Scripture Lessons: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Tomorrow, millions of people the world over, will engage in the wearing of the green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Well, they won’t only wear green. There will be festivals, parades, and plenty of drinking. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17, the traditional date of Patrick’s death. And while the date usually falls in Lent, the church officially lifts lenten restrictions for the day, to allow for “mindless alcohol-fueled revelry” as it is described by one priest. [Wikipedia, “St. Patrick’s Day,” Father Vincent Twomey, The Irish Independent, 12 March 2007]
St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated around the world including festivities in Japan, Malaysia, Russia, the Caribbean, and even on the International Space Station.
St. Patrick’s notoriety comes with the tradition that he brought Christianity to Ireland baptizing thousands and converting the sons and daughters of the wealthy to become priests and nuns. St. Patrick is also credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland. As legend tells it, Patrick went up a hill for a 40 day fast. While there, he was attacked by snakes and he banished them to the sea.
Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, has examined extensive evidence concluding that there never were any snakes in post glacial Ireland. [Wikipedia, St. Patrick]
So, why is there a legend about snakes associated with St. Patrick? Well, it goes back to the Bible and beyond. Snakes have long had religious significance for humans. Many religions include snakes in their symbolism including Judaism and Christianity. In Egypt, the snake was a symbol of divinity and the pharaohs had the snake on the headdress for protection and power. Think of the well known mask of Tutenkahmen. There is a snake at the top.
Snakes were prominent in the religions of pre-Columbian Central and South America. At many of the pre Columbian ruins in Mexico, there are snakes featured in the construction of the temples and the relics associated with them. At the ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, the stairways of the pyramid are lined with 4 serpents representing the feathered serpent god Kukulkan. In the late afternoon on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadows cast create the appearance of the snakes slithering down the staircase.
Snakes figure prominently in Asian religions as well. In Angkor in Cambodia, serpents are symbols of protection. The buddha is shielded by a hooded serpent while meditating.
In the indigenous religions of North America, the snake is an important symbol. In Hopi culture the snake is a symbol of fertility. This symbolism is part of our Abrahamic tradition as well. The snake was associated with sexual passion – for obvious reasons.
The snake with the shedding of its skin has symbolic associations with transformation, rebirth, immortality, and healing. These are common religious themes so it is no surprise that snakes have religious significance.
The image of the snake is very powerful in many ways and still used in today’s culture. In Harry Potter, the evil Voldemort has a manifestation as a serpent, the basalisk, and as the snake, Nagini. But the snake is also used as a symbol of good and of healing. The caduceus, a snake twisted around a pole, is a medical symbol that is taken from the very story we heard this morning. The snake is an important symbol used throughout human history into the present time, a symbol with both positive and negative associations.
We want to note that the snake is a significant symbol in our own religious tradition. Very early in our scriptures, in the book of Genesis, there is the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the garden of Eden. This story was originally seen as a way to explain why humans have free will. Later, with Augustine, in the 4th/5th centuries, the snake of that story became associated with his doctrine of original sin. The snake was probably chosen for the story because of its religious significance. Many cults and religions already incorporated the image of the snake. The story of Adam and Even could have had a rat visit them and entice them with the apple. Or a bird. Or a deer. Yet the story is told with a snake because a snake was already a powerful religious symbol.
The snake appears again in the saga of Moses. Moses and his brother, Aaron, are sent to the Pharaoh to seek the liberation of the Hebrew people. There is a contest and Moses and Aaron and the priests of Egypt turn their staffs into serpents. But Aaron’s snake consumes the snakes of the Egyptians. In the Moses saga, there is also the story that we heard this morning and we’ll say more about that in a moment.
When the Israelites settle in the land and build a Temple, snakes are used as imagery of the divine. Serpents and snakes figure in the fiery railings of the prophets and in Revelation. And in the gospels, there are several references associated with Jesus that mention serpents. Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves, we are told by the Jesus of the gospel of Matthew. [10:16] And as an image of the generosity of God, Jesus asks, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” [Matthew 7:9-10] And a whole stream of Christianity has arisen around two verses from the gospels. One from Luke: “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” [10:19] And the verse at the end of the gospel of Mark: “And these signs will accompany those who believe. . . they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them. . .” [Mark 16:17-18] These two references have led to an expression of Christianity that includes snake handling in its services as proof of true faith. And this does not just go on in some remote jungle somewhere but is practiced right here in the US.
It is not surprising that snakes are such a powerful symbol. They are glorious animals. They appear in an amazing diversity of colors, sizes, and patterns. Their skeletal structure and their scales are uniquely suited to their needs and their protection. They have the mobility to procure food. They can be fast. Their fangs are arranged for maximum effectiveness in killing prey – curved into the mouth so when the animal to be eaten pulls, it is more securely hooked. The musculature of snakes gives them strength far beyond what their size and shape would indicate. The skeleton amazingly passes the prey through the digestive track with ease. Their structure is incredibly flexible. The venom of poisonous snakes it extremely toxic doing the job with efficiency. The markings and hoods of some snakes make them fearsome to predators. Think of those two large spots on the hood of the cobra threatening would be attackers. Other colorings serve as camouflage protecting the snakes from being eaten. Snakes are truly a marvel. Our daughter and our son had snakes as pets, so I speak from direct personal experience. Snakes almost seem to be designed from the imagination of a science fiction writer. It is no wonder that such an incredible, amazing animal has become so symbolic. Of both good and evil.
Now to the snake story that we heard this morning. We heard what is the last of six murmuring stories of the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. The people have complained to Moses before. Moses has taken their petitions to God. And God responded giving them what they asked for. But in this last story, it is as if God has finally lost patience with them. God appears sick and tired of their whining and moaning. Instead of the usual pattern of complaint and fulfillment with Moses as mediator, in this story we are told that God punishes the people for their complaining. Instead of sending something new for the menu, God sends venomous snakes to attack them. The snakes bite people and they die. Now the people really have something to complain about of far more significance than the bad food. But the snakes help them to see the error of their ways. They see that they have bought this problem on themselves with their lack of trust in God and their lack of gratitude. They see that their complaining has done them in. They realize that they have sinned by defying God and God’s servant, Moses. They see their role in their problems. They acknowledge their complicity. And they repent. They change course. At least for now.
Once they have repented, God responds. But notice, God does not take the snakes away. In the story, God has power over the snakes, for God sent the snakes to attack the Hebrews. Then surely God has the power to remove the snakes. But God does not do that. Instead, God tells Moses to make the likeness of a snake and put it on a pole. Those who are bitten may look upon the serpent on the pole and live. There will still be snakes. The snakes will still deliver fatal bites. It will be up to the person bitten to seek help by looking at the bronze snake on the pole and being saved. God provides the way of healing but it is up to the people whether they will avail themselves of the cure.
We see a similar message in the lesson from the gospel of John. Jesus is like the snake on the pole. God does not take away evil or the consequences of sin. But God gives Jesus as a way of healing and it is up to us whether we will seek that healing or not.
The image of the snake gives us important messages about spirituality and religion. The snake is an image of power. Power can be used for good or evil. It can be healing or destructive.
Religion has power. And that power incorporates both good and evil. Religion must offer honest insight into the power of good and the power of evil. The snake is a symbol of transformation and rebirth and hope. The venom can be used as a cure. It can be healing. Religion, too, can be a force for healing. It can be a force for justice and peace. It can be a sustaining force. It can motivate goodness and generosity. We see this in the charitable work of the church and in the advocacy for justice. We see this in the many institutions and initiatives of the church for good in the world. People of all faiths may be motivated by their religion to do good and serve the wellbeing of others and the world.
We also see the power of the snake as evil. The toxic bite. The drop of venom that kills. Religion, too, can be toxic. It can be used to foster domination, control, violence, and evil. We have seen this in our own religion in the past as well as today. People do heinous things in the name of Christianity. The members of the Ku Klux Klan were church goers. People today still attack and kill and perpetrate violence in the name of Christianity. And we see the impulse to use religion for evil purposes glaringly perpetrated in the middle east and Africa today as well as in other lands including our own.
But in the story of the Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness, we see that God does not simply bow to the desires of the people. God is angry with them for their repeated selfish complaining. They are acting like ungrateful, pampered, spoiled brats. And they are missing the amazing liberation God has accomplished for them in response to their cries of anguish in the throes of slavery. God has rescued them from slavery and is giving them a whole new lease on life and they are crabbing about the temporary conditions. They just want God to do everything for them. And God wants them to be co-creators, take responsibility, have a little skin in the game, too.
So, there is a dimension of judgment and punishment. God punishes the people with the snakes. And this leads to their eyes being opened and their confession and repentance. Sometimes that’s what it takes for us to see what is really happening. We may look at the world today and wonder why things are so awry and why God doesn’t do something about it. Maybe these travails are leading us to conversion, repentance, and rebirth as a human community. Maybe when we see our complicity, the log in our own eye, our vision will be cleared and we can see the way out. The way to healing. The way to new life. The way of resurrection.
For a snake to grow, there must be a shedding process. During the shedding, the snake is vulnerable. Similarly, for us to grow, for there to be healing and wholeness in our lives and in the world, there has to be a shedding process. We have to leave our old ways behind. We have to be willing to look beyond ourselves to the way of healing that is being offered to us. Our choices may lead us to pain and suffering. But honesty helps us to see our errors and take responsibility for them. That is the path to living in love and joy. But you get there through a process of confession and repentance. In the story with Moses, the snake is symbolic of the punishment and the cure. True religion incorporates honest assessment and transformation. Jesus helps us to see our failings and the consequences of our sin, but we are also given a way of reconciliation, joy, and new life. It is up to us whether we will avail ourselves of the power of our religion to heal. But the healing process can be painful. For Jesus it meant death on the cross.
St. Patrick didn’t literally drive the snakes out of Ireland because there were none. But he knew the dangerous proclivities of the human spirit. And he knew the power of faith to free us from the clutches of sin. We, too, know the reality of sin and evil in us and in the world. There is oppression and abuse in our culture. There is greed and violence in the economic system pervading our society. Our motives are not pure. We, like the Hebrews, are well acquainted with being selfish and feeling entitled. There is sin, that which is not of God, and it separates us from our highest good and the well being of the entire Creation. We can put our heads in the sand. We can ignore the cause of the problems. With our head in the sand, we only experience the despair and suffering of our dis-ease. We do not see the cure. Our faith has the power to heal. Healing that comes from honest, even brutal, self-examination and repentance. We have to have an accurate diagnosis to take the right cure. St. Patrick, devout, pious, servant that he was, would likely be shocked by the drunken revelry associated with his legacy. He went to Ireland to offer healing and hope and new life, not a hangover, to people he believed were living in spiritual darkness. He went to drive out despair and suffering. To hold up the snake on the pole and offer healing. May this Lenten season be a time of healing for us. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.