Snakes, Sticks, and Salvation
Freedom is a tricky thing.
Freedom is one of the greatest blessings life can bring us, but it’s no guarantee of bliss.
Adam and Eve were created free. Free, but naive. Untrained. They didn’t know - maybe God didn’t even know yet - what it had to mean for humans to live in freedom, in harmony with God and each other and the good earth God had made for them.
So they were vulnerable, and the snake knew it, and they didn’t. So the snake came in and said “Hmm. Yesss. You could do it God’s way.
Or... there’s this stick over there, with a piece of fruit, hanging from it...
And they chose the “or”, and they suffered for the “or”, but God did not leave them hopeless, or comfortless.
God brought their descendents to a place where they could become great.
But then, after a time, they were in slavery, and so God intervened and made them free.
And, again, they were naive. Untrained. The Hebrew people were more sophisticated than Adam and Eve - they knew about math and construction and cucumbers and wine and politics - but they were naive and untrained about what it meant to be free. It came at them unexpectedly, and they didn’t know what it had to mean for humans to live in freedom, in harmony with God and each other.
And the snake saw an opportunity. For generations, we haven’t heard about snakes. There was the garden, and then there wasn’t, and outside the garden, there were people, and the people were broken, and snakes were around, but snakes have not played a major part in the post-Eden story. Until now.
The people of Israel were not used to the responsibilities that freedom lays on you, and didn’t expect the fear that sometimes comes with freedom, the freedom to fail as well as to succeed. The freedom to hurt as well as to heal. And they were weak - they hadn’t practiced trusting God to keep them free and safe and strong, to keep bringing them out of trouble.
And then a voice came among them and said, “Sure, you could do it God’s way. Maybe it will work. Maybe you’ll eventually get someplace worth being.
“Or, you could hedge your bets and worship all the gods. Or, you could store up extra food in case God forgets or changes his mind and the manna and quail stop coming. Or, you could go back to Egypt - remember Egypt, where there was always food and drink? And not just the same flaky dry stuff every day - fruits and vegetables and wine and all sorts of good things.”
And the people thought, “yeah - that makes good practical sense. What’s God doing anyway? Who is this Moses? Who put him in charge? We can do this better ourselves.”
And God said, “Certainly. Here is your leader, the one you find so convincing.” And in walks that snake. Well, not walks, exactly, because things have changed since the garden. The snake is more slithery now. But in comes the snake, with friends, and given free reign among the people.
And just like in the garden, death follows right in their shadow. It’s less surprising, this time - it’s not new - but it is not less devastating. Having already spread the venom of mistrust and discontent, the snake leads in his team to finish the job with the literal venom of their bites.
And the people repented. And so, so did God. And God told Moses “Make a poisonous serpent, and put it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
A new element is introduced. A visual element. A “keep your eye on the prize” element.
Because it turns out the snake’s game is like a shell game, where the gamemaster wins by keeping things moving, keeping things confusing, and trying to get the player to look away from what’s really happening and what’s really important. The player can win with enough attention to what’s happening with the shells, but as soon as you take your eye off what’s going on, the game is lost.
But even with visual aids, the people still do turn away. Over and over. Until eventually the snake’s voice comes into a garden again and suddenly salvation is on a stick again, held up for everyone to see, but this time it is not the snake that is on the stick, but God, in Jesus. And the healing is not just from snakebite, but from sin. The cross of Christ frees the people again, this time not just from the sin and death of the moment, and demonstrates once and for all that even the snakes themselves are subject to God’s control.
We don’t always feel the freedom that the cross brings us. Often it can feel like every time we start to break free - every time God opens a door - the snake seems to slip through behind us, and whisper “or...”
Or... you could watch an extra episode of Netflix instead of spending time with God.
Or... you could buy a new gadget instead of giving that money away.
Or... you could pretend not to feel hurt, and let it fester, instead of risking being honest.
Or... so very many things.
That voice whispering “or” still holds some power for us. It’s still hard to resist the tempter.
But when the snake got Jesus put up on that stick, it changed the balance of power. Not between God and the snake - God always had the upper hand there. But between us and the snake. We’d been pretty even for centuries, ever since we both got thrown out of the garden. But when Jesus was raised on the cross and raised from the tomb, we gained the upper hand over the snake, over sin, over death. Because of what God did in Jesus, we know the game the snake is playing with us. And we know that the trick to beating the snake, is in where we fix our gaze.
Years after Moses put a snake on a stick, he also warned the people at the end of his life, “Do not turn away to the right or to the left. Choose life, that you may live.”
Certainly some of that choice is about doing right things. But Moses isn’t just talking about doing good works. A person can do good things without paying attention to God. As Adrienne Rich says, “it is possible to live worthily, to die bravely” that way. You can live worthily in the kingdom of this world. But Jesus came to give us the freedom to live fully, not just worthily. Choosing that life means keeping your eye fixed on God.
Jesus is not the only thing lifted up among us and seeking our attention. So it may help, every so often, and Lent is a good time for it, to ask ourselves: To what am I gazing for my protection, my salvation?
Rarely do we look to things we know are wrong, but not every right thing can save us. Am I looking to the cross of Christ, or am I looking to the academy, to the government, to weaponry, to the almighty dollar? Does Jesus have my eye, or am I counting on my own righteousness?
The choice is ours, and it may not always be easy. But the promise is clear: if we choose to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will find ourselves freer than we knew we could be.
Free not only to mess up, but to make amends.
Free not only to hear the voice of the snake, but to resist it.
Free not only to find fault, but to find hope.
Free not only to observe, but to act.
Free not only to live worthily, but to live fully.
May this kingdom life be our choice. Amen.