4th Sunday in Lent — March 14, 2021

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

This week’s lectionary text from the book of Numbers is a strange, even offensive, story about God inflicting poisonous snakes on cantankerous, grumpy Israelites in response to persistent complaining against God and Moses.

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Then, per God’s instruction, Moses sets a bronze snake upon a pole, and all who gaze upon it are healed of venomous snakebite. We might be tempted to dismiss the story as a primitive one, but its potent symbolism surfaces again in the Gospel of John’s narration of Jesus’ first prediction of his passion. Jesus speaks enigmatically, with a pun, of his own “lifting up” in both crucifixion and exaltation: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14). It is one of the most unusual Christological symbols in the New Testament: Christ the Snake. Odd though it may be, it is well worth pondering. In both the ancient and modern world, snakes were and are symbolic of our deepest, most ominous fears, but also of life, death and rebirth — indeed of healing. Psychologists have associated snakes in dreams as harbingers of transformation and new beginnings. The American Medical Association adopted the healing snake upon a pole as its logo. Jesus, too, speaks of healing in drawing this image to himself.

It is a timely image, given our current collective preoccupation with the urgency of vaccination — one of the miracles of modern medicine. Scientists have learned how to replicate bacteria and viruses, render them nonlethal and inject them back into the body as vaccines. When a vaccine is injected, our human immune system goes to work producing killer memory cells against various diseases. So, a disease can turn out to be a vaccine against disease.  Theologian Cornelius Plantinga highlights this intriguing analogy in his exposition of the serpent imagery in John 3:14 in his article “Christ, the Snake” published in Perspectives.  He notes that the cure for snakebite is another snake. Plantinga reads it as a reference to one of the deepest mysteries in all of life: that the only sure way to cure an infection is exposure – inoculation – which allows the memory to be activated to destroy the disease. The disease is used to cure the disease.

There may be no doubt that we are mightily in need of healing from diseases that pervade our common life. We are afflicted by greed, hatred, self-hatred, fear and apathy, both individually and collectively. Injustices and tyrannies of varied sorts plague our social, economic and political life. The intriguing, mind-bending, agonizing truth of Christianity is the claim that God took our diseases upon God’s own self in order to become the antidote. As Plantinga puts it, “Christianity is the only religion that centers around the dying and degradation of its God.” Why would anyone want to lift up such a horrific reality to gaze upon it? Because the exposure disrupts the power of the disease and reveals the love and justice of God in Christ as the antidote. The disease can cure the disease.

Exposure to the varied diseases that plague our common life can evoke different responses, including anger, apathy and resignation. But with respect to anger, community organizers make an important distinction between hot anger (rage over injustices) and cold anger. Hot anger can lead to violence. But cold anger over exposure to injustice compels one to nonviolent action. According to Edward Chambers in “Roots for Radicals,” Black pastors in the Industrial Areas Foundation (a faith-based community-organizing coalition) have spoken about the focused power of such anger as “rooted in our most passionate memories and dreams — a father whose spirit has been broken by demeaning work or no work; a brother or sister lost to violence or alcohol or drugs; a church burned down by an arsonist; a college career sabotaged by a substandard high school; a neighborhood of shops and families and affections and relationships ripped apart because banks wouldn’t lend to it, because insurance companies wouldn’t insure it.” Focused, cold anger evoked by exposure to such ills can disrupt the power of disease and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, enable us to act out the love and justice of God in Christ as the antidote.

I have an indelible memory of what that looks like from community-organizing days in ministry in Baltimore. Church members were meeting with fellow citizens struggling with a local bank engaged in “redlining” — a discriminatory practice of withholding loans in neighborhoods deemed to be an economic risk, which made it impossible for people who lived in them to own a home. They had tried again and again to meet with the bank’s manager but could not even get their calls returned. But cold anger moved them to creative, nonviolent action to expose and disrupt the disease of the bank’s injustice toward 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 nicely and in bags, ready to use them to open bank accounts.

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

You’ve got to imagine the scene: lined up at the bank teller’s windows were deacons, ushers, church leaders, choir members, good church folk ranging in age from 20 to 80 — dressed up in their Sunday best and carrying bags upon bags of pennies. In a very orderly way, they soon tied up all the business going on in the bank — every single bank teller window. So many people were in the bank that it became impossible to get through the door. Soon one of two coin counting machines broke down, creating more and more stress for tellers who had to begin counting the pennies by hand. Then one of the older parishioners waiting in line with heavy bags of pennies in hand could hold them no longer. Accidentally dropping them on the floor, they broke open and spilled thousands of pennies all over the floor. This created further chaos as bank employees rushed to help her pick them up. Other employees were enlisted to help other older customers find a seat or even to stand in line and hold the bags of pennies for them, creating a bigger logjam. After about four hours of this organized chaos, the bank manager finally made an appearance, relenting: “OK, OK, I’ll meet with you!” Soon thereafter, needed loans were forthcoming and policies against the neighborhood residents began to change.

It was pennies rather than snakes, but the effect was the same. Focused, cold anger exposed a diseased banking system that did not work for its Black neighborhood. The exposure disrupted the power of the disease as people of faith were inspired by the Holy Spirit to act on behalf of the love and justice of God in Christ. The same kind of inoculation takes place every Sunday as we confess our sin and face directly into the diseases that plague us in order to disrupt them by the Spirit of God at work within us. Praise God for Jesus Christ the Snake, who was lifted up in crucifixion and exaltation, so that all who gaze upon him might live — God’s antidote to the sins of the world.

This week:

  1. Share your reactions to the snake as a symbol of healing — and as a symbol of Jesus Christ.
  2. How might the analogy of inoculation, which allows the memory to be activated in such a way as to destroy the disease, inform your reflection on Jesus’ reference to himself as one “lifted up” in crucifixion and exaltation?
  3. What ailments in your community are in need of healing?
  4. What do you think of the distinction made 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 redlining loans in their community.
  6. How might the practice of confessing our sins serve as a moment in which disease is exposed and disrupted in order to be healed by the gift of God’s grace in Christ — by Christ the Snake?

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