There are a lot of snakes in today’s readings. In Isaiah, a small child plays over the nests of asps and adders. In Matthew, John the Baptizer calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers. Now, a quick survey of biblical snake references will quickly confirm your sneaking suspicion that this is intended as an insult. From the garden of Eden, where the serpent is the cunning cause of the Fall of humankind, to the Revelation of John, where a strange hybrid of horse, lion and snake torments the people (Rev. 9), and Satan himself is described as both dragon and serpent (Rev. 12); from beginning to end, snakes get a bad rap in the Bible.
We tend, on the whole, to be a little wary of snakes. It has a lot to do with their sneakiness and slithering. It has to do with the fact that they can be deadly: some are poisonous; some are strong. Others are completely harmless, at least to humans, but given that by the time you get close enough to identify the harmless variety, you’re in trouble if it isn’t, one might be forgiven for treating all snakes with a certain amount of suspicion.
Snakes also have a rich history of use in religious worship. When we lived in Southeast Asia, we visited a snake temple where a number of pit vipers live side by side with the human worshippers. It is believed that the incense renders them mostly harmless, although as an added precaution they are also milked of their venom. It is probably as well to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents when you share your worship space with a brood of vipers.
Even in our own testaments, the reputation of snakes is not undilutedly bad. Although Proverbs describes the effects of strong drink in terms of a poisonous hangover: “At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder,” (Proverbs 23:32) in other places snakes serve God’s purposes. In the story of the Exodus, the ability of Aaron, brother of Moses, to turn his staff into a snake is not altogether unique; the Pharaoh’s magicians can do that, too; but Aaron’s snake eats their snakes (Exodus 7). Snakes can be a manifestation of the power of God; nothing in creation is off-limits to God’s use for good. In the Christian church, the strange addendum to Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus says that believers “will pick up snakes with their hands,” has been used to direct some charismatic groups to play with deadly animals, trusting that God will keep them safe from harm. Luke, too, reports a prophetic proclamation: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you,” although that reads to me a little more allegorical than literal with regards to the snakes, and I for one will not be treading scorpions any time soon to put it to the test.
And so, back to the case in hand. John, who has no problem taking on the prophet’s role of telling truth to power, has just called the religious elite of the land a brood of vipers. But Isaiah, a forerunner of this forerunner, told of a time when a little child would play over the nest of brooding snakes and would come to no harm. It is an interesting juxtaposition, especially at this time of year, when we have little hesitation equating Isaiah’s little child to the babe of Bethlehem. “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” Jesus will grow up playing with snakes, unafraid of the brood of vipers. He will enter their lairs, going to dinner at their houses. He will risk their fangs, going breath to breath with them over questions of law, theology and mercy, never forgetting their own potential as instruments of God. These vipers may hiss at him and strike at him, they may even kill him, but they will never poison Jesus, nor his message, nor the living food and drink that he offers to those who believe in him, the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
We talked last week about the Advent discipline of preparing our relationships for the holidays to come, about repairing breaches and rebuilding bridges in our personal lives. We acknowledged that it is not always easy, that sometimes it is almost frightening to contemplate confronting those with whom we share resentment instead of respect, bad memories instead of Kodak moments.
Since then, we heard of the passing of Nelson Mandela. As president of South Africa, he addressed his past as a prisoner first of a racist social system, then as a prisoner in a labour camp and RobbenIsland jail. He addressed his former captors, those who had tried and failed to dehumanize him. He did not hiss or strike out. He spoke prophetically, telling the truth about what had happened to him and offering a pathway to repentance and reconciliation. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he offered a chance for his people to speak truthfully to one another about their pain, their anger, their bitterness, and to lay it at one another’s feet and step away. So much poison was counteracted in those sessions, and Mandela himself became an antidote to the venom of the apartheid past when he set a personal example of looking forward instead of backward, establishing justice instead of retribution, reconciliation instead of revenge.
When he set up the commission, Mandela appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to be its chair. When he looked for healing, for a vision of peace for his country, a holy place where none would hurt or destroy any more, he looked to the church. So my challenge to us as a church is this: are we ready to hear the call to lead our people, our communities, our country to a place of peace? Where should we be looking to extract the venom from public life? Are we ready to administer an antidote to prejudice, to injustice, to enmity, respecting and upholding the dignity of every person? How brave are we willing as a congregation, as a community to be in sharing our religious life, our calling with the pit vipers? There are many ways for the church to get involved in making our world a better place. Where would you like to start?
John called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, but Jesus played over the nest of snakes, and he made genuine friendships with many of them. It was not a low-risk strategy; he ended up on a cross. But he was never poisoned by them, and he was resurrected, scarred by the marks of their fangs on his hands and his feet, but alive, and whole, bringing healing enough, the antidote to the poison of sin and death for the whole world, if we are but ready to receive and to administer it.