It would, of course, be difficult to preach this text from Numbers without making reference to the Gospel reading for this week. It is John’s explication of this story that fits most neatly into our Lenten journey. John has Jesus reference this story from Numbers as a way of explaining what he, Jesus, was there to do. It is the first reference to being lifted up and goes back to a story with snakes and poison and grumbling people (“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?”) What could be so uplifting about a story of a snake on a stick?
That sounds like a question that Nicodemus would ask. Although the Gospel text for this week moves to the explanation verses after the encounter in the night between Jesus and Nicodemus, it would probably be helpful to remember how we got here. We need to consider why Jesus made the reference to the snake in the desert and gives perhaps the most famous verse in the whole New Testament (John 3:16). How did we get here? It started with Nicodemus (John 3:1-13).
Nicodemus was a leader of the people of God. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jews in Israel at Jesus’ time. He comes at night, maybe because serious study takes place at night, or maybe because he was afraid of being seen associating with this questionable rabbi from the backwoods. He comes with social niceties, a bit of flattery to grease the wheels of conversation. But Jesus immediately changes the subject. Jesus immediately puts him on the defensive. You have to be a different person to be a part of what God has in store. “What?” Nicodemus is reeling almost immediately. Knocked off his feet, he spends the rest of the conversation trying to catch up.
He makes a feeble joke about climbing back in his mother’s womb, hoping to disarm the intensity of the Teacher. Because being a different person was couched in a metaphor about birth. Born again, he said, born from above. The word in Greek means both things, a reference to time and to direction. Born again, as if the first time wasn’t traumatic enough, again as if the first time wasn’t as full of potential as it needed to be, again as if drawing breath like never before, filling your lungs with more than air, breathing in Spirit instead, in addition. Spirit from above, as if you were too focused on this life, the one lived out in front of your eyes and anything invisible isn’t real. Anything invisible, like love and hope and joy and transformation and possibility, isn’t what life was about when born from below. It’s not a bad life, just a shallow one, just a nose to the grindstone and find your meaning in successes and failures each and every day and not in the love of a creator who stands ready to fill you with vision.
Let go, Nicodemus, let go of the need to control; let go of your need to have everything your way. Let go of the belief that you can build a better world, a more vibrant community by shaping it along the lines of your own preferences and understandings. Grab hold of the Spirit and be blown about, from one world to the next, from one joy to the next, from one soul to the next. Be born into a new way of seeing; let go of what was, no matter how satisfying it may have been. Grab hold of where God is calling you to go, who God is calling you to be.
“I’m not telling you anything new, Nicodemus,” Jesus might say.” I’ve been saying these things since I got here, since the beginning of time. This is all I have to say; this is all I know, this God thing, this vision of the people of God, the community of faith. I have not stopped saying this. And you are a leader of people and somehow don’t get it. How can this be, Nicodemus? What did you miss? Get ready; it’s about to get even more intense.”
Jesus gave Nicodemus a whole lot of stuff to think about. We don’t know how it all affected him or what he went away with that night. But a few chapters later, when the rest of the leadership is complaining that the police didn’t arrest Jesus for speaking of the kingdom of God, Nicodemus speaks up and says, “Don’t we have due process?” This is not an affirmation of faith, by any means, but at least he attempts to stand on the side of right. They sneered at him and accused him of being a hick from the sticks like Jesus. Then Nicodemus shrinks from sight completely.
Well, not completely. He doesn’t speak again. But he shows up in the darkness again, the afternoon darkness of a weeping world, and gathers up the body from a horrible death, and wraps it up with about a hundred pounds of spices and puts it in the tomb of another Pharisee named Joseph. A hundred pounds of spices? Was that really necessary? Maybe. Or maybe it was overkill. Overboard. Maybe it was apology spice; maybe he finally understood what he had missed that night in the darkness and wanted to make up for it by bringing so much that he could barely carry it, a penance of spice poured out over a dead body that wasn’t going to stay dead, though he didn’t know that yet.
Because—and we’re back where we need to be— Nicodemus finally had the courage or the faith or the desperation to look up and live. The story from Numbers isn’t about a snake, and it isn’t about worshiping an odd sort of idol. It’s about acknowledging that you need help. You need a savior. And it is about obedience to the one who will rescue you from what is killing you. If you just look up and live.
It isn’t a difficult thing to look up at a snake on stick or a man dying on a cross. And yet it is the hardest thing we could ever do as independent thinking human beings. It is about surrendering ourselves to that which will save us rather than thinking we can do it ourselves if we just plug away at it long enough. It is admitting that there is poison in our system that will kill us if we don’t do something radical, something desperate.
It isn’t hard to image the squeamishness of the Hebrew people to have a bronze snake on a pole in the midst of the camp while they were surrounded by snakes nipping at their heels. And we can be sure that their prayer was that God would move the snakes out of the way and give them a clear path on their journey. But God chose a different way. God left the snakes around them, left the vulnerable to the poison that could kill them. Yet, God gave them a remedy, a solution to the danger that surrounded them. And all they needed to do was to look up and live.