|William Blake Moses and the Serpent (1800-3) MFA Boston|
The Gospel for this Sunday contains what is possibly the most quoted verse in the Bible – John 3:16 “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”. The Lectionary, however, places it in a context that is less familiar – its connection with a curious episode from the Book of Numbers where Moses uses the sight of a bronze snake to cure venomous bites.
The God depicted in Numbers is hardly a God of love – sending poisonous snakes to plague the Israelites for complaining about the lack of food and water in the wilderness. By admitting sinfulness on the part of the people, Moses concurs in the supposition that God is justified when he punishes them in this horrible way. Still, the admission elicits a cure of sorts – the bronze serpent.
Against this background, the parallel that the Fourth Evangelist makes with Jesus is a very powerful one. The ‘Son of Man’ who is lifted up like the snake is God incarnate. In place of poisonous punishment, pure love. God offers himself so that the world is not condemned, but saved.
Yet, all risk of condemnation has not disappeared. We are still subject to judgment. And “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light”. The Israelites in the wilderness lived in a kind of darkness. They looked to God primarily as a means of satisfying what Paul in the passage from Ephesians calls “the desires of flesh and senses”, and they then complained when they did not get enough of them. The bronze snake gave them temporary relief, but they were still “following the course of this world”. To look to Christ on the Cross with true faith, by contrast, is to be “raised us up with him in the heavenly places”. Now we can adopt what "God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” -- or we can go on following the course of the world.