Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

It is perhaps the most quoted line by Harrison Ford in the Indian Jones movie franchise. “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”  I know there are some people who like snakes, and even keep them as pets.  There are others who can joke about them. Why don’t snakes drink coffee? Because it makes them viperactive. What is a snake’s favorite TV show? Monty Python.  What do you call a snake that builds things? A boa constructor.  What do you call a snake that bakes? A pie-thon. What do you call a funny snake? Hissssssterical. But I hate snakes, and I just can’t understand why Jesus would want to be compared to a bronze snake lifted up on a pole in the wilderness.

My discomfort with snakes is almost equal to my discomfort with a God who intentionally releases poisonous serpents into the desert to bite the people for voicing their complaints against him.  It challenges my theological sensibilities and understanding of a caring God. And yet, since Jesus, likened himself to the bronze snake in his midnight conversation with Nicodemus, I feel obligated to contemplate this story again and find a word of hope. Obviously, Jesus  sees a connection to the most quoted verse in the New Testament, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”  So let us look back and ponder that Old Testament reading.

Surprisingly, for all the amazing things that God had done for the Israelites in escaping slavery in Egypt, they were not impressed.  They seemed to lack the confidence that God could deliver them into the Promised Land. No sooner had they crossed through the Red Sea and escaped the Pharaoh’s chariots, then they questioned, “Why, O Lord have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable bread.”  The wandering in the wilderness, or at least its length, was a surprise to Israel. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey that Moses promised, they entered a desert with wind and sand.  Yes, God’s rescue plan at the Red Sea led them straightway to a godforsaken wilderness. Shortages, hardship and habitually being on the move, seemed to accompany one learning experience after another. Bondage back in Egypt with its security and resources didn’t seem so bad compared to the freedom of living from one oasis to another. Let’s be honest, 40 years would feel like a permanent existence no matter how large a sandbox you were given to walk around. Well, this time the Israelites’ complaints were followed by the verse, “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” No where does it state explicitly that God sent the snakes because the people complained, but they do suddenly appear at that time. The Israelites, themselves, did see the connection between their words and the snakes which they interpreted as punishment.  “But why did it have to be snakes?”  And so they turned to Moses to intervene.

Moses’ role as intermediary with God was what he did best. In this incident, however, God did not give the people what they asked for. They pleaded with Moses to have God “take away the serpents,” but the serpents did not go away, nor did they stop biting. Instead, God told Moses to construct an image of the creature and use it as a medium of divine healing for a poisoned community. The Israelites were still bitten, but when they looked up at the snake on the pole, they were healed, and they lived. All at God’s command.

According to scripture,  the bronze snake entwined on a pole remained with the Israelites for generations.   They carried it with them into the promised land and it was eventually placed in the Holy of Holies where it remained for 250 years. Regretfully, the bronze serpent ran into trouble at the hands of the reformer King Hezekiah, who saw the people offering incense to the snake, so he broke the snake and pole into pieces. The ancient people had been commanded by Moses to look up the bronze serpent and to live, but not to worship the serpent.  Perhaps, Hezekiah feared that the snake entwined on the pole would be mistaken for the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek symbol of healing.  “Why did it have to be a snake?”

This whole Old Testament story leads Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that the people could be healed, so the Son of Man must be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Yes, in such a manner, God so loved the world.”

My friends, God wants you to be healthy and whole, even in the midst of the pains of the world.  He wants to build you up and forgive, even when he knows you will stumble and disappoint yourself. God loves you so much that he wants you to spend eternity with him. That is why he sent his only begotten son. But still,  there are times when we find ourselves locked in our own personal wilderness. It seems as if we are walking the way of the Red Sea again, and same  landmarks reappear over and over.  It may not have been 40 years, but it feels like forever. In these moments snakes always sneak back into picture. Why couldn’t Moses have cut a better deal with God along the Red Sea in the land of Edom?  Why do we have to keep wandering around in the wilderness with our work, our families and our lives with snakes all around us?   In these momenta its hard to believe in loving and caring God. If that has been your experience, let me share with you three simple thoughts on believing in God in a world of snakes.

First of all, remember that believing is different than knowing. “Do you believe in God?” seems like a strange question. It sounds like the same question as “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” or “Do you believe in aliens?” But the question “Do you believe in God?” is asking far more than that. The true meaning of the question is “Do you believe that God  is who he says he is, and that he can heal and save you from your sins and sorrows of this world?”  Believing is more than knowing that God exists.

Second, believing is trusting what God can do in your life. I drove past a church the other day whose billboard read, “God believes in you.” I know that’s true, “But what does God believe about me?”  I certainly hope that God doesn’t believe I can do this work all on my own.  30 years ago when I was ordained, I wis given an engraved copy of Martin Luther’s Sacristy Prayer by the Norwegian Glee Club.  It is hanging on the wall in the sacristy still today. There is one line that is particularly humbling and truthful, “Lord God, Thou hast appointed me as a pastor in Thy Church, but Thou seest how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task. If I had lacked Thy help, I would have ruined everything long ago.”  No matter what your vocation and calling, snakes keep sneaking in. Fortunately, God is trustworthy even when we fail.

It is good to know and believe in a God who can remedy all your mistakes. When you say you believe in someone, you’re stating something that is your conviction about them. As the Free Dictionary explains, to believe can mean a variety of things.

“To have confidence in one’s or someone else’s abilities.”

“To be convinced of the existence of something.”

“To trust or have faith in someone or something.”

“To accept a fact or what someone says as truth.”

When an electrician comes to your house and tells you exactly what must be done to fix your lights, and you answer, “I believe you,” you’re saying that you trust his expertise and his ability to fix the problem.  That is also what it means, when you say I believe in God. Just as believing in an electrician means trusting he can fix your electrical problem, believing in a God means trusting that he can fix your struggles and make them pass. That’s what he promised to do for everyone who believes in him.

Finally, believing in God is opening yourself to new reality that believing is not a one-time event. The snakes didn’t just disappear in the wilderness after their first complaints ceased.  They were a daily reality, and so the Israelites carried the Bronze Serpent with them into the Promised Land.  Belief in God is just the beginning of a lifelong relationship with him. This means seeking to know him better and to grow in the understanding of his character and his will for your life. By seeking a deeper relationship with God, through prayer, study of the scripture and worship, you can experience the fullness that he offers.

And so one day, as Nicodemus’ midnight visit to Jesus had foreshadowed, the pole reappeared.  This time it was on another godforsaken place, high on a hill called Calvary, overlooking the holy city of Jerusalem.  There God himself placed the pole and himself. Once and for all.  So that all those who are battling snakes, however painful and sorrowful and lonely they feel, may be healed.  My friends, wherever that wilderness may be, for you, look up to him and live. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, so everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have life now and in eternity.   Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.