I do find it awkward when the Lectionary throws up passages I don’t like, and rather shrink from dealing with! And both tonight’s passages come under that heading – that extraordinary episode of the bronze serpent, and Jesus talking about counting the cost and having to give up everything to follow him.
I really, really don’t understand what is going on here. I mean, first of all you have God being absolutely livid with the Israelites for building a golden calf to worship, and threatening to destroy the lot of them, and the next minute you have God telling Moses to build a bronze serpent for people to look at to be healed of snakebite. And the snakes themselves were, we are told, sent by God because the people were grumbling! I mean, hello? If God punished us for grumbling like that, not a one of us that wouldn’t be reaching for the snake-bite serum at some time during the week! I rather suspect that this is a story that sort of crept in by mistake. On the other hand, the fact that it is there means that God meant it to be there, no matter how odd its provenance!
Of course, the people who wrote down what’s called the Deuteronomic histories, which basically means the Pentateuch and some other bits of our Bible, do like to make a perceived punishment fit an alleged crime. Moses doesn’t quite make it to the Promised Land, so God must be punishing him for something. The people of Israel take 40 years to get there, there must be a good reason for it. And so on and so forth. And in this instance there was a plague of snakes. So the people must have been grumbling.
I suppose grumbling is a sin, really, when you come to think about it. After all, it is either futile or hurtful and can often be both. The Israelites were mooing on about how much better off they’d been in Egypt, totally forgetting that there they had not been free, and moaning on about the strict rations that they were getting in the desert. Talk about hurtful to Moses, and utterly futile, too, as nothing was going to change. They weren’t going back!
We grumble, too, most of the time. It wouldn’t be us if we weren’t chuntering on about the weather, or the trains, or the health service! All tings we can do absolutely nothing about! I dare say that’s pretty harmless. But a lot of harm, and I mean a lot, has been done to my favourite sport by the American and Canadian press grumbling that the judging of the pairs skating at the Olympic Games was unfair. Now accusations of bribery and corruption are flying to and fro, and a lot of people who were either totally innocent or acted in all good faith have been badly hurt. One of the first things you learn if you skate competitively is that you can’t control what the judges do, and you can’t control what your competitors do; all you can do is go out there and hope you skate to the best of your ability.
And sometimes we grumble about each other, which is all very well, but the things we say have a nasty habit of being relayed to the person we said them about, hurting them, and causing us all a great deal of bother. It’s best to try – and heaven knows, I know how difficult it is – to try not to say anything behind people’s backs that you wouldn’t say to their faces. Which is all very well when it’s one’s spouse, because one does, as often as not, grumble at them, but one doesn’t tend to grumble at other people.
Then, of course, there is the type of grumbling that we wouldn’t do if we were less idle! In other words, if we didn’t use grumbling about a job as an excuse not to get on with it, like me grumbling about having writers’ block when I was trying to write this! When it’s something you can do something about, there’s no point in grumbling about it! Except we all do. I grumble to myself when Robert doesn’t wash the coffee-pot up properly, but if I washed it myself, I’d not have cause to grumble!
So yes, by and large, maybe grumbling is a sin. But to be bitten by snakes for it? It doesn’t sound so much like God to me. But there you are, the story got put in the Bible, and physicians liked it so much that they adopted the snake on a pole as their emblem. And, of course, one of the reasons it is important is that Jesus refers to it when he is talking to Nicodemus: “And 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. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
That, of course, is why the story still resonates with us today, as it is a type, or picture, of the crucifixion. I remember one sermon I heard on this passage where the preacher pointed out, quite forcefully, that the Israelites didn’t have to do anything with the snake – they didn’t have to go up to it, or touch it, or lick its tail, or anything like that. All they had to do was look at it, and instantly they were healed of their snake-bite. And similarly, we too, the preacher said, just have to look to Jesus, and instantly we are saved.
Which is all very well, and if those who compiled the lectionary had seen fit to have John chapter 3 as their Gospel reading for this evening, that would be the end of that. But they didn’t. They chose the passage from Luke’s gospel about counting the cost. About Jesus saying not to start following him if you aren’t prepared to count the cost. And that last verse, if it is reported correctly, is the hardest of all: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
So often we preach about salvation being free, about its being universal, about its being so easy – and, of course, that’s all true. But we don’t like preaching about counting the cost! We want following Jesus to be easy. Of course, we never get told about the cost when we first consider becoming His person, but it does become apparent as we take our first steps with Him. We learn that we must restrict our behaviour, not because what we might have wanted to do would be illegal – although if it had been going to be, then definitely – but for what seems to us to be no good reason. We have to go to church, where we find we are expected to be able to read, at least enough to follow the hymns and the service, and there are all sorts of issues about what you can, and can’t do on a Sunday morning. And if you are young, and have very little sense of your own centre, you end up believing anything anybody tells you, and what passes for “Christianity” turns into a mass of cultural accretion which takes a very great deal of sorting out!
I think that, at this distance, it isn’t possible really to discern what Jesus meant, particularly about such issues as how often you go to Church on a Sunday, and whether or not you indulge in a spot of decorating – or more probably a spot of hanky-panky – on a Sunday afternoon. It’s much more about needing to interact with people, whether you like them or not. Allowing people access to your possessions, your time, maybe even your money. Realising that they are, willy-nilly, your brothers and sisters in Christ, and that it’s no good grumbling about them!
The readings tonight, I think, draw our attention to the tension between the fact that becoming Jesus’ disciple is as easy as looking up to a bronze serpent, but that actually being one is a whole ‘nother story. And, of course, they highlight the fact that being a Christian isn’t just about mental assent to a few propositions, but it’s something that should affect the way we behave, what we do with our time, what we do with our possessions, and a whole lot of other things, too!
None of which, of course, we can do by ourselves. It always seems difficult when a preacher addresses our behaviour; I find I always feel guilty, even if I know I’m not! But the joyous thing is that we don’t have to change our behaviour all by ourselves; we are indwelt, if we are Jesus’ person, by the Holy Spirit, who not only enables us to change, but helps us bear the cost of following Christ. And the story of Easter tells us that when we fail – for we all fail, over and over and over again – we are forgiven, and it is forgotten as completely as though it had never been. Just as the Israelites found, when they looked up at the bronze serpent, that their snake-bites were healed as thoroughly as if they had never been. Amen.