Snakes (not only in our culture, but around the world) have since ancient times haunted humanity. When we use the image of snakes and serpents in conversation they rarely point to something positive. Calling someone a ‘snake in the grass’ is not a term of love and endearment. In our own Christian tradition, drawing from our Jewish heritage, the image of the snake has been synonymous with the power of temptation, and indeed with death – mirroring our own very human fears of sharing this beautiful land with snakes that can kill us.
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, leading – in that profound narrative, to the invention of pain and death. It is only after the temptation offered by the snake that humans have to toil for their labour, it is only after they have eaten of the seductive fruit that they are banished from the close presence of God and left to fend for themselves in a new reality in which death is a certainty.
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 pain and dying.
In our Gospel reading at this Eucharist Nicodemus, a senior Jewish religious leader of his day, comes to Jesus under the secret cover of darkness to find out more about the realities that underlie all that he is teaching. He comes with the assurance that he is a child of Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, whose calling to go to establish a new community under God (when his name was still Abram) was retold in our first reading from the Book of Genesis a few minutes ago. He comes to Jesus with the confidence that he too, as a good Jew, is a child of the Covenant that God has made with his chosen people. He is a member of God’s family, and we have no reason to believe that he is not faithful in keeping the laws and responsibilities that come along with membership of that family. But even though all of that is true, Jesus nevertheless says to him, you must be born again, for a second time, by water and the Spirit of God. You must become part of a new life-giving family that is being gathered together as a sign of God’s love.
Jesus points Nicodemus, in their dialogue, to one of the strangest and most perplexing stories of the Old Testament. He says to him, “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.” I think you can be excused if, in your reading of the Old Testament, you have passed over that story from the life of Moses and the People of Israel, to which Jesus refers from the Book of Numbers.
In that story the Israelites, (the ancient followers of God, and the ancestors of Nicodemus, the man who has come to question Jesus) 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 that 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.
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 would happen 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.
The first Christians, in reflecting on that story in the light of Jesus, came to understand that all of the evil of the world, including the often paralysing reality of our own mortality, 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 nothing the suffering that the first Christians endured in their persecution. The first Christian communities taught that 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. But nevertheless, in Jesus, death has definitively been conquered. The Church continues to teach the triumph of the Cross. This church building stands as a sign of it, a beacon in our local area. And we, the Church, are each ambassadors of this living-giving message of hope.
Despite our wandering away from God’s love for us, God sent himself in Jesus to bring us back to him, to enter into relationship with us, to show us in ways that we could experience and understand his great love for us. 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 that 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 by 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. Nicodemus is invited by Jesus to look death straight in the face, and to become part of the new family of God, the new Covenant of his love.
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. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Behold the Cross – that is the theme of our Lenten journey this year which we began together on Ash Wednesday and which we are continuing as we gather for worship today, and during the week, and as we walk the stations of the cross on Monday evenings, and as we discuss the foundational baptismal promises of our faith on Thursday evenings. Behold the Cross – do not live in fear about death, but see Jesus hanging there to defeat death for ever.
Agonisingly we do not hear what becomes of Nicodemus, but we do know from later in this Gospel of John that he is there with Joseph of Arimathea when Jesus’ body is taken down from the Cross and laid in the tomb. Perhaps he finally came out of the dark shadows, and took hold of life in the light of Christ. We do not know, we can only imagine.
Today we are each being given a funeral customary to go home and read and consider completing. The customary is self-explanatory and has an introduction that seeks to set out why we are doing this, and what benefit this will have for us and for those who we love. For those of you who are willing to take part what is important to remember is that this is a spiritual exercise, a statement of hope and an expression of love for your families.
In this pilgrimage of Lent, as we journey towards the cross, there is 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 death. 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 in him.
The message from Jesus to Nicodemus, and indeed to us, is clear. Do not shy away from death, look at it straight in the face through the shape of the cross: prepare for it and live in the hope of the eternal life which comes through baptism into Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.