“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. For God so loved the world, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
So says Jesus, and we have heard it so many times before that it’s easy to miss the intro: “Jesus said to Nicodemus.”
You may ask, what does it matter to whom Jesus was speaking? God so loved the world whether Jesus was telling Nicodemus or Peter or Pilate or us about it. The audience doesn’t change the measure of God’s love. Well, that’s true.
The thing about it being Nicodemus who gets this message is that Jesus is trying his level best to make this man understand the good news, the gospel, that Jesus has brought right to his doorstep: that God so loved the world that God would give to him, to Nicodemus, eternal life, and Nicodemus is making it really hard work for Jesus to get his point across.
To be fair, Nicodemus wants to hear Jesus, see Jesus, but he is also afraid of his fellow Pharisees, of their ridicule or disapproval; he is embarrassed to be seen with Jesus, so he comes under the cover of darkness, in the dead of night to find him; he barely gives himself a chance to see the light.
So Jesus tries to talk to him in ways that he will understand. Good Jewish boy that he is, Nicodemus knows the story of Moses in the wilderness, and the serpents, and the stick.
After God created the world, and all that is in it; after God created people in God’s image and in close relationship with the divine; after God spared the world from the end that the Flood could have made of it; after God promised not to do that again; after God called Abraham, and made many nations, and sent Joseph dreams, and spoke to Moses out of a burning bush; after God rescued the people of Israel, delivering them from the threat of death through the night of the Passover and parting of the Red Sea; after all of this, when the people were in the wilderness, they got a little perturbed that God had not done more for them lately. Specifically, they wanted better food, and fewer snakes.
Again, to be scrupulously fair, the snakes were a problem, because they bit, and people died. So God came once more to the assistance of God’s people, telling Moses how to use his staff – the shepherd’s rod that God had turned into a serpent during Moses’ first encounter with the burning bush, one that had become a serpent in the contest against Pharaoh’s magicians; the one that he had used to part the waters of the Red Sea – God told Moses to fit his staff with a bronzed snake so that the people would look once more upon this shepherd’s rod, this symbol of God’s power and authority and mercy for God’s people, and remember that God would also save them from the snakes. For God so loved the world, and the people.
I remember vividly a sermon I heard three years ago, the last time these snakes came into town. I emailed the preacher, the Revd Katie Wright, this week, and she kindly confirmed what I remember her saying:
“It sounds so easy, and yet how often do we not allow ourselves to look up, to claim the healing that is there for us. Instead we keep kicking at the snakes at our feet.”
But that, the letter to the Ephesians tells us, is just when Jesus comes to us, when we are lying as good as dead in a heap of snakes and sin; that is when grace is needed, and God will provide it, lifting us up to the high places and seating us with him in the presence of God, of grace, of glory, if only we will look up long enough from our pit of snakes to see it.
There comes a time, Jesus tells Nicodemus, to look up, and to trust God, even though you know there are snakes snapping at your ankles, even though you know there is more work to do, more wilderness to slog through, more sin to solve, more than you can shake a stick at; there comes a time to look up and to trust God, even though what you see looking back is the serpent that bit you; even though what you see is the Son of Man crucified, dying on a cross. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The world has trouble with the way of the cross. The world would rather that the Son of God came for condemnation, of all that is other, unsavoury, unwanted. Remember how angry Jonah got when God forgave Nineveh, just because they repented. See how a city on the brink of peace poisons the oil with random acts of violence. See how the relics of racism resurface over and over again to spill their venom into a new generation, how tightly we hold on to our right to discriminate, our right to condemn rather than to love one another.
The world always pushes back against the way of the cross, that radical and redeeming love, as though the snakes are everywhere, spreading their poison.
For Nicodemus, seeing Jesus a couple of years later lifted high on the hillside, it must have been as though the poison of the Romans was expected to become the promise of God’s mercy after all; it made about as much sense to him as a snake on a stick, before he came to believe in the resurrection.
But, Jesus told him in the darkness of that night, there is a time even in the wilderness, even in bewilderment, to look up, to see God’s shepherding staff, still leading and comforting God’s people. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.”
I hope that you know me well enough by now to trust that I am not telling you to look on the bright side when the snakes are biting; God forbid, I wouldn’t dare. I will say, if you can, look up.
If you can, hold on to the promise of love, of life, of the lifting of our lives out of the poisonous pit of snakes, out of the wilderness; the promise of resurrection. If you can, look up, and see even from the cross God’s love looking right back at you.
Even Nicodemus, when he left Jesus that night, if he chanced to look up would see in the darkness the light of the sun reflecting off the moon; he would see the stars, unimaginably far away, the light from them rushing from ages ago, just as fast as it could, to fall into his eyes, looking up; looking for eternity.