9 So 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.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16 "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.
The Healing Cross
I stood in awe of Paul Kuczo. His father was the high school coach, all three major sports, S. H. S 1949. But Dad wasn’t the reason for my awe. It was all Paul’s doing. We were Boy Scout leaders one summer at Camp Toquam along the shores of Dog Pond in Goshen CT. Paul was the nature counselor. He handled snakes. He tried to teach me his art. Unlike Paul I was bitten, repeatedly, fang marks up and down my fingers. Paul chuckled at my clumsiness. I decided that henceforth I would keep my distance from anything that slithered along the ground.
I guess I couldn’t be a member of the Church of God in Appalachia (see Mark 16:18). At least, not for very long.
Everyone, or just about everyone, knows John 3:16, and can quote it by heart. But go back a couple of verses and we draw a blank. John 3:14 is an arcane reference to Moses and the Book of Numbers story of the curse of the vipers on Israelite unfaithfulness in the Sinai desert after the exodus from Egypt. It’s probably the inspiration for that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie where he finds himself in a pit filled with vipers. The movie, after all, featured the ark, the lost ark, of the covenant.
The people of Israel repent of their infidelity; the Lord has Moses fashion a bronze rod in the form of a snake; Moses lifts up the rod; and Israelites bitten (like Bobby Howard at Camp Toquam) are healed of the snakes’ poison. John 3:14 updates the events in the desert, relating them to Jesus and his cross, that those of us snake-bitten have a healing agent at Calvary.
Sure there’s plenty of metaphor here. The snake, we should never forget from our reading of Genesis 3, Eden, and our first parents, represents Satan. And Satan represents everything evil, sinful in the world and in us, and contrary to our own best interests and the purposes of God. Right, that’s a very heavy burden to lay upon a legless creature of the natural world. Paul Kuczo and many others find them fascinating, and not because they embody our most destructive impulses. Characterized unfairly, but that’s the realm of metaphor.
John 3:14 takes the metaphor of the brass rod snake of Moses and perceives it as an anticipation of the cross of Jesus. Where Jesus is lifted up, nailed to two beams of wood, a sad, sad tribute to the brokenness of our humanity (see last week’s Lenten message); but more, far more, infinitely, eternally more. The cross is raised as God’s gracious response to evil. That by taking it on to his own shoulders, in the person of a Galilean rabbi, God provides healing, for you and me, to be sure, and for the nations. That is, as the Christmas carol puts it, healing “far as the curse is found.”
Then comes John 3:16. Love’s lead-in is the healing over the toxin.
Thursday morning last the old worn-out retired Methodist preachers now living in Central Connecticut gathered at Denny’s in Southington, as is they’re wont to do each third Thursday of the year. I’m not sure how we got on the subject. Probably I was subconsciously rehashing the message I last sent to you, about the centrality of the cross. One of the retirees confirmed my claim, citing a seminary professor from Drew in the 1960’s, who wrote a book of theology in which he described the cross of Jesus as “the hinge of history.” I add now another encomium in the vein of John 3:14, that the cross is the healing of history.
I can be as cynical as anyone when reviewing where the human race is and has been and what it has done on and to this earth. I too am able to access on my TV in high definition “Spartacus: Vengeance.” And I did interrupt the surfeit of basketball’s March Madness to watch the National Geographic’s documentary on Hitler. How can anyone think modernity is morally superior to the Roman Empire or the Dark Ages when it is our time the Holocaust cursed the earth and the atomic bomb continues to cast a demonic shadow on so-called progress?
The cross, the cross of suffering and shame, the cross emblematic of a better way, the cross that is the open arms not the fist; the cross that is “the way, the truth, and the life” not “my way or the highway”; the cross that has survived two thousand years, despite malappropriation and downright contempt from those who “know better”; that cross, on which a blameless man embraced our evil, not only shows us the way into a better tomorrow, but by God’s gracious design from the beginning of the universe, will see it accomplished.
I never managed to learn Paul Kuczo’s art of lifting up snakes. But I’d like to think I learned how to do something more satisfying in most of the years since Boy Scout camp: lifting up the cross of Christ from which others and my own soul might draw strength and courage to live life fully and generously.