By Brian Cole
“The only vision some people got is television.” That is one of the truest things I have ever heard said in a sermon. The preacher of that sermon was, by the way, a snake-handler.
In a cinder block building, on the western edge of eastern Kentucky, on a hot August evening, in the early part of a four-hour worship service, with guitars and a drum set, with long-haired women and long-sleeved men, with cigarette smoke being blown back inside from the outdoors, with a preacher who sweated and yelled and walked and jumped, I sat near the front, in white shirt and black pants, trying to blend in, with a snake box near my feet, with a cute snake-handling girl giving me the eye, and I wondered how it had come to this.
This was to be a cross-cultural experience. I was there to encounter the other. The other just happened to have a serpent in her hand. Would I like to handle the snake? No thank you, sister. I’m just fine with the tambourine.
In that small church, sitting thigh to thigh with grandmothers and awkward teenage boys, I felt as if I was in some kind of wilderness. Don’t they know they could be killed? Didn’t they know people ridiculed them? This was no service of common prayer. This was an evening of uncommon risk.
At the conclusion of the service, when serpents had been handled without incident and safely put back in their boxes, when tears of joy and repentance had been shed, when all the wayward teenagers had confessed their sins in great detail, when all the old women had loved on everyone’s necks, we locked up the cinder block building and headed back into town. For one more night, we had all been saved.
In the Christian tradition, we speak of death and life, of cross and tomb, of giving up one’s life in order to save it, of offering ourselves as living sacrifices, walking the way of suffering in order to know the way of life eternal.
Yet, we tend to have those kinds of sacred conversations now indoors, with air conditioned as not to be too cold or too hot, safely protected from all the wild things and places that make up so much of the Holy Scriptures. My life as a living sacrifice—that’s a metaphor, right?
Moses and the freed Israelites were still adjusting to life in the desert. Egypt was back there, a sea had been crossed and freedom was here and now, but here and now was in a wilderness, without the orderliness of slave days.
Those Egypt days were humiliating but at least you knew the rules. In a desert, a wild place, freedom wasn’t quite turning out the way they had planned. A free belly was often an empty one. Just because the back no longer felt the lash did not mean the back wasn’t still burdened.
So, the people returned to an old practice of murmuring. This time their murmurs were not against Pharaoh, but against Moses and the God who called him to lead them out of Egypt. Out of Egypt, but unfortunately, into a world without enough food and water. When there was food, it came without variety. “Let me guess, we’re having manna.”
Serpents, however, were not in short supply. And serpents did what they have always done whenever encountering humans—they got their attention. The people’s murmurs gave way to painful shouts from snakebites and critical reviews of manna recipes didn’t seem so important anymore.
What do we do with these serpents, which appear to be everywhere? Do you try to eradicate them from the land? Do you go back to Egypt and leave the wilderness to the serpents?
No, you stay put, and you do a rather odd thing. You make an image of a serpent and place it on a pole and place the pole where people can see it. And when the serpents bite you in the wilderness, from now on, you make your way to the pole and you look at the serpent. Moses tells you if you do that, if you look at the serpent, at a bronze image of the very thing that just bit you, then you will live.
That doesn’t make sense. Why not take the pole and shoo away all the serpents? How can you be healed by looking so intently at danger?
This is not intended to be a sermon on snake-handling. I do not think that Moses or Jesus in the Gospel of St. John is instructing us in folk religion techniques. We are being instructed in how to handle life.
Most of us do not have to dump great amounts of sand from our shoes at the end of the day. We do not grow tired of manna. Our mail does not come to Wilderness Road.
But we are so often bitten by the serpents in our world. Some of us, at times, might even be snake bit, with too many mistakes and failures following us through this season. Who can we murmur to or cry out to for help?
“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.”
In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus has a late-night conversation with a seeker, a fellow traveler who seeks under cover of darkness, so all the Pharisees at work won’t find out that Nicodemus finds so much of Jesus’ way convincing.
In the midst of this night talk, Jesus tells about the serpent, the very thing you would not want to encounter in the dark. Maybe as Jesus spoke, Nicodemus instinctively looked down at his feet to make sure the only serpent present was proceeding from Jesus’ words.
But just like the bronze serpent was twisted around the pole, isn’t Jesus twisting the story of Moses? The bronze serpent was an image of a thing that caused pain, that stung, that could kill. When the people looked on the image for healing, they did so while muttering less than kind thoughts about serpents.
To make a powerful serpent into a bronze image, to place it on a pole and determine where the pole will reside, is to remind the serpent and the people that the serpent is not God, but just a thing created by God, by the God who is sustaining them in the wilderness.
If Jesus is lifted up, if he is raised, what does that look like? Is he cast in bronze? Are there angels around his head? As he hovers just beyond our everyday reach, in that place of ascension, which is good work if you can get it, but mocks the dustiness of our own lives, is that the lifting up of which he speaks, is that where we should look in order to live?
Jesus is not speaking of being cast in bronze and ascending into the heavens. He is speaking of a Messiah who has been wounded, bitten by the serpent, placed on a cross, raised in order to be scorned and mocked. Look on this and live?
In our lives, we are constantly encountering crosses, crucifixes, images haunted by the God who was humiliated in order that all our failures and our humiliations would no longer operate outside of God’s knowing and God’s love.
How do you live in the wilderness? You hold onto the crucifix as if your life depended on it. You look into the eyes of the Christ on the cross who looks back, who tells the truth, who refuses to ask anyone else to die, to be humiliated, without knowing that the Christ died first.
Jesus on the cross was first a teacher who walked among us, who understood the daily triumphs and defeats that find us, whether in distant wilderness or in urban crowd. As a teacher, he revealed to us the way to walk through this world, with no guarantees that we get through without fangs puncturing skin.
The Christ did not intend to be cast in bronze. The Christ intended to remain wrapped up in our lives, in our fleshy lives, with us in our descents and our risings, looking upon those we love, those we fear, those we pity, those we have yet to categorize.
Look upon the cross and live. To say that Jesus was lifted up on the cross, was led there by violent men serving an idolatrous empire, is to be reminded that our God has suffered and has worn the clumsy coat of humiliation.
As he lay dying, there was nowhere to look. No one has ever died like that since. That is the promise of the snake-bitten God on the cross raised high.
The Rt. Rev. Brian Cole is the V Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee.