Monday, April 27, 2020

The way the Hebrew people were taught to look at the bronze serpent in the desert can teach us that something good can come out from the enforced restrictions that many of us are in right now.

When the Israelites were wandering in the dessert en route to the Promised Land, there was an incident recorded in the Hebrew scriptures (Numbers 21) where the people were bitten by poisonous snakes, and as a result, many of them died.  The response from the people is worth noting – they said “we have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you (Moses)”, and they asked Moses to pray on their behalf for an end to this affliction that they were plagued by.  

Moses did as was requested, and was given instructions by the Lord to make a serpent of bronze and to mount it on a standard, and those who had been bitten by the serpent would recover. There is no mention of anyone who had died by the encounter with the serpents would come back to life, so it is reasonable to assume that it was only a cure or panacea for those who hadn’t died, but were still in danger of death.  

This episode only takes up about 5 verses in the Old Testament, but it gets a reprise of sorts in the New Testament by Jesus in John 3:14, where he brings this image back, and refers to himself now as the new serpent that will be mounted on the standard of the Cross, and how those who had been in danger of death would be given the gift of eternal life by believing in him.

The message of truth beneath all this symbolism is in itself worth a day of recollection, as it is rich in so many ways.  The passage from the book of Numbers tell us that it was the peoples’ inability to be patient with God that led them to be afflicted with this divine punishment. They had complained about their having to be in the desert, and were most discontented with all that God had given to them to bring them to where they were.  They had forgotten how they had been slaves in Egypt and how God had enfranchised them.  They had also showed ingratitude for God’s providing them with sustenance in their desert sojourn thus far.  Discontented, they began to lament and complain of their lot.  We aren’t that much different from them, for so much of humankind have it in our system to not be grateful for what we have, to forget about how blessed we are, until maybe these things are curtailed or taken away from us. 

To wake these ungrateful Hebrew people, we are told that they were afflicted by “seraph serpents” or in some translations, “fiery serpents”.  In their encounter with this deadly invasion, they realized that they had sinned and asked Moses to intercede for them so that the Lord would take the serpents from amongst them.  

It was roughly 1500 years later that Jesus quoted this very passage in his encounter with Nicodemus in John’s gospel and by way of reference, Jesus showed how he is the fulfillment of what that bronze serpent was a symbol of to the Hebrew people.  On the wood of the cross, the new standard of healing and salvation, would be mounted Jesus himself.

Let us never forget that the serpent in Eden had caused the fall of our first parents, and henceforth, sin had a residual effect for all their subsequent children.  Sin comes in so many forms, two of which are ingratitude and resentment, which the wandering Hebrew people on the way to the Promised Land put on grand display.  In referring to this part of the Hebrew peoples’ history, Jesus is saying that he is the new ‘serpent’ but a salvific one who will undo what the first serpent did. The first serpent caused the fall of the primordially graced humans who were created in a state of grace, and subsequently fell from it.  The second serpent is one who will give fallen man and woman the one way that grace can be attained once more.  Only thing is that this second serpent will not be a serpent, but a sacrificial lamb of God.  

In his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus reveals that salvation will come to those who believe in him

The core of our salvation as Christians lies in the clear and irrefutable belief that Jesus is God, and that in Jesus, God has definitively entered into our sin-filled world to pave the way back to God through grace.  But what does the phrase “believe in him” entail?  Is it just something that happens in the subconscious and cognitive part of us, in some passive way?  Or does it entail something more demonstrative and outwardly manifested? In essence, it is both.

If we are to believe in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, it has to be manifested loudly and boldly in our external actions.  This is why the second commandment follows the first.  Loving God is, for the most part, something that is unseen (maybe except for our showing up for communal worship in liturgy, which even then could be very weak in terms of response and participation).  But in no uncertain terms is the second part, which is a corollary of the first, which is loving our neighbour.

Many people have asked if this coronavirus pandemic is in some way a ‘serpent’ that God has sent to the human race to teach it something.  Theologians worth their degree will most likely not give a facile answer by way of a direct ‘yes’.  But we also must not be too quick to rule out that the presence of such a worldwide affliction is very good reason for us to look squarely at how we have lived our lives, how we had made ourselves the centre of the universe, how we have taken so much for granted and in so doing, forgotten to really be grateful to God for all that we have.  

If we cannot physically reach out to others at this time, let us not think that we cannot do anything.  We are given this time of silence from the outside world to appreciate the community of our families (at least those of us who find ourselves spending this time of isolation with our families).  Living in such close quarters for 24 hours a day with one another can magnify the little quirks and idiosyncrasies that irritate or annoy us.  It’s easy to point fingers and say that the other person needs to change, but it takes humility to say that we have very little love in our hearts to accommodate these differences in the habits and ways of the other person.  And when we realise how little love we have, we ask for mercy from God, in the same way that the Hebrew people had asked for mercy from God because they saw how they had sinned against him.

This is one of the concrete ways that we show that we ‘believe in Jesus’.  It’s far more than something that just happens in the mind.  Belief in God has to be incarnated in a way that is real and livable, even in the tight quarters that we may find ourselves in right now.  

And when the lockdown or constraints of movements are lifted, the challenge will be for us to bring this awareness to the greater community which we will be able mingle and encounter with.

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