Ophidiophobia. It means the fear of snakes and it’s at the top of the phobia list. For some, just seeing or thinking about a snake can bring on anxiety. In fact, over a third of adults say that they are very afraid of snacks. Are you one of them?
Actually, only 400 of the known 3,000 snakes are poisonous. And the venom can lead to death.
Tommy knows how to find a snake in the sand. We took “Tommy’s Desert Tours” while traveling in Namibia last January. Tommy’s skin is leathery from so much time in the sun, poking around for life in the desert. He is quite a character: engaging, sometimes hilarious, and occasionally sexist.
Tommy is able to find sidewinder snakes by looking for marks in the sand. Sidewinders move sideways in S-shaped loops. To escape the heat, these poisonous snakes spend most of their time under the surface of the sand.
After Tommy digs in the sand with his hands, he takes hold of the snake with an expandable hook, and then lifts the snake on a hat for us to see. He assures us we are safe—but not to come too close. But what I remember as much as the snake, was the reaction of a young boy on the tour. He made quite a scene, recoiling with playful but real fear.
The Bible starts with a deceptive serpent in the garden. And then there’s today’s rather bizarre, mysterious and fascinating story about Moses, the Israelites, and snakes! Slavery in Egypt is behind them. They are journeying to the promised land. But the trip isn’t 40 days like our Lent, but 40 years of being unsettled and on the move!
When you’re starving, manna is heaven. But they’re getting fed up with manna cakes, vegetarian manna stew, manna and quinoa loaf. And like us—when things don’t go our way, when patience runs thin, when gratitude is scarce, and when the past is idealized—they grumble. They whine. They complain. I love the King James Bible word for it: they murmur!
Things were better back in Egypt, they murmur. Sure, they were slaves, but the food was delectable. So they go to Moses to have it out with him. Seeing no end in sight, they fear they will die in the wilderness. And they are fed up with manna 24/7.
So what the people get is poisonous snakes. Biting the people back to their senses. And some of them die.
Yet it sure gets the people’s attention and they repent. They seek healing and forgiveness. And God provides a very strange and shocking remedy. Not a charmer with a magic snake. But an antivenom. God tells Moses to lift up a brass serpent on a pole. Think of it! The snakes are the result of the people’s disobedience and sin. But the snake-on-the-stick is the means to their healing and salvation. They would look at it and live. And get saved, so to speak! What in the world is antivenom? Snake venom is injected in mammals such as horses, sheep or rabbits. These animals have an immune response that naturally generates antibodies against the venom. The antivenom is harvested from the blood of the animal and stored to treat snake bite victims. Antivenom. The cure for snakes is a snake. Amazing. As one preacher (Barbara Brown Taylor) said, Moses takes the very source of the people’s fear, their rebellion, and their death. Pulls it up from beneath their feet and puts it on a pole for the people to look at.
Now consider the cross. After all, it is a bizarre and mysterious thing when we process. We lift high a pole with a cross on it. We make the sign of a cross on our bodies. On Good Friday we lift high a wooden cross over our heads. And then following ancient tradition, we come forward to honor this cross by bowing, touching or even kissing it. We look on this cross—a sign of rebellion, sin and death. And it becomes for us life, resurrection, and healing. Antivenom! The American Medical Association uses the serpent on a pole to represent the healing arts of medicine. Such snake imagery reaches back to ancient cultures beyond Judaism. But the symbolism is clear: threat and salve are entwined together. Surgeons who work under that snake-symbol have to hurt you to make you whole.
Which leads to John 3:16. Many people lift that up as their favorite Bible verse. And some folks hold up a sign with John 3:16 on it at sporting events. Let’s be clear: I’m all for John 3:16, but often salvation is about who gets saved and who doesn’t. And that makes me a bit bitter, if you want to know. Everything gets reduced to heaven and hell. Who is in and who is out. And salvation is diminished to only one thing: Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, you get a ticket to heaven.
Last week I wanted to reclaim the word “law” from negative, anti-Jewish stereotypes. Today I want the same for the word “salvation.” In the scriptures and in our theology, salvation is so much more than simply life after death. And many images come from the Hebrew scriptures.
So, here we go. Salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation. Salvation is restoration and return from exile. Salvation is God’s promise of completion and consummation. Salvation is liberation, starting with the Israelite’s deliverance from bondage. Salvation is God’s desire for shalom, for justice, for the good of the earth and its inhabitants. Salvation is healing and wholeness. And salvation is resurrection, God making all things new and bringing life from death.
And when someone asks you if you’re saved, let’s not forget that in the Bible salvation is God’s action. And it’s communal, not some individual soul getting saved.
So let’s save salvation! Let’s lift up the good news of God’s love for the world, God’s love for the cosmos, God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s love for all living things on our fragile earth!
That is not to lessen the bite of the snake, or the bites of life and the sting of death. There’s every reason to be bitter at times.
Yet then and now, look up at the pole with the snake on it. Look at your fears and losses.
And then gaze on the cross. The tree of life. Amazing grace. Healing and salvation. God’s love for the world. Antivenom.
Inspiration for this sermon comes from interpretations by Barbara Brown Taylor, William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Vol 34, No. 1.