Toorak Uniting Church

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Focus on the cross

Numbers 21: 4 – 9   John 3: 14 – 21
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15am, 26 March 2006

When I was a child, the story of Moses and the brazen serpent was one of my favourites. I found it absolutely fascinating how a bronze image of a snake, stuck on a pole, could make such a difference. I was also puzzled by it: Couldn’t just praying for healing have been as effective? Had I not been told that we didn’t need any images or statues or other visual aids to our prayers? Why then this snake?
But I still loved the story. I think I found it reassuring: It told me God was in charge. And that we just had to follow instructions to solve any problem. It told me God gave men like Moses, who would get his messages and interpret them without asking too many questions (like I would) and do silly things like sticking an image of a snake on a pole for the sake of God’s people. I wondered sometimes the holy men in our Church and their wisdom, this story told me that even if it looked silly at times what they did, that they had access to some higher knowledge that was not available to me. So it was better to leave it all up to them.

And isn’t that what Bible stories are about? To inform our living in the present, and help us understand and cope , through stories of old,.

When I went to University something else happened. My professor Old Testament was a fervent supporter of the historical critical method of Bible interpretation and was forever searching for the history behind the myth. What had really happened? What historical fact was behind the story and what layers of telling and retelling had been added later?
He told us that of course the story had never happened in the way it had come to us. Sure enough there would have been some historic core that had really happened, but it was likely that a lot had been added on and changed over the centuries.

This, he told us, was bound to be a very ancient memory of the Israelites when they were on their trip through the desert. One day they had found their camp infested with snakes and many had died as a result of the fiery bite. Their leader, had used an old and proven magical method of putting a snake on a pole to keep the panic at bay until the snakes disappeared. It had been a scary experience and in the minds of the people this episode had survived as an example of being saved by what at the time, must have seemed a miracle.

Or perhaps, and this was another possibility, people had been infected with parasitic worms, a sickness that is still prevalent in modern day North Africa and the Middle East. This particular parasitic worm is called fiery snake or Dracunculus. This worm begins in the gut, developing from larvae in contaminated water, but the females (which can be up to 80 cm long, certainly something that could be confused with a small snake) then migrate up to just beneath the skin. A blister full of toxic material forms in the immediate vicinity of its head when it first emerges, and it may be accompanied by a severely itchy and burning rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness. These symptoms usually pass, but the blister often also breaks, leaving an opening for infection that can spread throughout the body as the worm moves along under the skin. The females carry large caches of eggs which, when they hatch, also form large, fiery blisters that eventually break and release new larva into the world. These secondary infections are the main cause of death in those infected, though some worms can also become encapsulated in joints and other tissues, making long-term infection very disabling.
From ancient times physicians treated this infection by cutting a slit in the patient's skin, just in front of the worm's path. As the worm crawled out of the cut, the physician slowly and carefully wound the pest around a stick until the entire animal had been removed (this can take quite some time for very large worms). It is believed that because this type of infection was so common, physicians advertised their services by displaying a sign with the worm on a stick.

Some ancient memory, misinformed by an unscientific understanding of the world, had ended up as the story of the bronze snake on the pole. Simple as that.

At that point my more conservatively oriented brothers and sisters in Christ would leave the lecture room.

Where would we end up if we analyzed scripture like that and explained away all the awe and miracle that was in there through this cold hearted and scientific approach? Was there any place for God in this? Where would he go with his redeeming power and mercy if the snakes would have left anyway, or if the parasitic worm epidemic had somehow petered out by itself as people build up immunity to the infections or moved on to an area where this particular parasite could not live?

No said Rudolf Bultman and some of his colleagues (my professor snorted at what is called the existential approach), there may have been a historical core to the story at some stage, but that was not why the story had been preserved.
The story had a deeper, archetypal meaning that would speak to our guts rather than our minds and that’s why it was there.

We are all afraid of snakes. It is something that is hard wired into us. And Israel knew this. The way to manage that fear and get over it, is, as anybody knows, to face the fear. That’s what the story is about: About snake phobia and the facing of our fears as human beings. Stories like this are there to inform us, at some profound level, about our human existence and what it entails. How we live, what drives us, and how we cope with some of the basic elements of life. That is what the Bible is about, it is an existential story book where we can see ourselves in the mirror of ancient myth and archetypal behaviour patterns so we can make more sense of ourselves and the way we act and react in certain circumstances.

The story just an old story, probably based on some unscientific explanation of some event the distant past, overgrown with myth and now conveying some of the deeper wisdom human kind gathered about itself over the centuries. Neat, but nothing to get overly excited about.

So why read this stories in Church? Why read them at home? Why bother? Or is there more to them?

For me any of those stories will only start to mean anything if I ask the question what they mean for me and where they touch my life. I read them not as history, but try to discover where they connect to my story and the story of those around me.
And this is where the story connected with me this week:

The Israelites grumbling in the desert at the beginning of the story reminded me of the dissatisfaction and disgruntlement that seems to infest our lives, our society and our Church. Things aren’t what they used to be! Ah, those were the days, when we were in Egypt and had crocodile for tea every day…… Ah, remember, when the Church was full and the Sunday school overflowing. Remember, when we were young and tomatoes had more taste…… Those were the days.
And don’t we become miserable and cantankerous if we get stuck into that sort of thinking for too long? We’ll start to develop aches and pains everywhere and in no time we will be in a major brawl with someone or develop some really nasty psycho somatic disorder. Fiery snakes slithering everywhere and biting into our existence.

The story (and some of the reactions to the exhibition in Kinross) also made me think about my, and most people’s, tendency to turn away from hurt and pain. Most of us live with a hesitancy to face our deepest fears, a reluctance to confront what is ailing us. Privately but also collectively. It seems easier doesn’t it? Fear, pain, hurt, bereavement, abuse, social inequality, economic disadvantage. Who wants to know? Most of us will turn away and hope it will go away. But it doesn’t, it comes back and starts biting us and poisoning our existence.

So what is the cure? A bronze snake on a pole? Well, sorry Moses, but you can’t be serious about that! Not in our day and age. We are used to far more sophisticated ways of healing, or we look for diversion that will take our mind of the thing, Putting the things that harm and hurt us on display is not part of our culture!

The gospel of John identifies this snake on this pole with the Crucified Christ. Like Moses lifted the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness to save the life of his people, so Christ is lifted high on the cross by God to save our lives.


By confronting us with the suffering of Christ we are confronted with our own suffering and the suffering of the world. God in Christ took that suffering upon himself, went through it and came out the other side at Easter.

God did not avoid or deny the pain and suffering happening in the world, but took it upon himself, bore it and showed that even the deepest nightmares will not keep us from his saving love.

Look at the snake says Moses, look at what bites you and concentrate on God’s saving presence in it. Look at the crucified Christ says John, look at the pain, the suffering, the injustice and betrayal that brought the son of God to the cross and see your own suffering and your own pain up there, transformed and taken on by God. Focus on the cross and you’ll see that what you are so scared of can with God’s help, can actually become helpful in your salvation. Amen.

On the piece of paper provided write down what you would like to bring to the cross for transformation.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2006

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