“Grace: God’s Antivenom”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (NRSV)
This is an odd and rather disturbing story. But let’s remember that the Israelites have been on the move for nearly forty years. Wandering. Belonging nowhere in particular. Sometimes not even belonging together. (e.g., Exodus 18:13-26) And all the while they’ve been waiting to be told that they have finally arrived in the coveted Promised Land flowing with milk, and honey, and sanctuary.
After forty years, all the Hebrews seem to remember about Egypt are stories of overflowing “fleshpots.” It’s as if they’ve forgotten about the slavery—about being owned, tortured, and killed by Egyptians. Even generations beyond such an experience, neither the oppressed nor the oppressors forget that kind of thing. Nor should they. But for the Israelites, who are hungry, tired, and still waiting to find their place and purpose in the world, Egypt is an old story told by old people, and the memory of slavery has lost its sting. No longer connected to the past because of the struggles of the present, the people complain to Moses saying: If God is real, and if we’re really God’s people, then why are we so miserable? We’re sick of eating bad food and living like migratory beasts!
That’s when God unleashes the “fiery serpents.”
You want to know what detestable and miserable feel like? says God. Here! The bushes are going to burn with fangs and venom rather than my presence! So, listen to the screams. Bury your neighbors. Live in relentless anxiety. That’ll teach you!
There are preachers who preach that god. If that’s what you’re looking for, though, you’ll have to go somewhere else. This preacher won’t give it to you. Jesus did not reveal a god of retributive justice—a god who gets both mad and even. Jesus revealed that God restores, reconciles, and renews the world through a grace that is often called irresistible. But that grace is really more illogical and inexplicable that irresistible. It doesn’t make sense for Jesus to offer grace to people who are as impatient and ill-tempered with him as the Israelites are with Yahweh. Maybe that’s why the Gospel of John specifically redeems this story.
Remember, in Numbers, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole. When bitten, a person looks at the serpent, the source of their pain, and is healed. In John 3, Jesus refers to this story saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:15) The terrifying and scandalous cross of Christ becomes the antivenom that delivers the Creation from poisonous judgment and violent oppression.
The connection between the bronze serpent and the wooden cross is unmistakable. Both stories declare that God becomes newly and more palpably present through our sufferings. And like Rome many generations later, the snakes don’t go away. So, while dealing with the serpents becomes a way of life for Israel, so does trusting that God remains faithful.
Looking at the bronze serpent becomes a kind of sacrament, a way of life in relationship with God in a world that is often more of a trial to endure than a joy to inhabit. Walter Brueggemann says that God takes “the serpent…and transforms it into a stable, enduring, reliable cultic object.” Brueggemann then suggests that the bronze serpent may be “a form of transubstantiation.”1 Like bread, wine, and water, it’s an external representation of an internal and eternal reality—the reality of God’s grace.
Here we confront one of the enduring and empowering paradoxes of the Judeo-Christian faith: While oppression and despair are dramatically symbolized in the fiery serpent and the Roman cross, so are the redeeming promises and the reconciling grace of God—because that’s how God works. God turns sea into dry land, wandering into belonging, exile into return, swords into plowshares, water into wine, enemies into friends, and death into life.
A group of us are reading Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson. The book is written as a series of letters to African-Americans who have died as a result of systemic and sustained racism in our nation. It reads like a modern-day book of Lamentations. And while Dyson intentionally makes the book difficult for both black and white communities to read, his goal is to inspire restorative action. He holds up people with dark skin who, over the course of 400 years, have suffered the fiery serpents of injustice, people who have been exploited, lynched, and marginalized by fair-skinned people who have, for the most part, feared and denied the God-imaged equality of all humankind. Echoing Walter Brueggemann, Dyson lifts up those who have died, calling them “souls crushed into sainthood by the forces of evil, a ritual of sacred Black transubstantiation that turns their bodies from flesh and blood into holy hashtags and metaphysical martyrs for justice.”2
While Dyson’s words challenge many of us, his approach is thoroughly biblical. He raises up the bodies of those who have died at the hands of an unjust system, and he does so not to judge and condemn, but to invite us into God’s ongoing, gracious, and redemptive action.
I, too, wince my way through Dyson’s book because it disrupts my peace of mind. I resist the truth that I owe much of my sense of security in simply walking down the street to the privileges granted to me by a congenital lack of melanin in my skin. I don’t want to admit that. I want to think it’s because I’m a decent, hard-working, good-humored human being. And isn’t that the point? Who doesn’t want that to be the case for themselves?
That’s all the Israelites wanted. When the wilderness experience made these former slaves feel less than worthy, less than loved, less than human, they blamed a blaming God. God may have led them out of slavery, but, in their minds, God had also let them down. God had deposited them in that wasteland bereft of fleshpots and overrun with snakes and other perils. And yet through the very thing that threatened them, through the serpent itself, God creates and communicates healing.
So, too, in the Roman cross—the symbol of tyranny, abuse, and systemic violence—God creates and communicates redemption and reconciliation.
That’s God’s way. God, who chooses the foolish and the weak to bring down the clever and the strong (1Corinthians 1:27ff.), takes that which creates prejudice, fear, and even compliance with evil and turns it inside out. God lifts up those who have been wounded by suffering and injustice and reveals them as beloved children who are full of eternal grace and truth. At the same time, God exposes all that is poisonous and unjust as the slithering but withering idolatries of a broken world.
So, in the face of fiery serpents and empires of greed and violence, let us, as we prepare for Easter, look upon the empty cross of the risen Christ. And may it remind us that God is still redeeming and renewing the Creation according to the gracious ways of Jesus—the ways of justice, peace, and agapé love.
1Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B. “Fourth Sunday of Lent.” Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. P. 222.
2Michael Eric Dyson, Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2020. P. 60.