And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
The episode of the bronze serpent seen as a type for Christ’s passion, as John uses it here, is a very rich, evocative, but also mysterious image. To get the most out of it, I have found it helpful to see it within its context in the Book of Numbers. This context is what I’d like to focus on this morning. A good part of what motivated me to take this direction was our discussion topic of asceticism. The episode takes place at a turning point in Israel’s journey in the desert. It is Israel’s seventh and final rebellion since leaving Sinai and before they reach the plain of Moab.
These seven rebellions make up almost eleven chapters, about a third of the book, and are laid out in a carefully constructed chiastic structure. Clearly, a lot of thought and purpose has gone into it. As the last of the rebellions, the episode of the bronze serpent serves both as an inclusio with the first rebellion and an end of a sequence toward which the others tend. My take is that to read them simply as a series of individual sinful acts with corresponding divine punishments is not to do them justice. God’s aim is rather the purification of the dispositions underlying Israel’s actions in order to prepare his people for the blessings he has promised and to live out its call to be a blessing for all the nations. For this to happen it needs to undergo a purifying fire. I will give a brief overview of the first four.
The first occurs just three days after leaving Sinai and goes like this: the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes; and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. 2 Then the people cried to Moses; Moses prayed to the LORD and the fire abated. (Num 11:1-2 RSV)
Israel complains in a very general way about its “misfortunes”. The text doesn’t specify what these were but, evidently, the people thought that placing themselves under the divine protection and guidance would mean that they would be spared difficulties or misfortunes, so they began to make noise when the divine will and plan began to chafe against their own. The takeaway I think here is that the beginner in the spiritual journey or the experienced disciple who is undertaking a new spiritual discipline, needs to be ready for the unexpected trial or difficulty, that these too comes from God, and, above all, to learn patient endurance, to be ready for the long haul, and take it day by day.
In the second rebellion, the rabble are overtaken by craving and cry out, "O that we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." (Num 11:4-6 RSV).
As we would expect of the chiastic structure, the sixth rebellion is similar. It is the episode of the waters at Meribah. There the people complain about the lack of water. These rebellions, therefore, focus on matters of food and drink and concern the whole realm of bodily goods and desires. We need to be able to say no to the desires of the body – whether good or bad – in order to be free to pursue the higher goods corresponding to our call, to learn to be satisfied with the food and drink that is offered us as a gift from the Lord, with thanksgiving and a peaceful heart, confident that it is sufficient to sustain us. According to this passage, to do otherwise is a form of rejection of the Lord.
In the third rebellion, Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses’ leadership. The fifth is similar, which is the rebellion against Moses by the sons of Korah. The pretext is that Moses has married a Cushite woman. Their complaint is: “"Is it through Moses alone that the LORD has spoken? Has he not spoken through us also?" (Num 12:2 NAB) Here, we have moved from a rebellion by a fringe element of the people, the rabble, to a rebellion among the leaders. The movement is both inward and upward, from lower bodily desires to the higher parts of the human. It touches upon all the issues around identity, personal worth, and status. From this incident, we can learn to watch out for all temptations around the desire for position in the community, to be part of the inside group, or at the top. We always need to be on guard regarding our motivations, and trust that where I am is where God wants me to be, and if he has other plans for me, he will arrange things accordingly.
The fourth rebellion is at the center of the chiasm and is the most serious. God has led the people to the very edge of the promised land. Everything is ready for them to enter into the blessings they have been promised. And they refuse. The consequences are severe. They must spend another forty years wandering in the desert. The present generation is not to enter the promised land. Aaron, Miriam, and even Moses will die.
In quick summary: twelve spies are sent to reconnoiter the land. When they return, they show the fruit and declare that it is a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Caleb says to Moses and the people, "Let us go up at once, and occupy it; for we are well able to overcome it." Caleb is optimistic, he trusts in the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord and his promises. (Num 13:30 RSV). But other spies exaggerate the difficulties and sow fear and anxiety among the people. "The land, through which we have gone, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim); and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them." (Num 13:32-33 RSV)
Basically, they lie. This is untrue. The people cry, weep, and complain. Their anxious fear leads to despair. They can’t do it; it is beyond them. They’d be better off if they were back in Egypt. This is their major sin, not envy, greed, sexual sin, or pride, but their anxious fear that renders them incapable of action. The promised land is there for the taking, they can have it, but it’s too much work. They choose to settle for less. Ethicist and theologian David Stubbs likens it to the traditional vice of sloth and quotes St. Thomas: sloth “is the negligence of a man who declines to acquire spiritual goods on account of the attendant labor” (ST I-II Q84.4). Our monastic tradition would call it acedia, the noonday devil. But then Stubbs goes on to say: “but because negligence is combined with a lack of hope and skepticism that the future is even a good one, perhaps despair is even a better title.” (Numbers, Brazos Theological Commentary, p. 191.)
This seems to me, actually, very much apropos of the role of Laetare Sunday. This call to rest and rejoice is precisely a way to ward off any potential spiritual torpor that people might feel by this stage of Lent. It is a call to keep our focus on the goal, the blessings of the promised land, that is, of the resurrection and the gift of eternal life, to remember that God is trustworthy, that it is all worthwhile, that he is with us and will lead us through any trial, that he will conquer our enemies, in fact, he has already conquered them; lest at this stage we should lose courage and become negligent or even give up our Lenten practices. Rather we should return to them strengthened and take them up with renewed vigor and hope.
And to conclude now with the final rebellion. The people have once again become impatient and complained again over their misfortunes, so the Lord sends among them fiery serpents, and many die from their bites. The people go to Moses and say: "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." (Num 21:7 RSV) So Moses prayed for the people and at the Lord’s instruction made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. The last line of the last of the seven rebellions is this “and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Num 21:9 NRS) After this Israel once again takes up its journey.
To come before the bronze serpent is to make an implicit confession of sin. It is to know that it is on account of my sin that the serpent has bitten me, that I am sick, and that I am going to die. When the sick gazed upon the serpent, they saw the deceiver who had poisoned their thoughts so that they had lost trust in the goodness of God, his providential care, and his plan. But no one is ever healed by only looking at their sin. More importantly, they saw there the victory of God over sin and over death. They knew through God’s word and their own experience that anyone who looked upon the bronze serpent would live. This was an act of faith, and an encounter with God’s mercy and goodness, a recognition that he alone is their savior and, implicitly, a recommitment to take up the journey among God’s people once again.
The bronze serpent, however, is only a type of the Son of Man who has been lifted up on the Cross. In a way that fulfills and infinitely surpasses the symbol of the bronze serpent, when we look at the Cross, we also see these two things, our sin that followed from our listening to the deceiver who poisoned our thoughts, actions, and relationships, especially with God, and led to the Lord’s crucifixion. But again, most importantly, in the Cross we see God’s victory over sin and death, that God has not come to condemn the world but has sent his only Son, God himself, to save it, that in him everything has become newness of life, participation in eternal life. And so, that we must never lose confidence or become slack but always turn again from the darkness to the light, where we find the God of mercy. In this mercy then, brothers, let us rejoice.
Snowdrops are blooming all around the Abbey. This morning's homily by Father Timothy.