Staring at Serpents

By Rhododendrites (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A sermon on Numbers 24:1-9 and John 3:14-21…

If you’ve ever read Harry Potter, you know about invisibility cloaks. An invisibility cloak is a magical cloak that renders whatever or whoever it covers invisible. These cloaks are mass produced in Harry Potter’s world. I would hazard to say that invisibility cloaks are abundant in our world as well, they just come in a somewhat different form.

Let’s be honest. There are more than a few things that we like to sweep under the rug, that we prefer to leave hidden. Some of them may be experiences or illnesses or deeds that we fear may stigmatize us – drug addiction, mental illness, a history of abuse. Some may be things that would change the way we live if we dared acknowledge them. Unfair labor practices in some parts of the world allow us to buy  items at a lower price; we harbor within us all sorts or racial and religious and social prejudices; and we all carry around guilt for ways we have hurt those we love, those with whom we work, those coming after us in this world. We human beings have an amazing ability to push these things into the recesses of our consciousness. Thanksgiving dinners are often proof enough of that – everyone on their best behavior, even the most dysfunctional families taking on the appearance of the Cleavers in Leave It to Beaver.

Maybe there are times when it’s best not to bring things out into the light, but there are also times when we have to cast off the invisibility cloak and take a good, long look at the brokenness of our world – including the brokenness of our own hearts. To do anything less would be to refuse healing. The #metoo movement is one such moment in time.

Twenty years ago Duana Welch was a student working on her doctoral degree in the social sciences. She was afraid to report sexual harassment at the hands; she knew that she might be blamed,she knew that her career affected. But then came the #metoo movement. (The #metoo hastag on social media is a way of saying “yes, I, too, have experienced sexual harrassment.”) The power of this movement is that the greater the number of victims who come forward to report harassment, the safer and less stigmatizing it is to be seen as a victim of this behavior (and the less the power differential between harasser and victim). The #metoo movement has given our nation a chance to speak truth.[1]

For many years our society made it all too easy for deeds of sexual harassment and abuse to stay hidden. In the language of the evangelist John, we have not come to the light in order that our deeds not be exposed. We, as a society, have loved darkness more than light. But the #metoo movement has brought truth to light, and the hope is that this disclosure (as well as the truths that sound from groups such as Black Lives Matter and Human Rights Campaign) will ultimately bring healing and transformation. It did for the Israelites.

In today’s reading from the Old Testament, the Israelites are tired of wandering in the wilderness. They are frustrated that they have been denied passage through Edom and so must take a circuitous route to the promised land. And they are sick and tired of eating manna and quail. So they fall into an all-too-familiar pattern in the book of Numbers. The people begin to complain. Usually they just complain against Moses, but this time they complain against God, too, saying: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and water, and we detest this miserable food.” Right there we see a problem with logic, not to mention gratitude.  So God sends poisonous serpents into the camp, and some of the people are bitten and die. Like always, the people run to Moses, asking him to intercede with God on their behalf so that God will take away the serpents. And Moses does. God tells Moses to make a serpent and put it on a pole, and whenever someone is bitten they are to look at that serpent on a pole and live. So Moses makes a bronze serpent and puts it on a pole.

It’s an odd story – one that might be buried in obscurity were it not for the fact that Jesus mentions it in his famous conversation with Nicodemus. But I think this story tells us something true and important about sin and redemption. The snakes are a tangible reminder of the people’s sins – their stinging complaints, their lack of trust, their never-ending ungratefulness.  When the people repent and ask Moses to intercede on their behalf, God could respond by taking the snakes away, by returning things to the way they were before, as if nothing had ever happened.  Instead, God brings healing by keeping the people’s sin ever before their eyes—a large serpent on a pole where everyone in the camp can see it. No pretending it isn’t there; no avoiding the uncomfortable reality of its presence; no chance to believe that the problem has been overcome when it’s really just been relegated to the subconscious. The people have to look at their sin before they can be healed of it; in fact, looking at it is the very source of the healing.

This is why Jesus, in today’s gospel, compares himself to the serpent lifted up in the wilderness. We look at Jesus’s and we see the self-emptying love we are called to give but often don’t, we see the margins of society to which we are called to go and yet often won’t, we see the capacity for violence that lies within each one of us. But, most importantly, we see the length to which God will go to heal us, to make us whole.

The idea that we must see our sin before we can be healed of it is especially important during the season of Lent. We don’t spend these weeks looking at the ways we need our lives to be different as some gloomy exercise in self-flagellation. Lent is about bringing these things into our consciousness so that we can be healed, so that we can be transformed – both as individuals and as a community.  As twelve step programs remind us, we are only as sick as our deepest secret. As a carpenter from Nazareth once said, “the truth will see you free.”

We might prefer that God just send our serpents away, exile them, put them back under an invisibility cloak – it would be easier than having to face them head-on. But God is in the business of transformation. We have to look at our sin to find redemption; we have to look at the cause of our sickness to find healing; we have to look at what brings us death in order to find life. This is our journey through Lent and life.  Sounds a lot like the path to resurrection to me.


[1] Sharon Jayson, “The Power of #MeToo: Why Hashtag Sparks ‘Groundswell’ of Sharing – and Healing,” Washington Post website, 11/15/17,–and-healing/2017/11/15/e87a4bf6-c9ed-11e7-b506-8a10ed11ecf5_story.html?utm_term=.b47d1207e8c4.