This was my sermon from last Sunday. The biblical texts referenced are Numbers 21: 4-9 and John 3: 14-21.
What an odd little story we have in the Hebrew Scriptures this morning. It’s not the grumbling of the Israelites that’s odd – we’ve seen that before (see: manna, quail, water at Marah). In fact, this story is the last of five “grumbling stories” of the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness following their liberation from Egypt. The odd part isn't even when God punishes the grumblers with a plague of snakes. Retribution theology runs a strong streak through the Old Testament, though it is by no means the only theology represented there. God punishing people for their lack of faith in God’s providence is a common way that humans understand the way God works.
Retribution theology has never made a great deal of sense to me. So, we believe in a loving God who forgives us our sins, who “so loved the world that God sent God’s only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” and that same God punishes us for the wrong things we do? Mmmm, forgiveness and retribution in the heart of God seem at the core, incompatible.
And in this story, the retribution aspect of God also seems to make little sense. What makes more sense is the healing that follows. When the people, connecting their grumbling to the snake plague, come to Moses and beg forgiveness for their speaking against God, God gives a command to Moses. “Make a poisonous [or fiery] serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” The bronze serpent raised up in the wilderness becomes a source of healing for the Israelites, rooted in God’s mercy and grace.
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor points out that this bronze serpent served a sacramental function for the Israelites. “Looking up at the serpent reminded the people to lift their hearts to God,” pointing to the true Source of the healing they experienced. That’s what a sacrament is, you know. The Reformed definition of a sacrament is “a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.” A sacrament is a physical thing that points to God’s intangible mercy.
In the Protestant church, we have two “churchly” sacraments: baptism and communion, or the Eucharist. But these two things are by no means the only things that can be sacraments. If gazing upon nesting bald eagles reminds you to give thanks to the God who made heaven and earth, those eagles too can be a sacrament. If visiting a friend who’s in the hospital or who simply lives alone, or if trying to repair a damaged relationship calls your attention to the God who desires us to be in relationship with each other, then those people can be sacraments to us.
That bronze serpent stuck around, you know. It made the wilderness journey with the Israelites and when the Temple was built, it had a place of prominence. It seems that the people did not easily forget this story of healing and redemption. But over time, the bronze serpent took on more and more prominence in the life of the people. No longer was it a sign or a symbol pointing to the power of God to heal and restore life – it became the object to which people looked for that healing. The people came to believe that the serpent itself, not God, was responsible for their cure. For that reason, King Hezekiah in the book of 2 Kings, several hundred years later, destroyed the serpent when he restored the Temple to its rightful place as a place to worship El Shaddai – the Lord God. It had become an idol, to which the people made offerings, and even had a name – Ne-hush-tan.
Sacraments can easily become idols when we neglect the source of their power in our lives, when we forget that it is not the object that has power, but that to which the thing points – God. Take, for example, wedding rings. They, too, can take on totemic significance in our lives. On our honeymoon, [Backbencher] and I went to a lovely Anglican church for service – in fact, it was the very church where Oscar Wilde had been married (snicker, snicker). When we arrived and sat down, [Backbencher] suddenly noticed that he was not wearing his wedding ring. Like many men his age, he wasn’t used to wearing “jewelry,” and he’d simply forgot to put it on when he got ready that morning. He looked at me, stricken. What could I say? It wasn’t really a big deal. I mean, if he never wore it, that might be one thing. But this was just an honest lapse, a week after getting it. It’s not like he was out trolling for women or anything – he was with me, at church.
My view about our wedding rings is that they are precious gifts to one another that symbolize our love for each other and signify the vows we made at our wedding; they represent our commitment to our relationship. My ring reminds me of my vow, calls my attention to what I have promised my beloved, and invites me to look beyond the ring to what it symbolizes: our mutual love and commitment, and the ways that God has come alive in my relationship with [Backbencher]. However, my ring is not my vow. My ring is not my commitment. My ring is not my marriage. Without this ring on my finger, I would still be married, and I would still have the same promises and commitments as I do wearing the ring.
We humans get like this, sometimes. We mistake a symbol for that to which it points. So it was with the snake in the wilderness, so it is sometimes with wedding rings, and so it is sometimes with Christ. The image of Jesus Christ lifted up – even the image of the thing upon which Jesus Christ was lifted up, the cross – becomes itself the object of worship and sacrifice. It becomes an idol, an object we worship instead of God, rather than a sacrament, something that points to God and invites us to deeper relationship with God.
Idol worship makes our life and faith shallow. If the object is the thing, then we need not plumb the depths and the mystery of what the object represents. We merely go to the object, and offer it our thoughts and prayers. If our ring becomes our vow, then it is the object that has power, rather than the relationship that has power. And if Christ becomes the be-all-end-all of how we relate to God, then we miss out on the depth and wonder that is God at work in the natural world, in other faith traditions, and through the Holy Spirit blowing where it will. Such idol worship will eventually lead to death, the very opposite of that which God intends for us.
But we need not devote ourselves to idols, putting them in the place of God and forgetting the Source of all that is good. Nor do I believe that the answer is to destroy all the idols in the world or anything that might become an idol. You’ll notice that I do in fact wear my wedding ring, that we do celebrate Communion on a regular basis, and that our altar has a cross upon it. In any event, not only is it impractical to get rid of everything that may become an idol for us, but it would be impossible. Humans seem to have an innate capacity and desire for ritual and sacrament, even if it is not within the walls of the church. Anything that could be a sacrament could also turn into an idol.
The key is to keep our attention focused on the physical objects themselves, but on the reality to which they point. Seeing Christ as a sacrament means that he becomes for us a visible representation of God’s love and mercy for all creation. Christ, whom the gospel writer called “The Logos, or Word, of God,” is a manifestation of what John 3:16 declares: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only-begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not die, but have eternal life.” We know these words are true because Jesus, in all his words and deeds, is a living proclamation of that truth.
Just as the snake was lifted up to God and gave the people life, so too was Jesus’ lifting up – both upon the Cross and up to heaven – means of bringing us to new life in his name. When we see these events not as things to be worshipped in themselves, we are freed from idolatry and free to see Christ as that for which he truly is: God alive and at work among us, desiring our repentance and making our lives holy and rich. Living sacramentally, with our eyes and souls fixed not on things but on the One who has created all things, helps us do what God would have us do. For the writer of Ephesians tell the truth: We are what God has made us – created in Jesus Christ for good works.
Our calling is not merely to recognize God as the source of life, love and healing, but to reflect that life, love and healing in our own lives. In short, God has created us in Christ Jesus to be living sacraments for the world, so that through us, people would come to see God truly and love God fully.
In this season of Lent, let us celebrate the sacrament of Christ, turn our hearts to all the holiness to which God’s creation points, and embody the Gospel to this hungry, hurting world. Amen.