By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
When I was in music school we used to have an exercise called, “Drop the Needle.” (For those of you who don’t know, recordings used to come on large plastic discs called, “LPs.”) The professor would drop the needle (actually, it’d come down slowly) in the middle of a recording, and we were to identify the work and composer after hearing just a few bars. It was great fun. He’d drop the needle, and we’d hear: Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, and we’d write down, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Or, it’d go: Da, da-da, da-da-da-da-da-dah, and we’d know immediately it was Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
I mention this because, when you hear the words, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life,” you know it’s got to come from John’s gospel. Only John uses such metaphorical and cryptic language. Only John relies so heavily on the image of eternal life. He uses the phrase seventeen times, half as many as in the whole of the New Testament.
So, what does it mean? That’s the question. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” To understand this passage, we need to go back to the Old Testament and the story of Moses and the bronze serpent. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:
After wandering months, maybe years, in the desert, the people of Israel had had enough. They were half-starved and exhausted, and there was little promise to the land that lay before them. “Promised Land?” Hah! Almost all had buried loved ones along the way, including Moses, whose sister Miriam died in the wilderness of Zin (Numbers 20:1) and his brother, Aaron, who died on Mount Hor (Numbers 20:28). Now, they were out of water. They had every right to complain and beg Moses, “Take us back to Egypt.” They said,
“We wish that we had died
when our brothers died before Yahweh! …
Why have you made us to come up out of Egypt,
to bring us in to this evil place?
It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines,
or of pomegranates;
neither is there any water to drink.” (Numbers 20:3-5)
As he had done so many times before, Moses went into the tent of meeting, fell on his face before the Lord and prayed for God’s mercy. And, as always, God answered his prayer and gave the people of Israel what they needed to continue on their journey. He commanded Moses to strike the rock with his rod, and, lo and behold, water gushed forth, so that the people drank to their hearts’ content and watered their animals, as well.
But they couldn’t take much water with them, and what they did take soon ran out. Again, the people became impatient. They said,
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?
For there is no bread, and there is no water;
and our soul loathes this light bread (manna from heaven).”
This time, instead of giving them a blessing, God sent a curse. All of a sudden, the people looked around them, and there were snakes everywhere. Not just the garden variety snakes you can pick up and play with, these were poisonous snakes that, if they bit you, you’d surely die. And that’s exactly what happened: The snakes began biting the people – men, women and children – so that there were dead Israelites piling up everywhere.
The people of Israel cried to Moses, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh, and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us.”
So, Moses prayed to God, and God told Moses to fashion a fiery serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole and hold it up for the people to see, so that everyone who was bitten by a snake, if he looked up at the serpent, would not die.
And so, once more, God showed mercy on this stubborn and obstinate people and saved them from their sinful and rebellious ways. And, to this day, the people of Israel remember the story of Moses and the bronze serpent and they’re reminded of God’s saving grace.
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Now, fast forward a couple of thousand years. A devout Jew named Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cloak of darkness in search of the meaning of life. And Jesus said, “Unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God.” Of course, Nicodemus had no idea what that meant, so he asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?” And Jesus said,
“Most certainly I tell you,
unless one is born of water and spirit,
he can’t enter into the Kingdom of God!
That which is born of the flesh is flesh.
That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Don’t marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.'”
Still, Nicodemus didn’t get it. And so, Jesus said,
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
Now it’s clear: By dying on the Cross Jesus paid the price for our sins. By rising from the dead he opened the door to eternal life. Trust in the power of his death and resurrection, and you will experience for yourself the very kingdom of God. Look up to the crucified and risen Christ, and you will be saved.
Sounds simple enough, and it is: Allow Jesus Christ to be the Lord and Savior of your life, and you’ll be filled with the fruits of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There’s just one catch: When God saved the people of Israel from the fiery serpents, they held on to the bronze serpent long after all the snakes had slithered away. In fact, they held on to it long after Moses had died, long after Joshua led them into the Promised Land and long after Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem.
They held on to it and wouldn’t let it go, and, in time, it became an object of worship, a symbol of idolatry. Then came Hezekiah. Scripture says,
“He did that which was right in the eyes of Yahweh,
according to all that David his father had done.
He removed the high places, and broke the pillars,
and cut down the Asherah:
and he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made;
for in those days the children of Israel burned incense to it;
and he called it Nehushtan.” (2 Kings 18:3-4)
Under the leadership of Hezekiah, Judah once more regained its strength and served as a beacon of light to the other nations.
Well, here’s the connection we need to make: If we’re not careful, Jesus can become an icon rather than the guiding force of our lives. To put it another way, it’s altogether possible to pay lip service to Jesus, then go on your merry way as if who he is and what he commands you to be is irrelevant to everyday life.
The story is told of a new minister who was making the rounds visiting his parishioners in their homes. One family had a four-year-old daughter, and she was so impressed to have the new minister come to her house that she wanted to do everything possible to impress him. With her mother’s help, she served him cookies and lemonade, she showed him her room, then she asked, “Would you like to see Jesus?” He said, “Why, of course!” She ran to her closet, climbed up on a chair and got a little ceramic figure of Jesus and brought it for him to see. “That’s beautiful,” he said, “Thank you for showing it to me.” “You’re welcome,” she replied, “Now I’ve got to go and put Jesus back on the shelf where he belongs.”
Since January, I’ve been teaching the 7th and 8th grade Confirmation Class. We’ve reviewed what the kids have been taught through the years about the Bible, the Sacraments, the Book of Order, the Confessions, how we worship and pray and seek to serve others in Christ’s name. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve got thirteen of the finest 7th and 8th graders you’ll find anywhere.
The lesson this Sunday was entitled, Faith in Action: Ethics and Morals. We talked about how, as Christians, we’re called to live by a higher moral and ethical standard than the world around us. I tried to make it clear: We get our ethics and morals from the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the Love Commandment, the teachings of Jesus, the letters of Paul.
As part of the lesson I gave the kids a list of twenty-five specific behaviors and asked them to rate each behavior from one to five – one being it’s O.K. to do; five being absolutely not O.K.; two, three and four, somewhere in between. Here’s a sampling:
• Taking something that doesn’t belong to you – is that O.K., not O.K., or somewhere in between?
• Telling a lie.
• Smoking cigarettes.
• Cheating on a test.
• Taking drugs (other than medicine).
• Gossiping/spreading rumors.
• Having premarital sex.
• Drinking beer, wine or hard liquor to excess, especially if you’re under age.
• Refusing to eat properly, so that it leads to anorexia.
• Overeating, so that it leads to obesity.
• Taking the Lord’s name in vain.
• Talking back to your parents or teachers.
• Engaging in homosexual activity.
• Watching X-rated movies or looking at pornography.
• Having an abortion.
How would you rate these behaviors? How does the way you live out your life reflect your values and beliefs? More importantly, how does the way you live out your life reflect the witness of scripture and your relationship to Jesus Christ?
I grant you, these are hot button topics, and you may be uncomfortable talking about them. Be that as it may, the truth is: What you believe when you say that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life is best seen not by your words, but by your actions. True faith is that which reflects the Spirit of Christ living within you.
Have you heard about the Cross of Jesus that’s been erected along Interstate 40 near Groom, Texas? Groom is about fifty miles east of Amarillo. The story is Steve Thomas and his wife, Bobby, wanted to do something to express their devotion to Jesus Christ, so, sparing no expense, they built this huge Cross. It stands 190 feet in the air. It took a hundred welders eight months to construct. It weights 1,250 tons, or 2.5 million pounds. It’s encircled by fourteen bronze statues depicting the Stations of the Cross. They say, on a clear day, you can see it from twenty miles away.
The question is will seeing this Cross and being impressed by its sheer size and scope lead to lives that reflect the presence of the living Christ, or will motorists simply gawk, as they often do when they see the statue of Sam Houston along Interstate 45 near Huntsville?
Is it another bronze serpent, or does it bear witness to an exalted Savior? The only way to be sure is to gauge the degree to which those who look up to it are transformed into children of God.
Well, this is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: Anyone can build a statue or hang a picture of Jesus and nod reverently every time they pass by. I submit to you, that’s not enough. Jesus Christ is no bronze serpent on a pole. He’s the crucified and risen Lord, and he calls us to live in relationship with him day by day. To lift high the Cross of Jesus is to walk in his footsteps, serve others in his name, and glorify him as Lord of all creation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Dr. Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.