On 15th March 2015, the fourth Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21.
I wonder if you would class yourself as superstitious. If you spill some salt, do you toss a pinch of it over your left shoulder into the face of the devil? Have you ever broken a mirror and expected seven years’ bad luck? Do you avoid putting shoes on a table as that causes bad luck? If the palm of your right hand itches, do you anticipate coming into money? Are you happy at the thought of the good fortune a black cat walking towards you will bring?
There are hundreds of such beliefs. A lot of people may laugh at them but others take them very seriously. After all, who wants to risk seven years’ bad luck?
The story of the bronze snake in the passage from Numbers seems like a similar bit of superstition. How could a bronze snake help anyone to avoid dying from a poisonous snake bite? Of course, when God is involved that adds another dimension.
Despite the people complaining bitterly against God, when they turned to him in their distress, it was as the psalmist wrote: Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
God provided a way to deal with the snakes. He didn’t take the snakes away. The people could still be bitten. However, they had a way to be healed if they chose to take it. All they had to do was look at the snake on a pole and they would be healed and not die. I imagine everyone who was bitten looked at the snake on the pole, whether they thought it was an odd thing to do or not. I expect we too would do the same if the alternative was to die of the snake’s poison. The argument about whether it was all superstitious nonsense could come later.
When reading the Gospels it’s hard to avoid noticing that Jesus was fulfilling many prophecies which had been written many years before. In the gospel passage today, Jesus applied to himself an incident from the story of God’s people. His listeners would have been familiar with the story of the bronze snake lifted high on a pole. Referring to his crucifixion, though at the time the people would not have known this, he spoke of himself being lifted up just as the snake had been, to bring life instead of death.
Jesus promised that anyone who looked on him and believed in him would not just be saved for this life but would receive eternal life. I cannot imagine anyone refusing to look at the serpent if they had been bitten by a poisonous snake, but many refuse to look to Jesus for eternal life.
Some simply don’t believe that this offer is anything but a piece of superstition, something that only children and fools would believe. How could belief in an itinerant rabbi from two thousand years ago, who was foolish enough to get himself executed, have any bearing on life today? Where is the proof that this works? At least when people looked at the bronze snake it would have been obvious if they were healed or not.
Other people don’t recognise that they have any need to look to Jesus for the gift of eternal life. They do not see themselves as sick at all. They do not acknowledge that they commit sins and need forgiveness. They are content with the way they are. They consider themselves to be ‘good people’. For them to look to Jesus would be rather like someone who did not realise they had been bitten by a snake looking at the bronze snake. No one can force someone to admit they need rescuing by Jesus. It has to be a personal decision, once someone understands their need.
Then there is a third set of people who do not believe that Jesus’ offer is for them at all. Even though Jesus said that EVERYONE who believes would have eternal life; even though Jesus said he DID NOT come to condemn, they are excluded from his offer in their own mind. Their sin is too great to be forgiven, as far as they are concerned. Although they long to be loved and accepted, they simply cannot believe that the good news is as good as Jesus said it is.
There is probably a fourth set of people, though it’s not pleasant to think of. There are those who love darkness, as Jesus said. They do evil and do not want what they are doing to be brought into the light. The last thing they want is to get involved with Jesus who might make them see how evil their actions are.
The offer is plainly stated: “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.”
How can those who do not/ cannot/ will not believe this ever change their minds? Only God can work within a person to convince them of the truth. We can help, though, by living as those who have looked to Jesus and know ourselves to be forgiven and blessed with the gift of eternal life. We can share our story when given the opportunity. We can pray for those whom we know who have not yet accepted the free gift which Jesus offers to everyone as a result of his death on the cross.