Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our midweek Lenten theme is “Creatures of the Cross.” I suspect that my wife being a veterinarian probably had at least some subconscious influence on giving me the idea of using the animals of the salvation story as our theme this year. Even so, there’s a far more important point to remember: We are the true creatures of the cross. We are not animals, contrary to what modern science and evolutionary theory might try to convince you. We are creatures unique from all others, creatures made in the image of the Creator, and we are creatures so immeasurably valuable to God that He was willing to give His own life to rescue us from a trap of our own making. It is by the cross of Jesus that we are re-created in that same image—changed from sinful to righteous, renewed from mortal creatures to immortal.
Today we look at “The Serpent of Death and The Serpent of Life.” Our first reading returned us to the familiar story of humanity’s fall into sin—a lesson we heard once again just this past Sunday. Satan, taking the form of a serpent, confronts Eve and Adam in the garden—the first encounter between mankind and other creatures on which we are given specifics. God had earlier brought all the lesser creatures to Adam to be named, of course, but here in Genesis 3, we have the first in-depth interaction which the Bible describes.
Fallen from heaven—dropped like lightning, we are told later by Jesus—Satan is already prowling the earth. He craftily hides his desire to devour the souls of Adam and Eve. He appears to be earnest and helpful to them, but the purity of his evil is not lessened at all. Just as even a little of the wrong leaven can corrupt the whole loaf, even a little corruption of God’s word can mislead us away from its truth.
And that’s Satan’s specialty—a little corruption, a small step, a tiny leak, a bit of corrosion. From there, our own sinful natures and the influence of the equally corrupt world around us can do the rest. He is known as The Accuser for good reason—like a crafty, corrupt prosecutor, he leads us to give testimony against ourselves. He asks Eve a leading question, so that she has to elaborate on her own, and then convince herself of a false answer that seems right and true. Adam falls down on the job as the spiritual protector of his family, and righteousness is lost. The serpent’s initial consequence—crawling on his belly and eating dust—doesn’t seem too bad, but God’s final decree to him is fatal: His head will be stomped by the foot of Eve’s offspring. The serpent has brought death to the world, and death—eternal separation from God—will be his fate as well.
Moses confronts a different sort of serpent of death in our second lesson: The grumbling of God’s people has been heard, and it was not a plea of faith. It was a rejection of all that God had done and promised to them. Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, within the constraints of their fallen world, God had given them everything they needed, when they needed it: Exemption from death; freedom from oppression, miraculous food and water, protection from nature and from enemies. Yet they still complained; still they strained at the easy yoke. They wanted more than what God had given and revealed to them. Just like Adam and Eve. Just like you and me.
The Lord showed them what it is like to live apart from His protection. Fiery serpents came among the people, biting many. Without God stopping them, the serpents brought death. Unlike Adam and Eve, the people of Israel quickly came to an understanding that they’d brought this threat upon themselves.
It’s to their credit that they didn’t blame the serpents; they didn’t blame the gifts God had given them, or God Himself. They repented of their sin, and pleaded with God through His prophet to relieve them of its terrible consequences. Moses prayed, and God provided salvation: They were to look upon the very object they most wanted to avoid, and they would be saved.
A new serpent was fashioned, of bronze. It was lifted up in the presence of the people. It was seen by many. God’s promise of relief from suffering and death was trusted, and many were saved.
In the Gospel lesson, Nicodemus has come to Jesus by night, seeking understanding of the things he has seen the Lord do. Yet Nicodemus is stuck seeing things through human, rational eyes. He could not fathom a re-birth that would be accomplished in a miraculous way.
Adam and Eve, in their encounter with the serpent of death, first rejected God’s word, too. They saw a shortcut to satisfaction that proved deadly. Eventually, though, they accepted God’s promise of a Savior. They initially mistook their firstborn, Cain, to be that special one, but the promise was carried on through another child, Seth.
The children of Israel, wandering in the desert, wavered in their trust of God’s promises, also. From one day to the next, they clung to God in faith and awe, or they sneered and ridiculed His servants and turned away in rebellion. The serpents of death that arose from their lack of trust could only be quelled and quenched by repentance and faith, gazing up the serpent of life.
Do you remember Nicodemus answer to Jesus when the Savior first spoke of a person’s rebirth? He sarcastically said, “Can a man enter his mother’s womb to be born a second time?”
At this stage, Nicodemus knew there was something special about Jesus, but he didn’t fully trust Him. Are you in the same boat? Do you only recognize Jesus as a source of great wisdom, a man of superior moral character, one blessed with unique abilities to do miracles? That and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee and a one-way ticket to hell, where you can dwell in darkness with the serpent of death. Repent, and turn to the Serpent of Life!
Do we dare to call Jesus, the Son of God, a serpent, even a Serpent of Life? Yes, we do, for with His own words He instructed Nicodemus: “… as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Raise your eyes, then, and gaze upon the One who has been lifted up like the bronze serpent of Moses. This Serpent of flesh and blood was hung on a cross to suffer and die, so that you who have been bitten with the venom of sin might see Him, trust Him, and live.
He is the icon, the standard, the perfect Serpent that goes far beyond what could be accomplished by that serpent wrought by the hands of Moses. He is the Holy Serpent wrought by the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, and by Mary, the new Virgin Eve. He goes so far as to undo all the damage wrought by the wicked serpent in the garden, and He does it by becoming an even greater Serpent of death. He takes all the evil of every time, every place, every creature—man and beast, visible and invisible—and takes the venomous poison of it into Himself. He who knew no sin became sin for us. He who is the Master of Life became the Vessel of Death, bearing all your sins in His body and taking them to the cross—killing them, burying them, destroying them.
Having crushed the head of the serpent of death, He strode forth victorious from the tomb, lifted up no longer in the wilderness, but into heaven itself, from where He will come on the Last Day to throw that flailing, wounded snake into hell once and for all. And now, He embraces us not in crushing coils or with sharp fangs, but with His tender words, gifts, and promises: Baptize. Teach. Eat. Drink. Believe. Love and serve as I enable you.
He was lifted up on the cross, punctured and bloody, so that you might become creatures of the cross, and—more importantly—children of the heavenly Father. Learn from Adam and Eve that the twisting of God’s Word and ignoring His commands leads only to suffering and death. Learn from the people of Israel that rejecting the gifts of God and seeking your own solutions, preservation, and rescue are foolish and dangerous.
But learn from Jesus that—having been re-born of water and of the Spirit—you have received heavenly things, even the kingdom of God. Hear Him, trust Him, follow Him, and rejoice in Him. He is the Serpent of Life, and in being lifted up above the wilderness of Sin, He has made you a new creature by His cross.
In Jesus’ (X) holy name. Amen.