Sermon 35




Trust in the Serpent

Numbers 21:9

March 22, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the most important Old Testament passage quoted in the New Testament? Is it the one about the Creation of the world? Or the Ten Commandments? Or David killing the giant Goliath? Or could it be the one about the fiery snakes in the wilderness? Now what if it were that last one? What would that mean for us?


A Peculiar Quotation

John 3:14-15 would have us believe that it is indeed this last one about the fiery snakes. That passage from the Old Testament about the poisonous serpents in the wilderness is given a most important place in the New Testament. There are a couple other Old Testament passages that vie for this honor – like Jonah in the belly of the whale which is cited as proof that Jesus would be resurrected after three days in the grave (Matthew 12:40). But no other Old Testament passage ties in with the central event of Christ’s crucifixion the way those fiery snakes do in Number 21:4-9 (with the possible exception of the paschal lamb from Exodus 12:13 in 1 Corinthians 5:7). This is surprising since the Old Testament hardly remembers this episode from Numbers 21 – unlike the Exodus from slavery in Egypt which is cited all over the place in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament there are, what appear to be, minor episodes from the Old Testament that are high-lighted – like Balaam (2 Peter 2:15) and Enoch (Hebrews 11:5) and Rahab the whore (James 2:25). This is especially odd given that the major figures – Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Joseph – the favored son of Jacob, and Samson – the protector of Israel, as well as Job and Solomon are passed over in silence or hardly mentioned at all. And the minor, though esteemed, Old Testament figures of Deborah and Ruth aren’t even on the radar screen of the New Testament.

            But Numbers 21:4-9, about those poisonous serpents killing the disobedient children of God in the wilderness – that passage is given very high profile by linking it directly to Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world. This Old Testament passage is right there at the burning hot center of the message of the New Testament – for it is Jesus dying on the cross that the church is to proclaim over everything else (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2). Martin Luther (1483-1546) even once said that we should “praise to the utmost” (Luther’s Works 13:319) Christ’s suffering and death.


Those Deadly Snakes

Now just what’s behind this episode about the snakes in the wilderness? What leads up to this ghastly event when God’s children are killed by poisonous snakes? Well, it’s actually all about disobedience – our disgusting ingratitude. That’s what’s behind it all. For after 430 years of terrible pain in Egypt (Exodus 12:41), God hears the cry of his people begging him for release (Exodus 3:7-8). And he sends Moses to lead them out of slavery into the freedom of the promised land (Exodus 14:30). Now that short journey to freedom could have been about a 3 month walk along the Mediterranean coastline – but it was lengthened wildly into 40 years of wandering in the wilderness (Exodus 16:35)! This was because they disobeyed God in the wilderness (Number 14:26-35), when they complained about having nothing good to eat (Exodus 16:3).

This complaining, whining, and squealing ingratitude enraged Almighty God. In a watered down version of the wrath he unleashed in the flood (Genesis 7:21-22), he attacks his own people once again. But this time – forgoing the mighty rushing flood waters – he sends slithering, frightening snakes to bite his people and their children with poisonous venom. God sends these snakes to punish them knowing how afraid we are by nature of snakes [see Scary Creatures: Snakes Alive (2002) p. 19, where an anaconda squeezes a crocodile to death]. So God hits them with a one-two-punch – killing them with venom and reptilian terror.


That Ridiculous Remedy

And it works. His attacks on them scare his people straight. They figure out right away that it’s God who is sending the snakes to punish them. They didn’t have to first find labels on the backs of little snake shirts saying MADE BY GOD to know that it was God who was doing this. Oh, no. The pattern was clear from the time of the flood, that God uses nature to scare us and hurt us when we repeatedly shake our fists in his face:


Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury upon them (Ezekiel 5:13).


And God does that by way of earthquakes, hurricanes, firestorms, wars, diseases, famines and “evil beasts” (Numbers 11:1, 16:31-32, Ezekiel 13:13, 14:21). So when dying from the snakes bites and watching their children writhing in pain and terror, they beg Moses to plead with God to take away the snakes. Just as he sent them without warning, so they hope he will take them away – in a moment, in a flash, and in that way free them from all harm.

That’s what happened with the mysterious Spanish flu that hit America without warning in 1918 – randomly killing over 600,000 in just three short months – and then, unexplainably, vanishing on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, never to be seen again. What a catastrophe that was – people dying so fast and in such large numbers that they had to be buried by steam shovels in New York City – just to keep up with the morgues (see Pete Davies, The Devil’s Flu, 2000). So those ancient people of God were hoping for the same sort of quick fix. But that was not in the cards.

            God had something else in mind– something far stranger up his sleeve. His answer was that the snakes would stay – remaining as deadly as ever. This is not like Daniel in the lions’ den, when God “shut the lions’ mouths” so they wouldn’t hurt him (Daniel 6:22). No, in the case of the snakes in the wilderness, Moses would take a dead snake, put it on a pole, and stand it upright in the middle of the bitten people – right at the scene of the crime. If bitten, all they would have to do is look at the dead snake on the pole – now turned into bronze – and they would be healed. Then those poisonous bites which had threatened them, would no longer be lethal – if they but gazed upon the bronze serpent. But looking at a bronze snake after having been bitten by a real one, would be the last thing they would want. Luther imagines them spouting off:


Ha, what a ridiculous medicine it is that you propose for the... bite of the serpents! Moses, have you lost your senses? How are we to be helped by looking at this bronze serpent, which looks like those that bit us? We are so terrified that we cannot stand the sight of them! If only you would, instead, give us... a cooling plaster... to take away the venom and the fever!.... How can that dead... object up there benefit us?.... Moses, are you insane? Do you want to terrify us still more with your cure and scare us out of our wits? How could that serpent help us? (LW 22:338-339, 341).


Even so some believed in the cure and were healed – in spite of the fact that it’s natural “to shy away from anything that has harmed us” (LW 22:341). So the snakes stayed, and healing came through them, instead of by killing them off. How strange a cure!

So why did God take up such a weird way to rescue his people? Why didn’t he just dispose of the snakes, as he was asked to do? What was he trying to do in this crazy sounding cure for them?


Destroying Death by Death

Well we don’t know for sure since he doesn’t tell us in the text itself. That leaves us to piece together what his rationale could have been. And we can do that by assembling Biblical verses that shed light on God’s mysterious, healing ways (Malachi 4:2).

The first verse is Hebrews 2:14 which says that Christ destroyed death by death. This parallels what happened in the wilderness – the dead, bronze snake overcomes the deadly snake bites. So the death lurking in those poisonous bites is neutralized by the dead bronze snake upon the pole. This is much the way that vaccines work – introducing “a whole or partial version of a pathogenic microorganism into the body in order to train the immune system to defend itself when the organism threatens to cause an infection through natural means” [Arthur Allen, Vaccine (2007) p. 14]. Here we have death doing in or destroying death – through a weakened form of itself that can be more easily wiped out. Christ as the bronze snake, “does us no harm with its venom; for this is a healing serpent, without venom” (LW 22:342). This image of the bronze serpent works, then, by showing how the death of Jesus resembles the healing that comes from that serpent. For both do the same thing – making death itself destroy itself.

And that’s helpful because we’re not inclined to think that death could save us from itself. So if we’re going to go against common sense, it would help to have a compelling image – and that we surely have in the bronze snake on the pole. It was in fact so compelling for Israel that later on that bronze serpent took on the exotic name Nehushtan, became an idol, and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). What in part is so riveting here is seeing “sin... destroyed by its own fruit [Romans 6:23], and... slain by the death to which it gave birth,” – similar to the way “a viper is devoured by its own offspring” (LW 42:151). That odd power could tempt one to view all of this superstitiously. Guarding against that, our teaching is that “in death itself there is life, something which is unknown to and impossible for... reason” to grasp (LW 4:116).


Going Against Reason

And this takes us to our next verse, John 9:39, which says that those who can see, need to lose their sight. This is because we naturally love what is wrong – we sinfully prefer darkness to the light (John 3:19). So we need to have our reason, or our seeing mind, thwarted, since it loves the darkness. And that is what the bronze serpent does. It pushes us beyond reason into faith. As Luther points out, “just looking at the serpent did not effect the cure; it was faith in the Word that did it” (LW 22:339). And the word said to “look at the bronze serpent and live” (Numbers 21:9). Simply looking at the snake was baffling because it seemed useless. That was all one’s reasoning could come up with. But faith goes further and gives the cure a try. Believing in what Moses said about the bronze serpent was the basis for trusting in this cure. And yet even with that there weren’t any guarantees. So they had to take a risk and leap beyond their reasonable, good sense findings, and try out the cure – in spite of the way it all looked.

       Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who learned a great deal from diligently, if not daily, reading Luther’s sermons (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, ed. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong, §§2465, 2485, 2493, 2516, 2530, 3515), helps with this leap. And we need that because believing in such a cure makes us look crazy. On this matter Kierkegaard writes that “when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it, then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark” (Kierkegaard’s Writings 15:238). There is then a seeing or even a sort of thinking in faith that apprehends God’s healing. It’s just that this thinking is “illuminated” by the grace of God to see what our minds would otherwise miss (LW 26:268; 34:144). So Kierkegaard says “the unseen is that what is seen is nevertheless not seen, for if it is seen, it obviously is unseen that it is not seen” (KW 16:295). Now that’s a fancy, detailed way of saying that believing is seeing – and not the other way around (John 20:29). And this we need because God values obeying over comprehending in our saving relationship with him (Luke 11:28; KW 24:5, Journals §1129).


God Against God

Finally this strange cure pits a snake against a snake – the bronze one against the living, poisonous ones. This reptilian contrast points to the depth of our salvation where, as the Lutheran Confessions teach, the death of the Son of God is “pitted against” the wrath of God the Father [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 136]. What we have in this strange encounter is God going against himself in order to bring about our salvation (Journals §532). This confrontation trades on distinguishing “between God and God” (LW 12:321) – between his wrath and mercy. The goal is to have his mercy prevail over his wrath.

Hosea 11:9, our last verse, shows this struggle when God says, “my heart recoils within me” – which is God fighting “against his wrath” [H. W. Wolff, Hosea (1974) p. 201]. Even the rainbow in the sky which was to settle this conflict in God (Genesis 9:15), warns us, in its red colors, of our coming “fiery... judgment” (LW 2:149). And God’s wrath continues to restrict his love until the blood of Christ satisfies that wrath – saving us from it (Romans 5:9; Colossians 1:20; John 3:36). By being punished in our place, Christ removes the need for God to punish us for our sins in hell (2 Corinthians 8:9). That’s why he makes his sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 9:14) – which stabilizes God’s love for us [contra J. Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (2001) p. 50].


Our Serpent of Salvation

So take a second look at that bronze serpent – for it’s not supposed to scare you away. In it we are instead to see Jesus who is “the serpent of our salvation” (LW 22:340). For inside those snake-skins is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; LW 22:343). Because of that sacrificial Lamb, dressed in snake-skins, we’re strangely drawn to him (John 12:32). For in him is performed “the difficult task of turning poison into a remedy” (KW 17:96). Therefore we confess that


the foolishness of the Gospel... reveals another righteousness, namely, that because of Christ, the propitiator, we are accounted righteous when we believe that for Christ’s sake God is gracious to us. We know how repulsive this teaching is to the judgment of reason and law and that the teaching of the law about love is more plausible (BC, p. 189).


Indeed it is so. We would rather hear that all we have to do to be saved is live a decent life and care for one another – rather than all this repulsive business about turning poison into a remedy. This simple life of love is far more plausible to us than the repulsive one about sacrifice, wrath, faith and love. We would rather save ourselves than do so through some lamb in snake-skins.

            But this is our plight – trapped in sin before an angry God who saves us only through the most strange divine self-sacrifice. But don’t settle for your sin. Don’t “be faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). Don’t give up the repulsive in the name of the plausible. Don’t sacrifice faith for a life of reason. And don’t run from the only thing that will bring God’s grace to you (see my “Our Serpent of Salvation,” Word & World, Fall 2001).


Starving Out Illusions

Furthermore, do good works in Christ – knowing that “every sound tree bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:17). This is so even though “sometimes, through the weakness of the flesh,” as Luther takes pains to point out, “something wrong creeps in” and we


bear wormy fruit, [but it] is still good fruit and has no... thorns. [So] rather than... be fruitless, the tree will bear fruit that is wormy, though that is not its fault. So all the works of a Christian are of a good kind because the tree is sound (LW 21:267).


With that warning against perfectionism in hand, we are nevertheless to press on, that we may glorify Christ in our deeds (Colossians 3:17). During Lent our good deed is fasting the foods we especially like. But we also want to extend our fast beyond foods into other areas of our lives. Today let that area be our thinking.

Let us then dethrone the arrogance of our thought that likes to stand in judgment over what’s plausible or not (contra 1 Corinthians 2:4). Our reasoning therefore has a way of hamstringing the great claims of our faith – thinking it can rule them out of court on grounds of implausibility. Let us counter that ploy by fasting our mind of its yarns. Kierkegaard put it this way (JP §§6227-6628):


The situation calls for Christianity to be presented once again without scaling down.... but as... a dialectician does it, in Socratically starving the life out of the illusions in which Christendom has run aground. For it is not that Christianity is not proclaimed, but it is Christendom which has become sheer expertise in transforming it into illusion and thus evading it.


So we are to fast our thinking as well, by depriving ourselves of those mental reductions by which we evade what is offensive about Christianity – sin, wrath, judgment, sacrifice and faith.

Therefore let us pray that God would save us from “unprofitable and dangerous enquiries [and] from difficulties vainly curious” [Samuel Johnson: Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, (1958) pp. 383-384]. Let us recall Luther’s warning that reason is a whore (LW 40:175). And so while reason might be “a sun and a kind of god appointed to administer” many areas of our lives (LW 34:137; 3:320-324; 44:336), it fails when it comes to understanding sin and salvation (LW 17:76; 22:69, 319, 458; 23:51, 80, 84, 350-352; 26:228; 51:377, 384; 52:167, 196). May God then keep us ever mindful of the right way to follow Christ in our thinking. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)