A few weeks ago, our family re-lived the drama of the Old Testament reading which we have heard this morning. Hearing Isaac, my six year old son, calling to me, I turned to see him holding a long brown snake above his head. He was full of pride, I was full of terror. Despite everything that we have taught our boys about snakes, this one was obviously irresistible – and thankfully it was also dead.
Snakes (not only in our culture, but around the world) have – since ancient times, haunted humanity. In our own Christian tradition, drawing from our Jewish heritage, the snake has been synonymous with the power of temptation, and indeed with evil. Right back in the picture language of the story of creation, it is the snake that persuades the wife, who persuades the husband to eat of the fruit. And the question of what to do (theologically I mean) about snakes is a way of asking the question of what to do about the problem of evil.
Our Gospel reading this morning draws from the first reading which we heard from the Book of Numbers, an ancient and somewhat strange text from a context very different from our own. In the story in the Book of Numbers the Israelites, (the ancient followers of God) were afflicted by the arrival of poisonous snakes in their camp, which killed many of them. As they looked back on this event they reflected that this was a punishment upon them for grumbling against Moses and the teachings which he was giving them. So Moses, in order to break the power which these snakes had on the memory of the people, made a snake out of bronze and held it above his head, and all those who dared to look at the image of the creature which had killed so many of their people – those who dared to confront the power of death head on – were given the assurance of life. That bronze serpent was then stored in the Tabernacle as a sacred object, until (much later) King Hezekiah discovered that people had forgotten why it was there, and had started to worship it; at which point he destroyed by breaking it into pieces.
There is no escaping the fact that this is a very very strange story indeed. Whatever significance it had to those ancient primitive people, when we read it today, there is the risk that we will find the events which are depicted to be totally bizarre. But the story of the serpent being lifted up by Moses is given a new significance in the time of Jesus. The events in the time of Moses are seen by the first followers of Christ to be a foretaste of the events of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is as if the earlier story took place in order to clarify what had happened when Jesus hung on the cross. In order to break the power of death for the Israelites, death itself (in the form of the creature which had killed them, the snake) had to be confronted. It was not possible to hide away from it, like victims in the shadows. The people of Israel had to stand up, with faith in God, and look at it straight in the eyes. So what was the similarity between that event, and the death of Jesus?
Surely the first Christians were not suggesting that Jesus was the evil that they had to look at to overcome? No, the first Christians came to understand that all of the evil of the world – the very worst that could be thrown at anyone – had been conquered in the raising of Jesus from the dead. It was no longer necessary to fear evil, or sickness or even death, because through Jesus a new and living way had been opened for all who followed him. But that did not diminish the agony of the cross. Neither did it negate as naught the suffering which the first Christians endured in their persecution. The brutality of the cross could not be explained away as a mere passing event. It was an incident of absolute brutality, it was evil.
Despite our wandering away from God’s love for us, God sent himself in Jesus to bring us back to him. And yet that message of love and freedom was too much for many to bear. The only way that it could be silenced was for Jesus himself to be silenced. So Jesus was killed in the hope that his message of love would be killed with him. Just as that serpent in the wilderness was lifted up so that Israelites could come face to face with the terror which haunted them. So, the barbaric product of the extremes of humanity were lifted up in the cross. A man with a message of love, beaten close to death, was lifted up as a mirror for the rest of us, so that we might look at what evil can do, straight in the eye.
Of course, all of this would he hopeless if we did not know the end of the story. If we could not turn from facing the extremes of evil, to see that God cannot be conquered. It was finally in the resurrection, long before the Gospel story which we heard this morning was ever written down, that Christians came to see that having faced their fears as they gazed at the cross, that they could live with the assurance that God’s love for us could never be killed, or beaten or destroyed. The writers of the Gospel of John use the image of light and darkness to describe the phenomena behind these two events. Some people will live in the darkness of never facing head on the fears which they have – whether that be snakes for the Israelites, or the cruelty of humanity for the first Christians, or whatever symbolises hopelessness and evil for us today. But others, through the hope of Jesus, can overcome our fears by looking at them straight in the eyes.
The Israelites look at the snake as it is held up Moses and realise that God’s power to save them is greater that the power of the snake to destroy them. The first Christians look at the brutality of the cross, and realise that God’s power to raise Jesus to new life (and therefore all of us) is greater than the powers that put him there, and which can paralyse us in our lives today. Those who walk in the darkness hide their faces from their fears and cannot overcome them. Those who walk in the light, are the ones who in Jesus live in hope.
Well, you might say, that’s all very well – but what does all this really mean for us, on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in Muswellbrook in 2009? If I might be so bold, I want to suggest two things which this passage might say for us.
Firstly, it reminds us in this pilgrimage of Lent, as we journey towards the cross, that there is indeed hope in Jesus for each one of us. The whole point of facing Jesus on the cross, is to see that he has been there. That God in Jesus has experienced our life – he has experienced suffering and pain, and loneliness and rejection. And if he has experienced all of that, and conquered it, (and been raised up from its effects), then that will be so for us as well, whether we feel now or not. We are a community of people who live in the light, even when we feel that that light is not bright as we would like. And we live in that light for all of the people of Muswellbrook, and not just for ourselves.
That’s why, secondly, I hope that all of this reminds us that our faith and our hope is worth sharing. The problem with sharing is that we often think that there will be less for us if we share with someone else. When I think of sharing, I think of a birthday cake. And if I share too many pieces of that cake with others, there won’t be much left for me. But in the Kingdom of God, sharing is much more like the candles on the cake than the cake itself. If I light my candle on that cake, and share the flame so that you can light yours as well, we will end up with more light not less. The sharing enhances what I already have, it does not take away from it. We live in a society in which a large number of people are increasingly talking about spirituality. Our neighbours (by and large) want to be spiritual, but they don’t want to be religious. Our task of sharing the hope of Jesus is therefore not a straightforward one.
There was a time when we expected to come and hear the good news of Jesus every time we rung the bell, that kind of attractional model (by and large) no longer works for us. The task of sharing is a much harder one than it was in some previous generations. That’s why we are building a team here, to share with Fr Brian and with other paid leaders, the tasks of leading the mission and ministry of the Parish. We know now more than ever that in order to do the ministry of the Church here in Muswellbrook we need more than one or two or three pairs of hands. That’s why each of you was invited to try to discern who you believed had appropriate gifts to work with Fr Brian to lead us into the future.
We are hopeful that in the coming weeks a Parish Ministry Team, under Fr Brian’s supervision will be brought into place to lead us into the future. That team will include lay leaders (maybe some of you) who will have responsibility for leading an area of our life. It may also include members of this congregation who may be assessed, and then trained to be ordained to minister as unpaid clergy here in this parish. All of these leaders will continue their other work, in employment, or home duties, or retirement. But together they will help us to respond to the challenge of living as a vibrant community which seeks to share our faith and hope in Jesus with others.
There may be many fears in the lives of the members of this congregation, and our task as a Christian family is to support and to help each other to overcome them. There are certainly many fears in the lives of those who live around us, and it is equally our task, as the Body of Christ here in Muswellbrook, to do all that we can in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring the light of Jesus to their lives as well.