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from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-16
John 3:14-21

March 26, 2006
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

If you have ever wondered about the derivation of the symbol of the snake on the pole that you see on ambulances and medical institutions, now you know. When Moses led the people of Israel through the wilderness, on the forty year journey to the Promised Land, they groused so much that God sent poisonous snakes to bite them. Many died, and they begged forgiveness and healing from Moses. God said to cast a bronze image of a snake on a pole and hold it up so that whoever looked at it after being bitten by a snake would live. Snake magic was common in Egypt, from which the Israelites had just escaped. Moses, you remember, had been raised as an Egyptian aristocrat by Pharaoh’s daughter, and he probably never distinguished clearly between Egyptian magical lore and the new cult of Yahweh he was constructing on the basis of the Mt. Sinai covenant instructions. Anyway, the snake lifted up in the wilderness seemed to work. In later generations, however, Moses’ snake-pole must have become associated with the Gentile rites, since snakes were part of the Canaanite religion. The book of Second Kings congratulates the good king Hezekiah for breaking Moses’ snake-pole into pieces as part of his general purification reform.

Nevertheless, John the Evangelist refers to that snake-pole in our gospel text this morning. “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.” What a remarkable image! Jesus being lifted up in crucifixion is likened to the bronze snake on a pole. As sight of the snake cures snakebite, belief in the crucified Jesus cures the sickness unto death of sin, to use Kierkegaard’s phrase. What are we to make of this? What is the sickness, and what is the cure?

Snakebite is not a disease like a cancer or virus, but it is a traumatic intrusion that disrupts the body’s processes, causing death in some instances. In biblical times, it was often believed that sickness comes on because one deserves it, that it is punishment or retribution sent from God, which was the case with the Israelites. Even in our time, many people suffering from illness ask “What did I do to deserve this?!” If your image of God is small enough, you might think that God runs the world as a just king would a kingdom, rewarding the good and punishing the unjust. Therefore if something bad happens to you, it must be because you deserve it. This was the argument Job’s friends gave to him when he said he had done nothing so heinous as to deserve all the suffering God had in fact sent him. It was a pretty bad argument even back then, however, and both Job and God blew it off. We do not believe that sickness indicates a moral judgment of God. Cancers and viruses are parts of nature, and we are learning how to cure them. Snake bite comes from getting too close to snakes, which might be merely accidental or result from the stupidity of wandering into a field filled with snakes. It is extremely important for us to remember that God is the Creator of the whole universe, which includes cancers, viruses, and poisonous snakes, but that the Creator of the universe does not meddle to put snakes in the path of people who complain about food. Coupling a small idea of God with a belief in providence is seriously bad theology. It leads to the inference that, because very good people get cancers, viruses, and snake-bite, God must be at moral fault.

When John uses the image of Moses’ snake-pole, however, he very much wants to transfer from the Moses-account the sense that the sickness Jesus heals is in some sense our fault. What precisely is the sickness unto death of sin? It is some kind of alienation from God that is healed when God sends his son, not to condemn but to save. We have heard this phrase so many times that we fail to understand its subtlety.

Many people have mistaken this passage to say that we are saved if we merely “believe in” Jesus and that those who do not believe are condemned. From this some draw the inference that only Christians are saved, and that they are saved by their act of belief, just as the Israelites were saved by their act of looking at the snake on a pole. Such exclusivism is wholly at odds with the love attributed to God in this passage, and in so many others in John. Belief by itself hardly makes a person better. Many people who believe in the name of Jesus do so in very superficial senses and are scoundrels, villains, seducers, and fools. What would all the wars among Christians have been about if mere allegiance to the name of Jesus makes you saved?

No, the gospel text says that “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.” The issue of judgment is not belief but rather whether people deny the light in order to hide their evil deeds. The sickness from which Jesus, lifted up, heals us is the willful cloaking of our selves and society in the darkness of evil, of sin.

Can we get clearer about this dark evil, this sin? The author of Ephesians, likely a student of Paul, follows Paul in the metaphor of sins of the flesh. Speaking of the disobedient ones, the author writes in our text, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” I think what he has in mind is a generalization of the swarming siren song of sexual anticipation and excitement. You know how easy it is to become enraptured by the project of sexual pleasure, to enter into a kind of semi-trance world where many realms of reality get blocked out and the whole of one’s rational processes are squeezed into acquiring the goal. When your mind is whole, you would never hurt your friends, but you do so when deafened by the siren’s song. When your mind is whole, you would never abuse the person for whom you lust, but when tugged by the siren’s song, you go for it. When your mind is whole, you would never have unsafe sex, but when the siren blinds, you abandon caution with lies that it will be ok just this once. These are biologically based instincts that sunder wholeness in order to guarantee the statistical victory of procreation for your population, and they are God-given instincts. Now, if any of you are innocent students who are shocked that I am describing something you never heard of, please just forget what I’ve said and memorize some Bible verses while I go on.

Paul’s point has little to do with real sexual passions, but rather with how that kind of captivating, self-chosen, reason-bending blindness is a metaphor for our larger lives. We live in selfishness which, like sexual passion, prevents our hearing the truth, tugs us from our rightful and obligatory connections, and leads us into very dangerous and evil activities. Like the swarming confusions of the flesh of sexual obsession, our ordinary lives are lived in the dark. It’s not that our desires are wrong. Within the whole, they are God’s gift. But they become obsessions that blind us to the whole. Despite our better judgment we blinker our reason and plunge into the darkest corners where we hope to get what we want without consequence. Therefore, when the light comes, we blink, cover our eyes, and slink back into the dark.

This is our ontological sickness. Our nation is sick when we gorge on oil greed, when we put profit above the environment, when we cut welfare to support wars whose putative justifications have collapsed. And we ourselves are sick when our grasp of life’s wholeness slacks off and we let ourselves fall into the siren songs of our passions.

For John, and for Paul with somewhat different symbols, Jesus is the incarnation of the light of the world. Of course, everyone in their conscience knows about the wrongs that are committed when we are turned swarmy by our passions. The Logos, the Light of the World did not suddenly appear when Jesus was born. The very point of John’s gospel is that the light was here all the time and we block it, we shadow it, we deflect it to misguided zeal.

So Jesus, who refers to himself in our gospel as the Son of Man, comes to us as the special flame of illumination. It’s not that the light has not been here all along. It’s that we have hidden it, and Jesus suddenly exposes our subterfuge. Look at Jesus, lifted up in crucifixion. Can we keep up the blinders that allow us to ignore or deny the unrighteousness our way of life tolerates? John’s point is that when we see Jesus, when we really look at him lifted up, the blinders fall off and we see the light. The light is not new. The sight of the light is new when we see Jesus.

To what then are we called with the acknowledgment of the light? John says “eternal life.” This is one of his main symbols for salvation. Throughout his gospel he is careful never to parse that to mean “more life of the sort we have now without end, on and on.” Nor does he ever say that death is the end, pure and simple. He says rather that the content of eternal life is loving other people and God. This is a hard project, not a matter of will but of learning and practice. It surely is not a matter of merely deciding on belief in the name of Jesus. See the Farewell Discourse in John 13-17 for the complicated story here. When Philip at the last supper asked how do we know the Father, Jesus answered, have you been with me all this time and still do not get the point? To know the Father is to be a lover, of your neighbors, of Jesus, and of the Father. Such love is a tremendous achievement. Yet Jesus said that those with whom he had worked would not be lost. Becoming a lover is a possibility for us all.

What then does it mean to see Jesus lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and to believe in Jesus? God did not send Jesus to condemn the world. God sent Jesus to be loved by the world, so that the world could return to the wholeness of love. Jesus was the consummate lover. His loving taught the disciples how to love, how to overcome the blinkers of selfishness, how to open hearts to the loveliness of people different from ourselves. But Jesus’ lessons in love are not half so important as his own loveliness, the winsomeness of his unconditional acceptance of people he was supposed not to touch, his quick ability to fall in love with people, his refusal of the structures of injustice, most of all his refusal to deal when the authorities wanted him to play their games rather than simply to shine light. Jesus’ light shows up the temporizing politics of Pilate, the defensiveness of the Jewish officials, the slinking fear of the disciples, and our own begrudging willingness to love Jesus only when he is the victor and on our side.

Lifted up on the cross, Jesus is only a man, a lover, a prism of the light we want to deflect from the shades of sin. If instead we can love him, then we can gain the wholeness that gives sex its divine centrality in our personal identity, that lets us struggle with our government to bend it toward more impartial justice, and that lets us live with the ambiguities of life that otherwise make us think that if we do not look out for ourselves, no one else will. Wholeness, the original meaning of salvation, is not total perfection but rather acceptance of the whole light, and subsequent action in accordance with that. When Jesus is lifted up, we can see that wholeness.

Let me close by saying that the healed life of wholeness has a double quality. On the one hand, it is already to be embraced within the eternal life of the loving God where we do not have to pretend, in our darkness, that things are not what they are. On the other hand, wholeness means that we live day by day, not in some perfect heaven, but in Boston, where our good deeds are mixed with evil consequences and our projects rarely reach conclusion. If we truly attempt to love Jesus, and to live the life of lovers, then this would be a little like sending our son, not to condemn the world, but to save it at the cost of his own life. Do we love enough to sacrifice love for love? If so, then our love has broken through the limits of finite love to ride God’s infinite passion. All this makes sense when we realize that love in its wholeness cannot really die, but has eternal life.


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