by Rev. Adam Kelchner
4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke 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.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The 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. 8And 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.” 9So 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. (Numbers 21:4-9)
This curious passage from the book of Numbers sounds like a modern comparison to Anaconda, Snakes On a Plane, or snake handling Pentecostal Pastor Andrew Hamblin who serves in LaFollette, Tennessee. (You can check out video coverage of the snake handling church here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68Ha62ISivI)
This Exodus into wilderness story is downright odd: God sends snakes to bite people so that they die (probably because they were complaining that their lodging, food, and amenities in the wilderness were less than hoped for). The oddness of the text ranks right up there with Elisha cursing children who made fun of him for being bald: he curses the boys and sends she-bears to attack them.
It’s so much easier to turn to the well-known, well-rehearsed, commonly told stories of baby Jesus, the shepherds, the Last Supper, the empty tomb, and the Pentecost community to see what God is doing in the world. (And for a preacher, those texts are down right easier to preach than a vengeful she-bear). But the wilderness snakes have a key role in the journey that Christ like people make each year as they head toward the Jerusalem Cross.
This odd Numbers passage regularly shows up in the lectionary rotation during the season of Lent, because it also shows up in the Gospel of John as Jesus chats with Nicodemus: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”
The Gospel of John is about the appointed time when God acts in Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. That appointed time is the crucifixion when Jesus is literally and figuratively lifted up in the process of death. As Jesus explains to Nicodemus the ministry of the Son of Man, Jesus refers to a reasonably well-known allegory about snakes to shed light on the saving grace of God.
The cure for snake bites is a snake; the cure for human life is human life, and the cure for death is a sacrificial death.
Over 1600 years ago, St. Athanasius explained the purpose of Jesus and the crucifixion this way: ‘Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered his body to death in place of all…For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God come among us to put an end to death.’
As you journey toward the Jerusalem Cross and an empty Easter grave, may you feel the power of God that gives life in the deadliest and darkest of places.
Reverend Adam Kelchner is the Pastor of Mission and Outreach and Director of Golden Triangle Refugee Ministries at Belmont United Methodist Church. He is a graduate of Randolph-Macon College and Vanderbilt University Divinity School and currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Keeli.