Reflection for March 14, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Lent
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
I think that today should be called Snake Sunday. We have snakes in the reading from the Book of Numbers. And, in the Gospel reading, we have Jesus referring to the same story about snakes.
I am not sure what the compilers of the lectionary had in mind. But when I started looking at these passages, turning them upside-down and sideways, I found that I was thinking about how I fit in and how conversion is wordless, how it’s a surprise, how it’s a daily experience.
So, here’s a story about a wordless conversion. When I was an undergraduate walking across a beautiful campus, someone came up to me and offered to pay me two dollars if I participated in a psychology experiment. Two dollars was big money in 1964.
So, I showed up at the right place and time. I think it was in the basement of the Episcopal chapel. There were a number of questions about what ideas and so forth I associated with — snakes. There were also questions like: Would I let a snake curl around my neck, would I pick one up, and so forth.
Well, not to be a sissy, I said I’d pick one up if I had to. And after a little while, I was told that I would be meeting a real snake and I’d be asked to do what I said I would do. So, in a windowless room, I was introduced to a caged brown snake who was constantly trying to slip out through the cage’s grid. The guy said, “Pick him up.” I said, “Is it poisonous?” Ridiculous question. So, I grabbed the snake around the middle. The guy said, “Not so tight. Support him near its head so he doesn’t get hurt.” He was trying to get away. He did not want to be there. He was probably sore all over his body. All of a sudden, I felt pity and love. I went through a transformation. I cannot explain this in words.
So, now, I am a bike-riding snake saver. I got off my bike once to pick up a bright green grass snake so that he wouldn’t be squashed by a car. I felt the delicate soft velvet of his skin and the road heat on his body. Another time, while biking on Bear Valley Road near Briones Park, I saw a California king snake stretching full length in the sun on the road’s yellow dividing lines. Surely, he was happy. He was surely California’s most handsome snake. I shooed all five feet of him off the road to get him out of a perilous situation.
So now let’s look at conversion or salvation in today’s readings. In short, let’s look for changes of heart. Let’s look for what it means to see the bronze serpent.
I’m going to start with a little self-diagnosis. In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites were attacked by poisonous snakes because they had sinned by speaking against God. By this time, the Israelites had been in the desert for already almost 40 years. They had been locked into the wilderness. They were sick of their hardship. They were sick of their lives. There seemed nothing to look forward to. A whole generation was to die before the sons of Israel would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Really, they were in despair. The poisonous snakes were a consequence of their despair, almost a personification of it. At God’s instruction, Moses puts the bronze serpent on a kind of standard pole. The Bible doesn’t say this bronze serpent chased the snakes away. What it did is heal and redeem the people who’d been bitten.
I am not about to say what stupid and nasty people the ancient Israelites must have been. The reason is that I think I live inside this part of the Book of Numbers. Like the Israelites, I fall into a kind of despair once in a while. Sometimes, I get a feeling that expresses itself in the question “What’s the point?” I get tired. The bills will have to be sorted and paid till I die. The house will always have to be cleaned. I will never figure out what the Cross means. I will always be a sometimes anxious father. I have to keep enduring the everlasting hardship of the humdrum. Sometimes, like the Israelites, I want to be somewhere else.
Jesus picks up on the story bronze serpent in today’s Gospel. By using the story of the bronze serpent, he tells us that he knows that we have problems like the Israelites or, simply put, experiences that dampen and suppress hope. That sometimes we are all stranded in our own desert.
So, let’s look at the whole of John Chapter 3 which is the chapter in which Jesus talks about the bronze serpent. In this chapter, Jesus is actually talking to an individual who has come to visit him at night, perhaps because he wants to keep the visit secret. The individual is a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader.
Nicodemus cannot make heads or tails out of anything Jesus says. Like the Israelites in the Book of Numbers, like me sometimes, too, Nicodemus is locked up in a desert. His desert is his unimaginative ways of thinking, the rituals and traditions he observes. For example: In this nighttime conversation, Jesus makes the famous remark that, unless you are born again, you can’t see the Kingdom of God. John 3:3-4. To which Nicodemus says: “Come on! How can a man climb back inside his mother’s womb?”
Nicodemus is tossed this way and that by the power of Jesus’ urgency to communicate. Now, Jesus has a high IQ. I know this because he uses the power of stories and metaphors to get his point across about things that cannot be explained in words. Just look the parables. And we sit with these stories, often from childhood on, and we try to live in them for the rest of our lives. I think this is why we read the Bible over and over and never get tired.
But Nicodemus is a student of the Law. It is likely that things are black and white for him. When Jesus says that he is the bronze serpent who brings eternal life and then hammers it in by saying God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, Nicodemus’ head is spinning. John 3:16.
Nicodemus is my brother. He may be buried in the Law. But I’m buried in trying to endure, and the Israelites are dealing with their own poisonous snakes. Plus, I can’t really put into words what Jesus means. But I do know that, in the same way I live with Bible stories, Nicodemus lives with and in this nighttime conversation. Nicodemus is converted without the words and without the thinking. How do I know this? Because, later on, Nicodemus is the guy who stands up for Jesus in John 7 when the Temple authorities want to arrest him. And also, along with Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus is the guy who gave Jesus’ body the honors of burial in John 19. Nicodemus may not have been able to define what was going on, but he acted as if he did. He was living the story. All I can say is that he saw the bronze serpent.
I feel I should follow in Nicodemus’ footsteps. He is one of God’s great models of conversion. Remember: he didn’t even have the advantage of the fact of the Resurrection. What he did was to love in a very broad way without relying on promises that he could understand.
If Nicodemus’ story teaches me anything, it is about how to avoid the poisonous snakes of the Book of Numbers, and how right and solid is the old, old, rote prescription that permeates our faith like a like a broken record: “Love God and love your neighbor.” This is Nicodemus. I cannot explain why he took on the messy job of taking down Jesus’ corpse from the cross. All I can say is that he grabbed the grace of directly loving Jesus through service to his body. I can’t explain why I honor the dignity of snakes. All I can say is that, no matter the desert, this is how the world should be.