And 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.“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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
If you have gone to most any news or newspaper website in the last few months, then you know that you have not needed to look for long before you read something about vaccines. Most days you don’t even need to scroll down to see a news story on this subject. Getting one of the three available COVID vaccines is what everyone is talking about. Facebook of late has featured a lot of posts of people happily displaying their CDC COVID-19 vaccine cards after getting the first and/or second dose. This has led to lots of “Congrats!” comments and a few instances of what we could almost call “vaccine envy” from those of us who have not yet been able to access the vaccine—a medical breakthrough that we all hope will lead us out of this pandemic someday.
Science has been fiddling around with the core ideas behind vaccines since the late 18th century when a British doctor named Edward Jenner figured out that injecting a person with a small amount of the fairly benign cowpox virus somehow made that person immune to getting the highly deadly smallpox disease. But it’s been in the last century that vaccine research and development picked up steam with, among other things, the dramatic breakthrough by Jonas Salk in developing the polio vaccine.
Those of us who have been living with a level of fear about COVID for the last year cannot quite imagine the fear that gripped parents decades ago when it came to the prospect of their children contracting polio. During the months of the year when people were most prone to contract polio, most households held self-imposed lockdowns to protect especially children. Probably we cannot overstate the relief that the polio vaccine brought to millions. But as the 20th century rolled on, the development of annual influenza vaccines continued apace as did something like the MMR vaccine most of us got as children to protect against the once-common (but now rare) ailments of measles, mumps, and rubella.
Until recently with the development of messenger RNA vaccines like the Pfizer and Moderna shots, the principle behind vaccines was almost counterintuitive. Because it turned out that a great way to protect against getting a disease big-time was essentially to expose a person to that very same disease but on a safe scale. Vaccines contained either very tiny amounts of the disease in question. Either way the body’s immune system looked at this new kid on the viral block and formed antibodies to kill it. Thus if this same virus ever tried to show up in a serious way, the body could say “We’ve seen you before, pal, so take this!” and, voila, the person was protected.
It is, as Neal Plantinga wrote some years ago, a fine example of like curing like. Plantinga noticed that this idea of like curing like had a biblical ring to it. The first instance was that time in Israel when God sent venomous serpents into the Israelite camp to punish them for yet another rebellion against God. Despite the fact that God is said to have sent the snakes, nevertheless God tells Moses he has a remedy: put a bronze cast of a snake up onto a pole and if people looked at it, they would be cured of and/or protected against snakebites.
The question to ask of our text s is “why?” Why, when Moses prays from the deliverance of the people from the deadly snakes, does God give him such a bizarre means of deliverance?
- Couldn’t God just destroy the snakes? Or send them away?
- Or even reveal a plant whose leaves provided an antidote to the poison?
Why have Moses make a statue of the snake to lift up on a pole in the middle of the camp?
The gospel offers us a connection that makes this strange command relevant to Christian listeners, but that hardly explains its original logic. And even the parallel with Jesus being lifted up on the cross begs the question: what does this story illuminate about the cross? What deep truth was God trying to teach both the early Israelites and Jesus followers of later generations?
Well, if we set aside the pre-scientific weirdness of looking at a statue to be healed from a snake bite, we might recognize that there is a profound connection being made between injury and cure. Looking at the snake is not just some bizarre magical ritual. It is a claim that healing requires us to confront the image of our affliction. We must be willing to see what is hurting us in order to be healed. Simply removing the snakes or offering an antidote would not call the people to recognize what was hurting them. It would save them, but it would not heal them.
When we apply that insight to Jesus’ crucifixion, we get a new understanding of the means by which his lifting up brings us life. If Jesus’s death on the cross is the image of our affliction, then eternal life comes by seeing that our affliction – the harms from which we need to be saved – are the familiar patterns of human behavior that still destroy truth and love today: Jesus was killed because he challenged the power structure of his time, because he insisted on welcoming outsiders, and because he taught a radical, self-sacrificing ethic of love, even for our enemies.
So, if Jesus’s death lifts up for us the source of our affliction, of our alienation from God, then on the cross we are confronted by the truth of our afflictions: the human lust for power, suspicion of outsiders, and addiction to self-protective violence. Jesus raised up on a cross shows us our collective sin. And in doing so, it also shows us that our hope for life comes in our willingness to see those evils for what they are: the rejection of God.
The point of the serpent story is that healing comes from looking at the source of affliction. So, our healing as humanity comes from recognizing our sin, and the ways that it hurts us.
This passage would be much easier to preach if the lectionary committee had stopped the reading at verse 18. John 3:16 and those clearly theological topics feel much safer than wading into the messy metaphors of darkness and light.
But in the year 2021, only a few months after the storming of the Capitol Building in which white supremacists staged a prayer in the Senate chambers that invoked the “white light” of Christ, we cannot side-step language that equates darkness with evil and light with God. Our cultural history up through this present moment has twisted such language in ways that reinforce racism and the multiple evils caused by racism. So, the church must explicitly reject such uses of the metaphors of light and dark.
Of course, for Jesus and the gospel writers—who were all dark-skinned themselves—this twisted cultural meaning did not exist. For them darkness is just the opposite of a source of light, with no racial overtones. For Jesus, the division is not between black and white; it is between those who wish to see clearly and those who wish to hide.
In these verses, Jesus is explaining God’s plan of salvation to Nicodemus—a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who approaches Jesus as a respected teacher. But he approaches Jesus at night. He is reaching toward the light of Christ, but there would be consequences for his religious and political status if this conversation were known, so Nicodemus hides it in the literal dark. I am sure that Jesus’ words about those who love the darkness were not lost on Nicodemus. Jesus was talking about him. Jesus was challenging him to let go of hiding and seek the light of truth.
The challenge in the scene can just as easily be directed to the church’s willingness (or lack thereof) to talk openly about the problems of racism in our society. The truth is there to be seen if we are willing to look at it in the light: the evidence of disparate poverty rates, and discrimination, and mass incarceration, and myriad policies that preserve systems of inequity.
The light of truth has made the realities clear. Social science and social media have unveiled the evils that have always been part of our national story. But we will only see it if we are willing to be exposed to the light.
The is the choice we face as Christians who hear a text about light and darkness. Do we risk the exposure of talking about the pain of racism in our nation? Such exposure will have consequences. Jesus was killed for his unflinching commitment to the light of truth. Nicodemus knew those consequences all too well, and he left this conversation with Jesus unwilling to commit. But Nicodemus can offer hope to all of us who might prefer the hiddenness of darkness on this particular topic, because, in the end, Nicodemus decided the truth of Jesus mattered more than his own comfort.
Like cures like. In this Lenten Season as we are called to gaze again and again on that old rugged cross—and even as we pass through the second Season of Lent in a row that is disrupted by the COVID pandemic—we should marvel at how God defeated death through death. Even as we all wait to get that email, text, or call to tell us know we are next in line for the COVID vaccine, we should let this medical wonder remind us to give thanks for the grandest wonder of them all that is salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Experts claim that the new Johnson&Johnson vaccine—though on the face of it less effective than the first two—seems to be 100% effective in preventing death from COVID. Death is, after all, what we are all trying to avoid in this pandemic.
But then, death is just generally what we would all just as soon avoid, and though nothing can prevent us from physically dying at some point, that death does not have the last word.