john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    The serpent and the pole - and eternity for all

    Bratton Clovelly, Sourton Communion Service
    20/3/2011


    John 3.1-17
    'Just 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.'
    Lance Corporal Michael 'Doc' McLoughlin is a medic with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He is currently attached to The Royal Dragoon Guards, serving on the Afghan front line in the southern district of Nad-e-Ali.

    Michael says, "I'm an infantry soldier when I'm out on the ground but I carry a lot of medical equipment with me, in case my skills are needed. So I'm kind of dual traded in a way. I do their job, but I also do a trade of my own."

    Michael spends most of his time out on patrol. It is his job to provide the immediate lifesaving first aid to soldiers if the worst should happen. That might be applying tourniquets and field dressings and administering fluids and pain relief until the Medical Emergency Response Team arrive to take the casualty away by helicopter. But back inside the patrol base, soldiers go to Michael for routine medical problems. He says: "The lads do come to me a lot and ask for basics such as sunscreen or ask me to look at their feet, just little things. I'm also there if people need to talk things through." [1]

    Corporal McLoughlin is a healer in a difficult place. And on the uniform which he wears as he goes about his work is the insignia of The Royal Army Medical Corps - it is a serpent lifted up on a pole.

    The serpent lifted up on a pole is known as The Rod of Asclepius. In ancient Greek mythology Asclepius, the son of Apollo, practiced medicine. And the symbol of the serpent refers to the fascinating medical fact that a drug is a poison that, taken in the right dosage, is also a remedy. Antidotes and vaccines are often made from the very thing that caused the poisoning or illness. Products made from the bodies of snakes were known to have medicinal properties in ancient times, and in ancient Greece, snake venom was 'prescribed' sometimes as a form of therapy. [2]

    The snake and the pole are two things in tension - after all, people use poles to beat off or kill snakes who are threatening them. But in the ancient world they put the snake and the pole together and they became a sign of healing. From the ancient Greeks to the people of Moses. [3]

    The book of Numbers describes the people of Israel following the Lord out of Egypt and into the wilderness, in search of a promised land, but struggling, suffering, and complaining about their situation along the way. So in Numbers 21 we read that the Lord, angered by the people's complaints, sent fiery serpents among them, 'and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.'
    And the people came to Moses and said, "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." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. [Numbers 21:6-9 (English Standard Version)]
    Moses brought the people healing in a difficult place. The sign of God's healing and forgiveness was a serpent lifted up on a pole. People facing death, infected by a deadly poison, looked on the serpent and were restored to life - in the wilderness they experienced a sort of resurrection.

    And so to Jesus, spending a very late night in conversation with a highly-placed religious leader, Nicodemus, a man impressed by the signs which Jesus was performing but struggling to get to the heart of Jesus' teachings. Jesus wants to help Nicodemus open the door of his heart to the wind of the Holy Spirit, to be blown away by the new loving liberating relationship which he can have with God. Nicodemus was slow to see the reality of the new life which Jesus was offering. So Jesus took him back to Moses to try to explain.
    '[For] just 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.'
    - he said. And we can imagine what Nicodemus would have understood by that. He knew the story of the serpent on the pole, how it was a sign of God's healing and forgiveness. Nicodemus knew that God, through Moses, brought the people healing in a difficult place. He showed them a sign of God's healing and forgiveness, so that those who looked on it were restored to life - in the wilderness they experienced a sort of resurrection.

    Nicodemus would have understood then that Jesus was saying the same thing about himself: that Jesus himself was the new harbinger of healing in the difficult place where Israel was just then - struggling under Roman occupation; that Jesus was God's new way of bringing healing and forgiveness to the people. That Jesus was offering people an experience of resurection: of eternal life.
    '[For] just 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.'
    Eternal life, life everlasting. It's a phrase which John uses a lot - and it doesn't mean something which happens to you after you die. Eternal life, life everlasting: it begins right now for those who believe. It is about a quality of life in this world more than about some other-world to come in the future. Jesus, the unending source of life itself, invited Nicodemus into a deep relationship with him - starting there and then. And by association with this passage of scripture, by taking it into our own hearts today, we can hear it telling us that Jesus, the unending source of life itself, is inviting us into a deep and everlasting relationship with him - starting here and now. [3]

    Now commentators over the centuries have focussed on the association between the serpent on the pole and Jesus on the cross. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and the Son of Man was lifted up on the cross. And just as the snake and the pole are two things in tension - a symbol of conflict (the pole beating off the serpent) but at the same time a sign of healing, so Jesus and the cross can be seen in that way. The human conflict that resulted in the people crucifying the God who loved them, was addressed by God in a glorious resurrection in which death was finally defeated, in the triumph of Jesus the healer of a broken world.

    When wounded soldiers see the sign of the pole and the serpent they know that healing is at hand. When believers in Christ see the sign of the cross and the saviour they know that resurrection is at hand. Eternal life, life everlasting.

    What Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus grasp is something we too need to deeply embrace - the truth that eternal life doesn't begin at death. It begins when you open the door of your heart to the wind of the Holy Spirit, to be blown away by the new loving liberating relationship which you can have with the resurrected God.
    'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.'
    That is many people's favourite bible verse. And rightly so for it is at the very heart of the good news of Jesus. It tells us first and foremost that God loves the world. And this is very good news indeed. Jesus, the unending source of life itself, invites the whole world into a deep relationship with him - starting here and now. Jesus is offering us, and all creation, eternal life.

    Now, what can this mean in today's world? How are we to share this good news with the people of the world who have not yet embraced it? I'm especially thinking about the people of Japan, a nation which is predominantly Shinto and Buddhist. Our son Gary is a Christian missionary out there right now, and it is a massive mission-field for as he puts it, in Japan 'less than 1% of over 127 million people know Jesus!' [4]

    But how can someone now relate the good news of Jesus to a people devastated by the disastrous tsunami there nine days ago? Perhaps by looking first for a connection with their own religious practices.

    In one ancient Shinto ritual at Mt. Inomure in Ooita prefecture, Japan, people had a ceremony to beg for rainfall. On a wooden foundation, they constructed a tower made of tree branches, and on its top, they put a bamboo pole tangled with a snakeskin. They burned the snakeskin, the pole and the tower and prayed for rainfall. [5]

    How similar this is to the story of the ancient Israelites and the the bronze serpent on the pole which Moses had set up. Nicodemus would have known that by the time of King Hezekiah the people had turned the serpent on the pole into an idol, a sacrificial object to which they burned incense; the people had given it a name, Nehushtan. Seeking to return the people to the Lord, the godly King Hezekiah had the idol destroyed. (2 Kings 18:1-6)

    And these stories of idolatry relate to the way that Christians over the years have made an idol of the cross, revering that object rather than the Saviour who was crucified on it. Contrary to their misguided (though often well-intentioned) beliefs, the cross is not at the heart of Christianity - the Saviour is. The Saviour who offered eternal life to Nicodemus there and then, well before the events which put him on the cross.

    And so the story of the serpent and the pole offers an 'in' to all those who might be reeling from circumstances which have caused them to lose faith in their old ways of seeing things, seeing the limitations of the old religious ways which put bloody, fiery, sacrificial acts at their centre; bemused by the idea that if we make offerings on altars then the weather will be favourable to us; sickened by the suggestion that terrible natural events are the acts of angry jealous deities who must be appeased; looking instead for a God who walks beside us, suffers with us, and offers healing, resurrection, forgiveness, eternal life.

    Jesus invited Nicodemus to stop repeating the mistakes of the old religion and to turn to Jesus, to receive healing in a difficult place. Jesus offers eternal life right here, right now, to those who believe. There's opportunity for dialogue between Christianity and Shintoism here. There's hope for the people of Japan, there's hope for us all, in the way that Jesus tells the story of the serpent and the pole.


    Notes
    [1] Life as an Army medic on the British Army website.
    [2] Rod of Asclepius on Wikipedia.
    [3] Notes on Lent 4B on the Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary website.
    [4] Gary Seddon: Mission in Japan newsletter available to download from my blog, here.
    [5] Mystery of the Ten Lost Tribes: Japan on Moshiach.com.