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Venomous Bites, Uplifting Antidote
a sermon based on John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9
by Rev. Thomas Hall

The first thing that comes to mind when I hear this morning’s gospel lesson is a nationally televised football game. The diehard fans are in the bleachers. The cheerleaders are there. A famous or infamous celebrity is there to sing in an ever new rendition, O say can you see . . . Even the Vice President is in attendance. We’re all watching the play-by-play action when a cornerback rams through the offensive line and crosses the goal. "Touchdown!" the announcers scream. Sixty-thousand fans go berserk. Then just before a Bud Lite or Cellular One commercial jumps on to our screens we see it. Probably for a split second, maybe two. And then we won’t see it again until the cornerback scores again or one of the teams scores a field goal. For as you look through the goal posts, splashed in huge black letters on bed sheets is the message, "John 3:16." That’s all. The verse isn’t quoted; no commentary given. Just "John 3:16." Americans know this verse; all we need is the reference be cause just to see the verse is enough for many Americans to recall the message.

But have you ever wondered what John 3:14 or say, John 3:17 says? They all form part of the same conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Could you imagine what would happen if some fanatic did hoist up John 3:14? The kicker would misfire and the football would go sailing over the concession stands. The umpires would be huddled to discuss the rules for Scripture-hoisting. Must be an infraction or something. Pandemonium would ensue and we’d never hear the end of it.

Luther may be right in saying that John 3:16 is "the gospel in miniature," but what does the rest of this passage say? What surrounds John 3:16? A conversation. We have two people engaging in serious talk. And just before we come to the Super Bowl Sunday verse we hear these words:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

What strange words! Moses? The serpent in the wilderness? No wonder this verse gets trampled on in our haste to get to John 3:16. We have on our hands an ancient story that Jesus knew and one that all his hearers knew. Listen to this strange story; goes like this.

God’s people are meandering through the wasteland of the Sinai. The heat from the sand forms a natural oven that blisters the skin and dries up the water. Cafeteria food on the Sinai isn’t much-a scorpion here, a tortoise there. And of course, manna is the main course. In Hebrew it is pronounced, man-hoo, which meant, "what’s that?" Now, "what’s that?" was really a nourishing food that God graciously provided, but after month after blistering month of travel, manna began to taste like dry oatmeal. So many took to grumbling and griping; whine a little here, wheedle there, crab and complain.

Then suddenly venomous snakes appeared among them. Many died on the spot. But the story does not end with snakebites in the outback. Repentance from this ravaged community comes to the ears of Moses and Moses raises their cry to Yahweh. So God tells Moses what to do: "Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; whoever has been bitten yet looks up at the homemade snake will survive."

So Moses feverishly hammers and shapes a rough approximation of a snake and heave ho’s this monstrous piece of art skyward. Sure enough, as long as victims were in eye shot of Moses’ snake, no one else died. Nor did anyone grumble and gripe, whine and wheedle, crab and complain after that. At least no loud enough for anyone to hear.

This is the story that Jesus refers to in his conversation with Nicodemus. But what does this snake-on-a-pole story mean anyway? Maybe the story as it was told and retold down through the centuries came to address our attitudes.

For the next nine hundred and fifty years after Israel finally made it into the Promised Land, you could probably hear those Jewish mothers warning their children: "If you grumble one more time when I ask you to finish your ochre and spinach casserole, God will probably send some poisonous snakes to bite you! They’re probably crawling around under the table right now sharpening their teeth!"

Don’t quote me on that, but for certain, the story reveals much about ourselves. That when we harbor hatred and resentment and nurse bitterness we open the door to a deadly venom that eats away at our lives and kills our relationships. Medical science confirms the truthfulness of this story. Fact is, when we pamper wrong and hurtful feelings and fondle unforgiveness, we open the door to the snakes. And their bites can be lethal.

I came across a startling interview between a Time correspondent and a sniper during a recent skirmish. The sniper had worked in his profession for years. Before the outbreak he was a javelin thrower-an aspiring Olympic competitor. During the war he got used to killing. He had claimed to have cut down 325 people who had tried to cross what became known as Sniper Alley to get food and water. The sniper said he didn’t begin to hate until his mother was jailed and beaten by the other side. Now he hates. But probably the most telling part of the interview was when he described his visit to see his mother recently. He said, "I have no feelings for what I do. When she hugged me, I felt nothing." That hate over time has turned this young Olympic hopeful into a killing machine. Venomous bites can be lethal.

Only a few Jewish families live in Billings, Montana, but for some, one was thought too many. A few people began their own hate campaign. They donned silly KKK hoods and marched out and around the Jewish homes shouting expletives and abuse. Understandably, peace-loving people in the community got frightened. Doors quickly closed and curtains shut out the blatant racism, as if their silence would make the problem go away.

But one faith community in town glanced around long enough to send a message to the beleaguered victims. They hung little menorahs in their sanctuary windows as a sign of love and support. Crosses and menorahs together in the windows.

The circle of rage and hate against these families and now against their supporters grew larger. Within a week the faith community itself was pelted with rocks and paint and its doors were smashed by these angry people. The poison of hatred and racism will kill God’s love inside a person and its venom can paralyze a person’s ability to love and be loved. Resentment and bitterness against others is ultimately against God. And with the resentment and bitterness comes the snakes. And with their venom comes death.

So now, a thousand years after the story about hatred and poisonous snakes we see a man standing in the darkness talking. And he says, "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." That’ not the story they were used to hearing.

Jesus doesn’t talk about hatred, racism, or other poisons. I guess by this time, the fact that we’ve all been bitten by poisonous snakes is obvious. So Jesus moves to the antidote. "When I am lifted up on that pole-just like when Moses erected the snake in the wilderness-people will recover and experience fullness of life."

John doesn’t tell us the rest of the story right here. But we know it. When Christ was lifted up on that old cross, God allowed God’s very being to be bitten for us. God took the bites of all the poisonous serpents that slither through our society. All the serpents of hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, and unforgiveness. He took the hit for us all. So that in the suffering of God there is healing for our hatreds, healing for our self-destructive poisons, healing for our lives.

In the midst of this poison, in the whirl of hatred, healing came to the faith community I just spoke of. CBS picked up the story and instead of John 3:16 our nation, for a brief moment in time, heard about a little congregation and Jewish families who joined together to fight hatred and racism. Donations and money for repairs came from all over America to that little congregation and Jewish neighbors.

In the end, it was love, not hate that won the day. They were able to move from the poison to the remedy: God’s love. For in that split second we saw between America’s goal posts the form of a figure stretched spread-eagle on a cross, and the message read,

"I love you,"