Biting Snakes

Lent 4B: Biting Snakes

March 17-18, 2012

Numbers 21:4-9

John 3:14-21


A warning…

this is a tough weekend if you’re afraid of snakes.


Not only is it St. Patrick’s Day weekend and the rest of the world is celebrating

that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland..

(That is what they’re celebrating, right?)


But also the central image our readings invite us to consider

is the image of a snake.

“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.”


Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?


In order to understand what John is talking about,

we have to go back to the story about Moses lifting up the snake,

in the book of Numbers.


It’s an odd story.

It’s a story which would probably be largely ignored,

if John didn’t reference it here in his gospel.


It is the last of the so-called ‘murmuring’ stories

where the Israelites  whine and moan, grumble and complain about life in the wilderness.


They complain that the water is too bitter,


Voice:   “What shall we drink?”

And so God sweetens it.  (Ex 15:22-25)

They complain about the food,


Voice: “ If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Eqypt when we ate our fill of bread!”

And  so God gives them manna. (Ex 16:2-3)


They complain that they don’t have anything to wash it down with,


Voice:  “Give us water to drink!  Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”


And so God gives them water from the rock.  (Ex 17:2-3)


They complain that there’s too much manna and they want meat,


Voice:  “If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucmbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at!”


And so God gives them quail. (Num 11:4-6)


Well this is the last time.

They complain that they don’t have food or water,

…and then they admit that well actually they do have food, but they detest it.


Voice:  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!”


Apparently the Lord has had enough.

The Lord sends poisonous snakes among the people.

The snakes bite them, and many Israelites die. (Num 21:5-6)

(I told you it is an odd story.)


But here’s where we get to the reference from the gospel of John.

The people repent.

They acknowledge that they deserve punishment.

And God relents.


God doesn’t take away the snakes,

but instead he tells Moses to make a new snake out of bronze,

place it on a pole and lift it up so the people can see it.


God declares that whenever someone is bitten by a snake on the ground,

they should raise their eyes and look up to the snake on the pole,

and they will be healed.


The cure for snakes is another snake.

The thing which causes death also brings life.


So here’s where we get to the gospel of John

and the connection with Jesus.

The thing which causes Jesus’ death – the cross – also brings life.


“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.”

Snakes cure snakes.

The cross brings life.


So where have the snakes been biting  this week?

Where has the cross hit the ground?


It seems like all over the world!

Bombings in Syria.

Shootings in Afghanistan.

Fires in Boston.


The snakes were biting me closer to home this week.


We’ve had some beautiful days this week, and Thursday was no different.

It was in the mid 70’s.

The sun was shining.

The sky was clear.

It was gorgeous outside.

And it was chapel time at Hoffman Homes for Youth.


Chapel is voluntary for the youth who live there,

And attendance varies from 5 to 15 kids.

It was 4 o’clock, time for us to start, and I rang the chapel bell.

I waited.  And I waited some more.

And then I rang the bell again for a little longer –

because we all have a tendency if something doesn’t work the first time, to try the same thing again, right?


Well this time the door opened,

and Hannah walked in – I looked behind her expectantly, but no one else was following.


I said, “Well, let’s wait a couple of minutes while I set up things.”

We waited.


Meanwhile I was muttering, murmuring, complaining to myself some very un-Christian things.

Things like,

“Why did I bother?”

“Why did I take the time to put worship together if no one’s going to come?”

“There’s so many other things I have to do, I should just cancel.”

“It’s such a beautiful day, I don’t want to be inside either!”


The snakes were biting.

They were biting something fierce.

The cross was right there on the ground but I was not seeing it.


I was thinking (hoping if truth be told) that maybe Hannah wouldn’t want to stay by herself.

That maybe she had other things she’d rather be doing too.

Somewhat reluctantly I powered up my laptop,

and projected the words to the first song, “Jesus Take the Wheel.”

I asked, “Well, would you like to sing this song?”


I think she probably could tell by the tone of my voice,

that I was wishing she’d say, “No.”


But Hannah said  “Yes.”

She said she loves that song.

In fact, it’s her favorite song.

She’s hoping to sing it in the school’s talent show –that is if it’s possible.


She said it actually might not be possible,

she might not be allowed to, because this week hasn’t been a very good one for her.

She has been placed “on level” this week.

She has had restrictions placed on her behavior,

and has even been in restraints several times to keep her safe.

Her snakes have been biting too this week.


So Hannah wanted to be at chapel,

even if she was the only one,

so she could have help to look up from her snakes for awhile,

so she could sing, “Jesus Take the Wheel,”

and know that healing was possible for her too

through the most unlikely of things – an agent of death – a cross.


We looked up at the words on the screen and sang  Hannah’s favorite song :

Jesus, take the wheel
Take it from my hands
‘Cause I can’t do this on my own

… save me from this road I’m on
Jesus, take the wheel


This is a tough weekend if you’re afraid of snakes.

This is a tough life if you’re afraid of snakes,

because there are snakes ready to bite all around us.

There is evil and darkness all around us.

But just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness –

just as the snake was lifted up on a pole to bring healing –

Jesus has been lifted up on a cross to bring life.


When you’re confronted with snakes this week,

know that the cross is there too.

Jesus has taken the wheel from our hands.

Let it go.




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