This sermon was preached on March 11, 2018 by Rev. KJ Norris as part of the Lenten 2018 sermon series on Covenant. The following manuscript is not an exact transcription of the audio file, but the intent and preacher are the same.
There is a symbol coming up on the screen. Have you ever seen this symbol before? Or one similar to it? Any guess as to where you have seen it?
Yeah, hospitals! Or pharmacies.
Here’s another one. This is a very old image. I included it to remind us that it is not modern idea to have this symbol for healing.
And if you look at the third, this is another way we often see this symbol. It may appear as a relief, a symbol put into the concrete, outside a hospital or doctors’ office or another kind of place of healing.
It’s a really odd symbol for a hospital, isn’t it? I mean snake bites are not very pleasant. Not only are they painful and kind of frightening, but many snakes are poisonous. In Pennsylvania, there are 22 different species of snakes. Most of them are harmless to people and actually are very helpful to people and to the environment because they limit the rodent population. We do have three types of poisonous snakes in PA including two types of rattlesnakes, but these are extremely rare.
Still, even in a state where snakes are actually helpful to us and very rarely harmful, it’s an odd thing to put a snake up on a building as a sign of healing, don’t you think? Did you ever wonder why we do that? Where the symbol comes from?
It turns out that the symbol of a snake on a pole or staff can come from different traditions of the world. The Greeks, for instance, had their own tradition. But when you see this symbol on Christian hospitals, it is a symbol reminding us of the story we read today.
In our Old Testament story, the people are wandering around in the desert. We saw last week that they have been given the 10 Commandments by Moses. God has promised to continue the Covenant made with Noah and then with Abraham with them. God will love them and be their God. And God gives them a gift: the law. Perhaps this seems like a strange gift, but we talked last week about what a beautiful gift and promise the law is.
And now the people are continuing their journey, and they are whiny. If you read the Book of Numbers in the Bible, you find out they are whiny pretty often. And God responds over and over again by providing for their needs. God gives them manna. God gives them water from sources that should not naturally exist, God makes sure their clothes never wear out. They have everything they could possibly need. But the people are still complaining. They even complain about the gifts God gave them.
It’s like going on a long car ride with the kids. They have everything they need in the backseat. They have cheerios and fruit snacks and water. They have stuffed animals and games. And yet, even though they have a whole palace of play things, they just keep complaining. “Are we there, yet?” “I hate these fruit snacks.” You remind them that those fruit snacks are their favorite kind, but they just keep whining. You get the picture.
The same is true for the people of Ancient Israel. Scripture tells us that they are impatient. Just like you kids get when you are so ready to be out of the car.
Well, then the people of ancient Israel start getting bitten by snakes. And it is really bad. People are dying. People are sick. And suddenly, they realize that they have been complaining against a good God who has been protecting them and trying to get them to a better place. And they repent. They turn back to God.
In this season of Lent, we see a lot of this. We see over and over again that people get themselves into trouble and then turn back to God. And sadly, this is sometimes true for us, too. When God is taking care of us, providing for all our needs, leading us on a journey, sometimes we start to get antsy. We turn whiny. We get impatient with our prayers and stop trusting God with all that we are. We decide that we know best and we stop following God’s lead.
And then trouble strikes. Like a snake. It comes out of nowhere. We get sick. Our loved one dies and passes into the next life. Our marriage falls apart. We fail a test at school. We maxout our credit card. And we think: how did I get here? What happened?
Often God uses our moments of desperation to get our attention. We wake up one morning and realize we need God. We always need God. God is our creator. Our provider. God loves us and has good plans and purposes for us. God desires to lead us on good paths for his righteousness’ sake. But sometimes we, just like the ancient Israelites, get impatient with doing things God’s way and decide to walk in our own way.
And that leads to trouble.
Thankfully, God provides a way out of trouble. But it’s a weird way. God says to Moses, make a symbol. Here’s what it’s going to be: make a snake out of bronze and put it on a pole. Then, whoever looks at the pole with the snake will be healed.
It’s only through the New Testament that we understand that God was actually giving us a glimpse of what is to come. It’s like foreshadowing in your favorite book. The author is giving you a little hint about what will come later. Now usually, you don’t know at the time that it’s a symbol of what is to come. But when you go back and read the book a second time, it all makes sense. You see things differently.
And the same is true for us. To the people wandering in the desert, this snake on a pole is just what it is: a snake that God said to put there and the people, when they are bit by a snake, they turn around and they look at the pole. And in their hearts they turn to God and ask that God would heal them and God does.
In the New Testament, though, we see that this story points to something much greater. John tells us, “And 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.”
So, looking up at the serpent isn’t really about looking at a snake for healing. It’s really about turning our eyes to Jesus, the one called the Son of Man, God’s own son who was fully human and fully God. When we turn our eyes to Jesus is who lifted up on the cross, we are healed. Our lives are made whole, we are completely transformed.
But how does this take effect in our lives? What does this mean for us today?
Well, I think we all know what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean we go for a hike in the woods way up in the Allegheny Forrest and we start poking snake holes, hoping to find a Timber Rattlesnake for the fun of it. And then when we get bit, we think, oh, I’ll just go to the hospital and look at the sign on the door and I will be healed.
Because the healing is not in the symbol itself. This is a principle. A promise of God. It is not a prescription for snake bites. The Scriptures are so much more than just rules to follow when we get hurt. This Scripture is symbolic, it’s foreshadowing, this is not meant to be literal.
What we learn today is that true healing only comes from knowing the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are looking for eternal life, which Nicodemus, the one who Jesus is talking to in this passage, was. If we want to know what abundant life in this life is really like, then we turn our eyes to Jesus. And not just the kind Jesus who loved to tell stories to children and turn water into wine, but Jesus on the cross. We look to Jesus lifted up on a pole, as our Scripture tells us.
John goes on to give us the most commonly memorized Scripture in the whole Bible, “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.”
Jesus died that we might have life. Abundant life while we are here on earth and eternal life in the life to come. The promise of healing. Total and complete healing in this life and the next.
Well, that’s nice to hear you say, Pastor, but I’m still sick. This cancer has invaded my body and it just won’t leave. I had a stroke and the doctor says I need surgery. What do you mean there is complete healing?
God brings healing in a whole lot of ways. Sometimes it is through miraculous healing. We have all seen that. Most recently here at Kerr we saw it with with a nephew of the church… You all know the story. The little boy’s boiling water burns were so sever that the doctors rushed his father home from Alaska where he was serving on military duty because they were afraid they might not be able to keep him alive. And then they worried he might loose his eye sight. Then the doctors said he would have to have a series of skin transplants for the rest of his life. But somehow, miraculously, not only did the little boy live, he thrived. He has no eyesight damage. His skin has healed accept in one little part. God still does work miracles as many doctors and nurses will tell you. And God continues to answer prayer, just look at our prayer board in the back!
But unexplained miracles are not the normal way that God works. Usually, God works through his creation. Through you and I. If you get a snake bite, you don’t just look at the hospital door, go in and get an antidote from the doctor. God has given us humans good minds to be able to develop drugs and techniques that can save lives in ways the people of the Old Testament could never imagine.
Barb and I were talking the other day. I think you all know that she is a nurse and worked for 30 some odd years before formally retiring, still works, but less formally. And Barb is amazed at all the progress medicine has made in during her years as a nurse. We can now do heart transplants. Heart transplants. That’s amazing.
Medicine, too, is the work of God, the work of God extending through us, the ones who are made in the very image of God. We are a miracle. And when we humans get to the end of all that we can do, we do not become hopeless. For this is not all that God can do. God takes us at the end of this journey of life and raises us to the next life in the power of Jesus Christ.
But John brings this challenge to us today. John says: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
So how about you? What will you choose today? Will you choose light? Will you choose to follow in God’s way? Will you choose to see the good gifts God has given and choose to walk the path that God has set before us?
John looked around and saw many who loved darkness rather than light. But God is a healing God who gives us knew hearts. God is in the business of heart transplants, taking our hearts that naturally love darkness and turning them to the light.
Let us set our eyes on Jesus and find true healing.
Let us pray.