to this odd story in Numbers, tossed into the mix of several other stories with which it shares little except a geographic progression from one mountain region to another. It includes the story of Moses making a brass snake on a pole, in what seems a clear violation of the second commandment to make “no engraved image”, but – at least in this story – is explicitly commanded by God (see Justin Martyr, ACCS, p 241). It includes the people whining, which surely must be humans at their very worst. And, why whine now, so nostalgic for Egypt? In the text, it has been YEARS since Egypt, and they might have learned before that their complaining only makes God mad. And, it includes God’s response to their whining, which seems downright spiteful: “Well, if you really believe you were brought here to die, that can be arranged!” Then, there’s the weirdness of Jesus’ remark in John’s gospel that the snake on a pole is somehow parallel to Jesus upon the cross. But he wasn’t biting people like a snake, or a vampire, was he? Of course, analogies are just that, analogies. They do not work in every detail, but only in limited particular details.
      Before we go into the story itself, I do want to list a few key details in which the analogy does work:
·         The serpent on the pole was a sign of judgment; Jesus on the cross is a sign of God’s judgment on our sin.
·         The serpent was a symbol of sin; Jesus came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8.3, see Bede, ACCS, 241).
·         The serpent on the pole was not alive; Jesus died on the cross.
·         The serpent was lifted up for all to see; Jesus was raised upon the cross for all to believe.

The people of Israel were suffering for their sins, whining turned to wailing, pining into pain--snakes bit them and many died.  God told Moses to put a brass snake--the cause and symbol of their suffering--on a pole; whoever looked to it would be cured of the snakebite and live.  But whoever did not come to look had no such assurance of healing.  In the words of John, they “are condemned already" (John 3.18).
      Have you ever lived life conscious of such condemnation?  Have you ever felt the weight of guilt and shame so heavy that nothing could dispel it--not drugs or drink, not efforts to change, not running away, not anger?  Remember the play of Shakespeare: Lady Macbeth, guilty of murder is constantly trying to wash the blood off her hands, and she constantly fails.  "Out, out, damn spot!"  Nothing she could do removed the guilt, the shame, the burden she carried, the burden of her own choosing.
      I grew up with a strong strain of perfectionism.  That is, I had a hyperactive sense of guilt and shame.  One of my greatest spiritual struggles was to come to assurance of salvation, being certain that I was indeed forgiven and reconciled to God.  I remember as a child being reduced to tears--alone, not in front of others (You just can't share shame.)--in fear that I would be left behind when Christ came to take his church to himself.
      Now, I was a child and I certainly hadn't committed any "heinous" sin.  Perhaps some of my extreme response was developed out of the kind of Christian teaching I received, or perhaps it can be attributed to my personality.  But the fact remains: no matter how perfect I was (and I was a cherub), I was still guilty; no matter how honored I was, I was still covered by shame.  Have you ever felt this oppressive weight?

Then it is time to take that Lenten move to look up at the snake on the standard, to say, "There, there is my sin, there is my guilt and shame."  It is time to allow it to be a banner and spectacle.
      Wait, wait, wait.  This is a private thing.  I keep it to myself.  You said you cried alone, preacher, and so will I.
      No, this isn't my message.  I've always found it much easier to keep the skeletons in the closet.  This is the word of God reminding us that if we do not come, we are condemned already; reminding us that the first step in coming to Jesus is to bring all of life into the light of Christ.

The story doesn't tell us how many came to the serpent standard and how many stayed home to die.  But we can imagine the kind of barriers that would exist in the human heart.  We have named one of them: we do not want to expose to light the guilt and shame that fills our souls.  But there is another.  And it is that we are not willing to trust the grace of a God who judges us.  No, it is much easier to trust the fairness of a judge, not the grace.
      Remarkably, those who are willing to expose their guilt and shame discover that the judgment is removed, discover that they are indeed healed.  The serpent's bite has lost its power, death has lost its sting, the grave has lost its victory (1 Corinthians 15.55, Hosea 13.14).  This surely is grace, but where has the judgment gone? 
      I'm going to make a leap here, so I warn you that it is not entirely clear in the passage.  My suggestion is that the serpent standard was not only the symbol of their sin, with its attendant guilt and shame, but that it was also symbol of their suffering, a suffering of judgment.  In a peculiar way, the look of faith transformed the serpent into a spectacle and transferred the condemnation . . .
      . . . to the cross.  The symbol of the cross is no casual thing.  It is a sign of our sin, and the place of our healing.  Never take it lightly.  What happened at the cross is the center of God's covenant with God's people.

I eventually learned that the grace of God was truly trustworthy.  I eventually learned that I did not have to earn the favor of this divine judge.  And I have become sure that I am forgiven, fully and freely forgiven. 
      Are you willing to join the ranks of the "condemned already" who willingly confess their sin and trust the grace of our marvelous God?  Are you willing to look to the cross?

If so, you may discover some other analogies that connect the story of Jesus with the story of the brass serpent. Analogies were the staple of interpretation in the ancient church, and some of them are quite creative and beautiful.
      Tertullian writes, “in this case he was exhibiting the Lord's cross on which the ‘serpent’ the devil was ‘made a show of’” (ANF, iii:166; see Colossians 2.15).
      Ephrem the Syrian writes, “Thus it was revealed through this brazen [serpent], which by nature cannot suffer, that he who was to suffer on the cross is one who by nature cannot die” (ACCS, 242).
      Augustine writes, “What is it to be made whole of a serpent by looking upon a serpent? It is to be made whole of death by believing in one dead” (ACCS, 242).

Today, Jesus invites us to be made whole of death. But it begins by acknowledging our sin.

Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, c. 198 A.D.  (ANF iii:166).

Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures, OT III


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