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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Snake Handling (Figuratively)

John 3:14-21
“Snake Handling (Figuratively)”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
Sunday, March 26, 2006

I remember the Sunday I was in Mexico. I think it was our first mission trip to the Yucatan, fondly referred to as “RegurgiFest ’95.” My heart is steadfastly committed to mission trips. My stomach is in rebellion. I get nauseous if I go farther south than Maryville. I remember that Sunday as if it were yesterday. I called Kristen to see how things were going. “How did worship go this morning?” Spencer Parks, the former Director of the John Knox Center, led worship here. Some of you remember where this is going. Kristen replied, in a calm voice, “Well, it went pretty well. Until he pulled out the snakes.” I learned a very important lesson in that phone call. When you ask these camp director nature-types to lead worship, they’re going to bring their friends. The morning was much more eventful than just the use of a rat snake during the Children’s Sermon. I know Cheryl will never forget the saga, either. The backstory involved Spencer’s truck breaking down on I-40 on his way here, and his hitching a ride with a trucker, who – praise Jesus – didn’t notice the burlap sack Spencer had with him… was moving.

That’s the closest Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA) has ever come to a snake-handling service. And as long as I have anything to say about it, that’s the closest we’re gonna get. Have any of you been to a true snake-handling service? I grew up in West Virginia, so I’ve heard about them as long as I can remember. But I’m just as happy to have dysentery in Mexico than attend one. Snake handling services are based on the words of Psalm 91, which in verse 13 says, “the serpent you will trample under foot,” and follows with, “Those who love me, I will deliver.” Oddly, when you read ALL of verse 13, it says those who love God will tread on the LION and the serpent. The lion part never gets read. I say, if you’re going to take your Bible literally, do it right. A snake-handling service is one thing, but a lion-handling service – that takes REAL faith. You could combine three different church activities in one: Lion-handling service, faith-healing service, pot-luck supper for the lion. Remember the Roman Coliseum? Christians and lions don’t mix.

However, in one sense, I think the snake-handlers are onto something. There’s a more than a coincidental connection between faith and serpents that runs the length of the Bible. In the Garden of Eden, who tempts Eve? The serpent. Who is “the serpent” in the book of Revelation? Satan. I don’t think God dislikes snakes any more than any other nasty creature he created – like cats. Snakes serve a purpose, and if you’ve ever had mice in your crawlspace, you’re grateful for them. As long as they stay in the crawlspace. Scripture, though, has never been kind to the serpents. They’ve always stood, figuratively if not literally, for evil, for God’s wrath, for temptation and sin.

Case in point: Numbers, Chapter 21. Moses has led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. But the people become impatient on the way to the Promised Land. In verse 5 the people speak against God and against Moses, “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.” (“Manna” – the Hebrew word for ‘Ick, what is this stuff?’) The Israelites learn that The Almighty doesn’t like whiners. So, verse 6: “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” An eleventh commandment: don’t whine about the food. (Kids, think about that the next time your mom serves casserole.) So, verse 7: The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

OK, here’s where things get really weird, if they weren’t weird enough already. Verse 8: the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Snake-handling and faith healing all mixed up together. It’s a weird and kind of humorous story if you don’t take it too literally. But anyone who tries to take their Bible word-for-word literally has got to have a problem with this one. Here’s why. Being Bible scholars, they’d also remember the Ten Commandments, specifically the Second Commandment, which says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20, verse 4). You put this commandment with the story of the snake-handling, and you have the God who promises to put idol-worshippers to death, commanding the worshippers of God to make an idol, to stare at its power, in order to be healed from the wrath of God, who sent the snakes in the first place. Yes, it’s mighty weird.

You wonder – didn’t God, who knows everything, know the Israelites were a bunch of whiners? Is God being just a little too human by losing his temper and sending the snakes? Couldn’t the manna taste like chocolate? Couldn’t God have sent non-venomous snakes just to scare the people? Why send the idolatrous Israelites perilously close to more idolatry with the bronze snake on a stick? This weird little passage raises more questions than it answers.

Here’s the most unbelievable part of it all: The God who sends punishment also sends a cure for the punishment. And the cure God sends comes dangerously close to breaking the rules God himself put in place.

God defies logic. Is that really so surprising? On the one hand you have God’s wrath, and on the other hand you have God’s love. They don’t fit together neatly. God’s wrath and God’s love are kind of like poles on a magnet, both pushing the other away even as they’re holding each other together. And it just drives crazy those of us who want to wrap up God, the Bible, and faith in a neat little package. The vast majority of who God is and what God’s about is and will remain a mystery. Our feeble little brains just can’t handle it. Is there literal truth in the story of Moses going snake-handling? Maybe. Maybe not. You could argue and do a lot of mental gymnastics on this one. Did God tell the Israelites to make an idol, or just an icon? Explaining stories like this can cause a lot of migraines. Literal truth? I don’t know. But for those of us who believe, who want to find glimpses of holiness in scripture, there’s great, great symbolic truth, figurative truth in this story. But not even the Israelites, not even Moses gets to see the truth for another thousand years.

John, Chapter 3, verse 14: “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.” Wait a minute, did we hear that right? Is Jesus comparing himself to… a serpent? A bronze serpent? The symbol of death, and evil, and idolatry? The disciples must have shivered when they heard Jesus say these things. “Father, forgive him, for he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” they must have thought. If they were really connecting the dots, they might also have remembered Deuteronomy 21:23 that says anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed.

Now, we’re really getting into the toughest questions about the Christian faith. Questions like, Did Jesus really have to suffer and die? How does Jesus, through his death, accomplish my salvation? A lot of books have been written, and a lot of migraines have been caused, by good, faithful people trying to figure all this out, and put it together neatly in a package with a bow. God may have some of that, but God will not have all of it. God is too very God for us to understand and explain in simple, logical detail. God breaks the law to give us law. God falls under a curse to break a curse. Faith in a God this big is like trying to handle a slippery snake: as soon as we think we’ve gotten hold of it, it slithers out from between our fingers. So in that way, all of us are snake handlers (figuratively). We’ve got this God who’s way too mysterious for us to wrap our minds around, but who’s just understandable enough for us to wrap our arms around. To wrap our hearts around. To wrap our sprits around. This Jesus who wraps his arms around us.

Psalm 111, verse 10 says, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” Before we can embrace God’s love, we have to respect God’s power. We have to hold God in awe and respect. Perhaps that’s what the story of Moses and the snakes is saying. And perhaps that’s why John 3:15, when Jesus compares himself to the snake of bronze, immediately precedes John 3:16, the verse so many of us know and love. Because right after saying what he did about Moses and the serpent, Jesus says this, in verse 16: “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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Here, finally, is the explanation the Israelites had to wait a thousand years to hear. The God who sends punishment also sends a cure for that punishment. God doesn’t want to lose any Israelites. God doesn’t want to lose any Christians. God doesn’t want to lose anybody, anywhere. God sent the Son so that everyone (everyone!) who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. I may not be able to explain how this is true, but I believe it is true. I may not be able to wrap my mind around the logic, but I can wrap my arms around the Savior. You and I don’t have to be able to explain how God works in order to believe God works.

A final thought about all this. Going back to the story of Moses and the snakes. I wonder what would have happened if instead of complaining about the manna, instead of whining about their lives, the Israelites would have said two, simple words. What if instead of complaining about where God had dumped them, the people of God had said, “Thank you”? And what if instead of debating Jesus, and testing Jesus, and crucifying Jesus – what if instead of complaining about Jesus, the people of God had said, “Thank you”? How would all of scripture have been different? Around Easter, people spend so much time asking questions like “Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?” The question we ought to be asking is, “Why can’t people say, ‘Thank you’?” How would our stories – how would our human history story – be different, if instead of whining, we could simply say to God, “Thank you”?

I heard the story of an eighty-five year old woman, diagnosed with cancer, whose doctors told her she only has about a year to live. When anyone asks her how she is, she says, “I’m grateful.” I wonder. How many snakes could we learn to handle – how many fierce lions could we tame – if we were more grateful? If we could only learn to look Jesus in the eye and say, “Thank you”?

This season of Lent, instead of looking for the snakes in the grass, look to the Savior, lifted up on the tree. Because God so loves the world. Snakes and all.