4th Sunday of Lent – March 14, 2021

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Numbers 21: 4-9; John 3: 14-21
Lent 4B

This week’s text of the Book of Numbers lectionary is a strange, if not offensive, story about God inflicting poisonous snakes on sour, cranky Israelites in response to persistent complaints against God and Moses.

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Then, according to God’s instruction, Moses places a bronze serpent on a pole, and all who look at it are healed of a poisonous snake bite. We might be tempted to dismiss the story as primitive, but its powerful symbolism resurfaces in John’s Gospel narration of Jesus’ first prediction of his passion. Jesus speaks enigmatically, with a play on words, of his own “elevation” in both crucifixion and exaltation: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man to be exalted, that whoever believes in him may have everlasting life ”(John 3:14). It is one of the most unusual Christological symbols of the New Testament: the Serpent Christ. Strange as it may be, it is worth pondering. In the ancient world as in the modern world, snakes were and are the symbol of our deepest and most disturbing fears, but also of life, death and rebirth, even healing. Psychologists have associated snakes in dreams with warning signs of transformation and new beginnings. The American Medical Association adopted the healing snake on a pole as its logo. Jesus also speaks of healing by attracting this image.

This is a timely picture, given our current collective concern about the urgency of vaccination – one of the miracles of modern medicine. Scientists have learned how to replicate bacteria and viruses, make them non-lethal, and inject them back into the body as vaccines. When a vaccine is injected, our human immune system goes to work to produce killer memory cells against various diseases. Thus, a disease may turn out to be a vaccine against the disease. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga highlights this intriguing analogy in his exposition of serpent imagery in John 3:14 in his article “Christ, the Snake” published in Perspectives. He notes that the remedy for snakebites is another snake. Plantinga the bed as a reference to one of life’s deepest mysteries: that the only sure way to cure an infection is exposure – inoculation – which allows memory to be activated to destroy disease . Illness is used to cure illness.

There is no doubt that we are in great need of healing from the diseases that invade our common life. We are afflicted with greed, hatred, self-hatred, fear and apathy, both individually and collectively. Injustices and tyrannies of all kinds plague our social, economic and political life. The intriguing, mind-boggling, and agonizing truth of Christianity is the claim that God has taken our illnesses upon himself in order to become the antidote. As Plantinga says, “Christianity is the only religion that focuses on the death and degradation of its God”. Why would anyone want to lift up such a gruesome reality to contemplate it? Because the exhibit disrupts the power of disease and reveals the love and righteousness of God in Christ as an antidote. Illness can cure illness.

Exposure to the various illnesses that plague our life together can cause different reactions, including anger, apathy and resignation. But when it comes to anger, community organizers make an important distinction between hot anger (rage against injustices) and cold anger. Burning anger can lead to violence. But cold anger over exposure to injustice compels nonviolent action. According to Edward Chambers in “Roots for Radicals,” black pastors at the Industrial Areas Foundation (a faith-based coalition organizing the community) spoke of the concentrated power of such anger as “rooted in our most passionate memories and dreams – a father whose spirit has been broken by degrading work or by no work; a sibling lost to violence, alcohol or drugs; a church burnt down by an arsonist; an academic career sabotaged by a substandard high school; a district of shops and families and ailments and relationships torn apart because the banks wouldn’t lend it, because the insurance companies wouldn’t insure it. The focused and cold anger aroused by exposure to such evils can disrupt the power of disease and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, enable us to practice the love and righteousness of God in Christ as an antidote.

I have an indelible memory of what community organizing days in the ministry look like in Baltimore. Church members met fellow citizens struggling with a local bank engaged in “redlining” – a discriminatory practice of denying loans in neighborhoods deemed to be an economic risk, preventing people who lived there from owning a bank. House. They had tried repeatedly to meet with the bank manager but could not even get their calls back. But cold anger prompted them to take creative, non-violent action to expose and disrupt the illness of the bank’s injustice to the neighborhood. About 200 church members from that neighborhood showed up one day when the bank opened, each with thousands of pennies in hand – all rolled up and in bags, ready to be used to open bank accounts.

What happened next was what can only be described as inspired and organized chaos.

You have to imagine the scene: lined up at the counters of the bank teller were deacons, ushers, church leaders, choir members, brave churchmen between the ages of 20 and 80 – dressed in their own. Sunday clothes and carrying bags on bags of pennies. In a very orderly fashion, they quickly blocked all the current business in the bank – every bank teller. There were so many people at the bank that it became impossible to get through the door. Soon one of the two coin counting machines broke down, creating more and more stress for cashiers who had to start counting pennies by hand. Then one of the older parishioners who stood in line with heavy bags of pennies in his hand could no longer hold them. Accidentally dropping them on the ground, they split open and spilled thousands of pennies on the ground. It created further chaos as bank workers rushed to help him get them back. Other employees were enlisted to help other older customers find a seat or even line up and hold bags of pennies for them, creating a bigger traffic jam. After about four hours of this organized chaos, the bank manager finally made an appearance, giving in, “OK, OK, I’ll meet you! Soon after, the necessary loans were made and policies against residents of the neighborhood began to change.

They were pennies rather than snakes, but the effect was the same. Cold, focused anger exposed a sick banking system that was not working for its black neighborhood. The exhibit disturbed the power of sickness as people of faith were inspired by the Holy Spirit to act in the name of the love and righteousness of God in Christ. The same kind of inoculation takes place every Sunday as we confess our sin and directly face the diseases that afflict us in order to disrupt them by the Spirit of God at work in us. Praise God for Jesus Christ the Serpent, who was lifted up in crucifixion and exaltation, so that all who behold him can live – God’s antidote to the sins of the world.

This week:

  1. Share your reactions to the serpent as a symbol of healing and as a symbol of Jesus Christ.
  2. How might the analogy of inoculation, which activates memory in a way that destroys disease, inform your thinking about Jesus’ reference to himself as “lifted up” in crucifixion and exaltation?
  3. What ailments in your community need healing?
  4. What do you think of the distinction between “hot anger” and “cold anger”?
  5. Share your reaction to the story of inspired church members who used pennies to challenge and expose a bank that was reducing lending in their community.
  6. How can the practice of confessing our sins serve as a time when disease is exposed and disturbed in order to be healed by God’s gift of grace in Christ – by Christ the Serpent?

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