|Moses and the Brazen Serpent -- Augustus John|
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”. John begins, however, by connecting this with something less familiar – that curious episode from the Book of Numbers in which Moses uses the sight of a bronze snake to cure venomous bites.
For obvious reasons, the Lectionary makes this episode the accompanying Old Testament lesson. But the God depicted in it is hardly a God of love. Sending poisonous snakes to plague the Israelites because they have complained about the lack of food and water in the wilderness, speaks more of spiteful irritation than fatherly care. Moses, by admitting that this is sinfulness on the part of his people, effectively concurs with a justifying implication -- God is right to punish people in this horrible way. Given such a God, going along with Him is the pragmatic thing to do, because the admission of fault produces a cure – the bronze serpent. Somehow, this averts the punishment.
|Christ on the Cross -- van der Goes|
Against this background, the parallel that the Fourth Evangelist makes between Jesus and the serpent is a very powerful one. The ‘Son of Man’, just like the snake, is lifted up. But unlike the snake, this is God himself being lifted up. In place of poisonous punishment, sinfulness encounters pure love. Jesus on the Cross is God's self-offering, expressly made so that the world is not condemned, but saved.
Still, the risk of condemnation has not entirely disappeared. Just as the Israelites had to look up at the bronze serpent, so sinful humanity has to look up at Jesus. It sounds like a simple task, and yet not everyone will do it. “This is the judgment", the Gospel tells us, 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. With the bronze snake, Moses was able to give them temporary relief, but they were still “following the course of this world”. By contrast, to look to Christ on the Cross with true faith, Paul says, is to be “raised up with him in the heavenly places”. With our eyes on Christ, we can adopt what "God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. Alternatively, of course, we can just go on -- with our heads down and following the normal course of this world.