We are little past the midpoint of Lent. The walk toward Calvary gets harder for Jesus—as well as for those who seek to follow him. Our texts for the fourth Sunday in Lent are challenging, and I have wrestled with them in order to offer a helpful word.
In John 3:14-21 Jesus refers to a wilderness story (Numbers 21:4-9) in which, following several episodes of bitter complaint against God and Moses, venomous snakes bit many of the Israelites. At God’s direction, Moses made a bronze snake, placed it on a pole, and lifted it up. All who looked upon it lived.
This has always been a most curious story to me. Did God really send snakes to bite people as punishment—or did they realize in the midst of calamity that turning to God is really the only helpful course of action? Often a calamitous event is attributed to God in Scripture—and they are those in our day that say everything horrific in our world is the judgment of God. I believe that in the midst of hard things that “just happen” God’s presence can be known, even if we do not say God “sent” the event for punishment.
It is interesting that the healing comes from the same image as the affliction. Moses crafts a bronze serpent to relieve the suffering inflicted by other serpents. The Israelites are not healed automatically of the snakebites simply because they look at the image; the healing is effected only if the Israelites believe that God will heal them when they look at the image. Believing is seeing.
After this brief aside on snake handling, Jesus offers a comparison of the lifting up of a healing agent—and the most expansive promise of salvation offered in the Bible. John 3:16 is well known, even by football fans! Usually the Gospel of John refers to Jesus as “being sent”; here he represents gift. God so love that God gave. And the one given is like us—after our image and likeness. Jesus wears the human face of God.
John’s Gospel uses the language of everlasting life to describe this ongoing relationship with Jesus. Of course, Jesus never meant for “eternal life” to be only about the time after we die. It is about really seeing now. Our dignity in life is restored; our hope for justice is renewed; our fear of death is reduced. We believe that the One who was lifted up seeks to heal rather than condemn.
So where are we looking these days? I would recommend that we look to the One who heals us and forgives us and names us friends. When we believe in him, we begin to see.
Molly T. Marshall
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