March 11, 2018
Bronze Snakes, and Other Favorite Idols
Forgive me, I’m going to go through our lessons a bit more methodically than normal – they’re just too weird not to!
This morning we have the most frequently quoted verse of the New Testament, paired with an utterly obscure story from the book of Numbers. Though texts from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are intimately connected, we always have to be wary of reinterpreting that which came first through the lens of that which came second. Put another way, to reinterpret Judaism through the lens of Christianity doesn’t do the original texts justice. While we never want to fall into that practice, there is a way to carefully connect the two, especially for situations like today, when Jesus makes direct reference to that which is found in Hebrew scripture.
Just for a bit of context, the book of Numbers is not simply full of Numbers, as one might suspect. It is the fourth book of the Torah, and spans the forty years of wilderness wanderings that the Israelites experienced. Most notably, it marks the transition through the death of one generation to the leadership of the next, as their lengthy time in the wilderness persists. Immediately preceding the event with the snakes in today’s passage, Aaron, faithful Israelite leader, priest, and brother to Moses, has just been left on top of Mount Hor to die. The Israelites have just rained down destruction upon a town that resisted them, and they are continuing on their way to the Red Sea. In other words, the journey has taken a toll on everyone. Perhaps it is not all together surprising that attitudes and commitments are starting to wane.
The complaint about “detesting this miserable food” is the last in a series of grievances, or what scholars refer to as “murmurings,” from the Israelites. In a fit of anger, God sends the serpents to bite the people. His punishment is swift, and many of the Israelites die.
The people repent, and beg Moses to ask God to take the snakes away. In a very strange development, God commands Moses to make a poisonous serpent into bronze and set it upon a pole, to remind the people of their deliverance. This is a very odd answer to a prayer, especially given countless previous examples of God condemning any form of idol worship. As it turns out, this bronze statue was very, very effective. Five hundred years later, the statue shows up in the temple in Jerusalem, and has become so popular that King Hezekiah orders that it be destroyed. These words from Barbara Brown Taylor perhaps give us a firmer grasp on what transpired, “If the people believed that the bronze serpent was responsible for their cure, then that snake was an idol and Hezekiah was right to snap it in two. But if looking up at the serpent reminded the people to lift their hearts to God, then the snake was a sacrament.” 
Idol or sacrament? Initially it might seem obvious that the two are not one in the same, but the more thought you give it, it seems that they are not mutually exclusive.
Idol worship, snakes, and the very thing that caused harm, transformed into the very thing that gives life. How very, very odd that the thing from which they suffered, was the very thing that seemed to provide a cure. Within religious tradition, it is more common than we might realize to use the object of suffering, as the thing that delivers from that same suffering. Passover Lambs were sacrificed and their blood smeared over the entryway to homes, in hopes that it would ward off the death of the firstborn child in the households of Israelites; a death for a death. Jesus becomes the new Passover Lamb. The bronze snake is commissioned to deliver the Israelites from the terror of fiery snakes. Then perhaps it is not surprising that the author of John’s Gospel, who has a habit of making artistic connections, explicitly brings together the bronze serpent, and Jesus on the cross.
Jesus, the Son of God, is present in human form. The very thing that most separates us from God, our humanity, is the very thing with which Jesus is sent to connect. No longer will there be divine and human, and a tremendous divide in between. Because of Jesus, God communicates that our humanity, our brokenness, our sinfulness, is known, and still fully loved. It is Jesus, a human, who cures us of our very humanity.
It is always dangerous to imply that a cure is possible. Certainly, when referencing the brokenness of humanity, there is no single solution. What we find in Christ, and ultimately what we come to realize about God, is that there is no sin, no misunderstanding, no judgment that can separate us from God’s love. Jesus confronted the depths of our unbelief, hatred, and cruelty, transforming an instrument notorious for painful death, into an empty piece of wood. The object that was used to mock and kill, has become the world’s most powerful symbol for reconciliation and hope. It is only God in human form, who fully relieves us of our humanity.
In our most generous interpretation of the bronze serpent, it’s meaning comes to be much greater than that for which it was originally intended. It points beyond itself to the meaning within the symbol. The cross, likewise, comes to represent much more than that for which it was originally intended. This very thin space that separates an idol from a sacrament, we encounter in our lives every day.
Every Sunday morning, we sit before this altar, surrounded by the stations of the cross, and beautiful stained glass windows, and receive bread and wine to remember Jesus’ Last Supper. To the eyes of a newcomer, all of this probably appears quite odd, and may border on idol worship. But, if we’re following the intention behind these traditions, each of these things are vehicles that point towards God. Each of these things, and frankly the people we find here week after week, remind us of the presence of God in our midst.
Just to be clear, the snakes don’t stop biting the Israelites during their time in the wilderness! In the midst of their new painful reality, God provides a way forward, but does not change their reality. Likewise, Jesus does not absolve us of our humanity. There is still more than enough suffering and brokenness to go around. God provides a way forward, despite our often painful reality.
Rarely, is the object of our fixation the problem in and of itself. An idol cannot deem itself such. Likewise, most people and things can straddle the line between idol and sacrament. To allow symbols the freedom to point beyond the symbol itself, to the meaning within it, we suddenly find sacraments too numerous to count. Symbols can be our vehicle to discover outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces. The source of our idolization is transformed from a stumbling block to a stepping stone.
The Rev. Beth Magill
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, p. 103