“Look and Live” / Numbers 21:4-9 / 11 March 2018
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” This strange verse—and the even stranger Old Testament story that it refers to—this usually gets skipped over, on the mad dash toward its more famous neighbor, John 3:16. But this is how the writer John sets the scene for the most celebrated line in Holy Writ. He creates this odd context that alludes to a mystifying story all the way back in the Book of Numbers. A story about snakes, serpents, probably vipers—which I recall from my Africa days as the most delicious of the reptiles, not unlike codfish. What does Christ on his cross have to do with Moses’ snake on a pole? Why would Jesus compare himself to such a thing? We did get a snake for the children’s sermon last week. I only wish it had been today, except that Jesus is doing something rhetorical here that would be pretty hard to explain to third graders. Most people have no love of snakes. Snakes are a symbol of hidden danger, craftiness, fear. Maybe Jesus is saying that the thing that scares us also heals us. Maybe one point of the cross is that we must walk toward our fear.
But snakes? Nobody’s walking toward those. Actually, some people do. Snakes are strangely present in religions throughout the world. As recently as 2014, the National Geographic Channel featured a reality TV show called “Snake Salvation.” It followed the lives and religious rituals of a tiny congregation in the hills of Kentucky where people handle poisonous snakes as proof of their spiritual power. The show was cut short when the minister met an early demise due to—you guessed it—snakebite.
Snakes have slithered through the pages of the world’s sacred texts and through the halls of its sacred places at least since the Bronze Age, and probably longer. But there was one man who popularized the practice of snake-handling in small Pentecostal churches of southern Appalachia. His name was George Hensley, and by all accounts, he was a fascinating scoundrel. I don’t know why there hasn’t been a movie made about his life yet. As a child in the 1890s, in the coal mining camps of Virginia, Hensley went to a tent revival, where he witnessed an old woman handling a snake. The image haunted him into adulthood, until one day he came across a snake on a hillside, and it called to mind a verse at the end of the Gospel of Mark where it says, “And these signs shall follow them that believe: they shall cast out devils and speak in new tongues; they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay their hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Of course, Mark never wrote these words. They were tacked onto his gospel by 2nd century monks who didn’t like Mark’s lack of closure. But Hensley was ignorant of the finer nuances of New Testament studies. In fact, he had never learned to read at all. And so, he picked up the rattlesnake, put it in his knapsack, and took it to church.
And a new, distinctly Appalachian brand of religion emerged from the shadows: snake-handlers. They often call themselves “The Church of God with Signs Following.” Hensley traveled throughout the mountains of the Southeast, holding revivals, planting churches, secretly making moonshine on the side in the days of Prohibition (though in his preaching he condemned alcohol). He was forever getting in trouble with the law, and once he even escaped from prison. He got married four times, abandoning thirteen poor children all across the region. Hensley taught that not only should true Christians handle snakes—which he understood to be demons—but they should also drink poison, and heal the sick, and speak in celestial tongues. These acts are to those churches what the Lord’s Supper is to us. If anyone dies doing them, it’s blamed on their lack of faith.
Hensley couldn’t read, and though he memorized passages of the Bible, one of his wives always had to serve as his lector. But his first three wives divorced him—one after less than a year of marriage—because they said he had a bad temper and a problem with alcohol. In 1955, when Hensley was seventy-four, he was holding a revival service in rural Florida, the old Florida of swamps, and Southern accents, and gators. Only a few dozen people had shown up. He pulled a snake out of an empty lard can, then wrapped it around his neck, and walked through the audience while preaching about the power of faith and rubbing the snake on his face. Just as he was putting the creature back in its can, the thing spun around and bit him on the wrist. In minutes, he was visibly ill—in excruciating pain, his arm swollen and discolored. He refused medical treatment, saying God would deliver him. But when it became clear that he was going to die, he blamed the tiny congregation. “It’s your fault,” he said, “because you didn’t have enough faith.” His wife at the time insisted that no, it was not the congregation’s fault. It was God’s will that her husband should die. The county coroner ruled the death a suicide. But the trend that he made popular—snake-handling—lives on.
And why that serpentine story? Snake cults have always lingered on the far edges of the world’s great religions, including ours. Jesus couches his most famous words in John against the backdrop of these ancient snake cults. He says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Let’s briefly review the story Jesus is referring to here: The children of Israel are journeying toward the Promised Land. They hate the food. They whine and complain. And then a God who seems very unlike the one you and I usually imagine, sends snakes among them to punish them for their ingratitude. Moses intercedes, and the same God tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a serpent, put it on a pole. And then whenever people get bit, they must look to the serpent on the pole, and they will live. Twice the text in Numbers says that they must look to the serpent to live. Moses’ serpent on a pole in the wilderness, of course, went on to become the international symbol for medicine. But that’s not all. Hundreds of years later, in II Kings 18, we come across this bronze serpent once again. By now, it’s even got a name, “Nehushtan,” which means “Brazen Thing.” That old snake-and-pole are still sitting in some dusty corner of the temple, and some people occasionally burned incense before it, till a religiously zealous young king named Hezekiah went through a Puritan phase, and he smashed that bronze snake—together with all other statues, shrines, and sacred vessels. We’ve got lots of evidence of snake worship in the ancient Near East, and in Africa, and in India, and Thailand, and even here in North America. But all good Jews avoided such things. Why did Jesus draw a parallel between himself and the snake cults? Snakes are a symbol of evil, and cunning, and danger. In fact, why would Jesus want to mire himself with that awful story of a God who would send snakes to bite the ungrateful? Well, this is the curious thing about Moses’ bronze snake, and George Hensley, and snake-handling churches everywhere, and all the snake worshiping faiths down through the history of the world; this is the paradoxical thing about the cross, too, which Jesus seems to treat as the pole on which he—like a snake—will be lifted up: Our fears are holy things. Our fears might be messengers from God. The things we fear have only the power over us that we give them by cowering, and hiding, and avoiding. But in the wise, strange tale in Numbers, the story echoed by Jesus, healing came from looking upon the very thing they feared. The snake on the pole and the cross of Christ both teach us to walk toward the thing we fear.
Well, what do you fear, anyway? You fear being without control, cast upon the mercies of happenstance and other people. You fear losing control, but really, when were you in control? You fear being judged. You can’t stand the notion that anyone would take it upon himself or herself to draw conclusions about your motives and your heart without knowing the full story. You’re scared of being judged, but does a single day pass when we’re not judged by those around us? You’re scared of uncertainty. You like to have all your ducks in a row, all the rules laid out in black and white. Uncertainty means that things aren’t reliable and safe. You’re terrified of uncertainty, but how many things do you really know for certain? You’re afraid of failure, and so perhaps you don’t even try. But if you never even try, then…you’ve failed. You’re afraid of rejection, and so you do your best to make everyone happy all the time. But when you live to please others, you’ve presumed their rejection and rejected yourself to please them. You fear change, but it’s the stuff of life, and death happens when it stops. You fear some unknown catastrophe, some cataclysmic future event, an asteroid, or nuclear war, or ecological collapse, the meltdown of civilization, the Ravens winning the Super Bowl—and all these things could indeed occur. But world history is a series of cataclysms, and living in fear (even of a thing that is bound to occur) means that you suffer it twice. You might be afraid of dying, but fearing it won’t stop it. More than that, you are afraid of losing the one you love. Yes. Now that’s indeed the great fear, isn’t it? But everyone who’s ever lived on this world of ours has exited through the same door, even the most beloved. Look around this room today; all but the very youngest here have known what it is to lose someone they thought they could not live without. But live they do.
Do you see where all of this is tending? It is a sad thing to fear the inevitable, the commonplace, the downright universal. Most of the things we fear do indeed make their way into every human life, and all people find ways to deal with them eventually. And so, the only way to free ourselves of the fear of them is to walk toward them, to sit with them, to accept them. And after this scary, slithering, snaking world has done its worst, there is still One who holds us in life and in death. There is still One in whose endless life we participate by all our living, and our loving, and our dreaming, and our fearing, and our dying here below. Fear is the root of every sin ever committed. Every war, each act of terrorism, each crime, each abuse, each grasping act of greed, every one of them is inspired by one of the selfish little fears that we just named: the fear of losing control; the fear of being rejected; the fear of suffering; the fear of dying. If only we could walk toward the things we fear and thus disable their power! If only we could touch our fears, handle them, name them, accept them, embrace them even, and so strip them of all power! The only way out of our fears is through them.
Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Some studies show that most people’s greatest fear is public speaking. Their second greatest fear is death. That’s to say that, for the average person at a funeral, it’s better to be the one in the casket than the one doing the eulogy.”
Now, of course there is the unhealthy practice of dwelling on all the bad things and possibilities that keep us scared. It’s deeply destructive to direct our imaginations and energies constantly toward the things we most dread. That’s a common thing called brooding, and it’s not what I’m advising. Fixating on things of fear can make a person and even whole civilizations crazy. But there are healthy ways to face fears. I had a friend who was afraid of rats, so she bought a pet rat and let it climb all over her. Someone I know grew up superstitious and now he chooses the number thirteen every chance he gets.
We may not pick up snakes, but it’s the same idea. Faith should provide us with safe, healthy ways to handle our fears. And so, what was it that you fear again? Loss, being misunderstood, being an outsider? Do you fear failure, humiliation, not being in control? Maybe you fear rejection, isolation, uncertainty. Here’s what you ought to do: catch the thing you fear. Keep it in a box, and pull it out every now and again. Pick it up, look at from a few different angles, and say, “Solitude (or loss, or shame, or pain) you might get me someday, but that’s okay. I might fall into your hands for a time, but you cannot have today. And my time with you, if it comes, won’t last forever either. I belong to God, not to the things I fear.”
I think it’s beautiful that the ancient Israelites have to look at a symbol of the very thing they fear in order to be healed of their fears. And Jesus claims this story as a good way of understanding the cross. Two weeks ago I finally went up to the attic to put all my Africa photos into an album. After five years in Africa, I’m left with fewer than fifty photos of it. I didn’t want to walk around with a camera. I feared looking like an outsider, and I knew that carrying a camera around would make me stand out. I’m a middle child; fitting in and keeping quiet was always my survival mechanism. But do you know what? I didn’t fit in there, and everybody knew it but me. I was inevitably an outsider…one who would go home one day and wish he had pictures of all the things he knew and loved there. I really should have walked toward that fear and taken some photos while there was still time and occasion to do it. But I didn’t. I let a past fear rob me of something that ought to be a present joy.
What fear will your future self thank you for having faced, having named, having defied today? “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Let us look to our fears and live. Let us walk toward them. Amen.