‘Of Trees and snakes, of Life and Death’ Lent 4 Year B 2018


Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent Year B 2018

Numbers 21:4-9

Eph 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Directing the gaze of our heart

(‘Of trees and snakes, of Life and Death’)

Years ago I remember listening to a haunting recording of Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude – it was played on a reel to reel tape recorder, and a small spool of tape. This was the Christmas letter from a school friend of my father – named John Bennifield. It was haunting because John had recorded his Christmas letter because he was going blind, and could no longer see to write. Thinking back, he can only have been in his mid-forties as my Father was at that time.

John came to mind this week as I pondered our readings, not least our readings from the book of Numbers, because of his occupation. John lived in what was then Rhodesia, and he was in charge of the Snake education Programme – something certain to draw the interest of a young teenage boy – but indeed anyone. I remember him talking about Black Mambas and how they would hang around in trees and drop on you!

Snakes are universally feared – it is wired deep into us . . . and the association between Snakes and Trees – say the Serpent in the Garden and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, or, the Tree of Life is obvious if you look carefully at a tree . . .

Tree roots are deeply suggestive in this respect and if like us all you are as it were wired to be on the look out for snakes, then the association with trees is clear! And here is a picture form an ancient Scandinavian tradition making it explicit – those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now.




Trees in all imaginations Present Life to us – so the Snakes which are associated with Death are at the roots working away at the source of Life. (For more on this and the Fatherhood of God, come to tonight’s talk on The Lord’s Prayer )

So to our reading from the book of Numbers and we find the Israelites doing what they like to do. Having been rescued from Egypt, brought from the place of death to the place of Life, they are complaining about their rations. (At one point in the narrative they dream of Egypt as a place of cucumbers and melons – forgetting that it was a place of Slavery and death. Perhaps in our 40 days of Lent, we too are a little weary of our rations?)

But this is a complaint against God, against Life itself and so their soul being weary of the bread, weary of Life, they encounter death in the form of the Snakes.

And God saves them through the agency of the Bronze snake. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [Picture]

What is going on here? First we are reminded that Sin leads to death. When we live in contradiction to the deep Goodness of things, perhaps with grumbling rather than gratitude as in the case of the Israelites, things go bad. The 10 Commandments as we heard last week are given ‘that we might Live before God’ As I said then, it’s not arbitrary, its written into the fabric of Creation – murder, commit adultery, dishonour your parents, fail too rest, worship the work of your hands – aim at anything apart from the highest Good, that is the Life of God, and things will not turn out well for you.

As St Paul puts it – the wages of Sin is Death . . . and God is constantly perturbed by Israel – the prophet Ezekiel declares the words of God -‘Oh Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ Sin is perverse, it makes no sense . . . Death itself epitomises this meaninglessness. So come the snakes, death reigns.

But what is it with the bronze snake? Well the snake is dead! Death is revealed for what it is – meaning less and empty! Death itself is symbolised as Dead – and so you live. This is the meaning of the Bronze snake, the destruction of death. And so they live.

Which brings us of course to our Gospel reading – ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up‘, The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – Not Punishment – Consequences which we who were sold in slavery to Sin could not bear


. . . that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. to believe is to identify ourselves with Jesus – to be baptised into that death which he suffers . . .
For what do we see here, but The one who cannot die submits himself to death, so that we who are In Him who otherwise can and will die – Might Live! The only one who cannot die submits himself to death – so we join ourselves to him to make a journey we could not make

‘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.’

God in himself – in his fruit – in His Son – in Love opened the door to Life from Death – all that look upon him . . .

Believing in Jesus is to have the eyes of our heart, to direct the gaze of our heart and allow it to rest upon him – as St Paul said in our epistle last week ‘we proclaim Christ and him crucified’ – as he says elsewhere in the same letter ‘ I determined to know nothing amongst you except Christ and him crucified – the Wisdom of God – and the power of God‘. that we who were dead in Sin, might be raised to newness of Life in him

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,– NOT to punish the world in Jesus for its sinfulness – 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 judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. . . . and still we see the perversity – that we may still choose to direct the gaze of our hearts elsewhere. Yet –  before there was no choice where we looked – now, Light floods in and we may Live in the Light of his Saving Love. Still God calls people to Repentance – to turn from wickedness and Live . . .

Lent is our time for such repentance – preparing our hearts for the Joy of Easter

As we prepare our hearts for Easter – let us gaze unflinchingly upon Christ Crucified – Mystery of mysteries, Joy of Joys, Wonder of Wonders – The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – The one who cannot die submits himself to death

And so may we be ready to sing the Easter Hymn with Joy –
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!

Through the Bible in a Year – May 12

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ch 2-3; Mark 15; Psalm 18:1-30

Following on from yesterday’s comment, we may not therefore abandon the people of God, for a world which behaves better – for the whole world is complicit in the death of Christ. He comes not to save his own, but for the Salvation of the World, thus the World, in the person of Pilate is also involved. All of humanity.

What kind of faith can say with the centurion ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’ To see here in this naked, utterly broken, tortured, dead Jew, the Son of God

Of course we are trained in thinking that somehow Who Jesus is is utterly veiled and hid from our sight at this point. Because it is by the gift of faith that we say the Crucified One is God’s Son, suggests to us that this is hidden . . . and of course it is in a sense – for we are blind. We would rather with many many heretics in the church suggest that the eye of faith sees beyond the mangled flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, to see ‘a deeper truth’, thus revealing our own blindness.

No, the Centurion sees clearly – ‘This is your God’ – the one in whose image we are made.

We flee from this so far and so fast – we sing and speak of Christ glorified and triumphant as if this is not seen clearly at the Cross. As John’s gospel reminds us – Here Is Christ in His Splendour and Glory.

The Cross is not to be reduced to a doctrine of Salvation, or ‘a sign of the love of God’.

No in this dead Jew, nailed to rough timbers of a first century gallows, we see God – Clearly.

It might be well worth asking, how do our churches bear witness to this, for unless we get this, then the Kingdom of God is a closed book to us.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 8

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 14-15; 1 Cor 2-3; Psalm 84-5

Yesterday, we pondered this gospel which is ‘foolishness to the Greeks’ – and our inability to express it in words.

When Paul comes to Corinth, he does not proclaim ‘the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom’ – rather he decided to know nothing coming among them than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Of course, schooled as we are in being taught truths, it may well seem that Paul is undoing his prior determination – but in truth he is reinforcing it. He does not come amongst them primarily knowing ABOUT Christ crucified, but importantly by knowing Christ crucified. This is just one word, yet it is the most profound difference. Paul’s ministry as he continues to reveal is nothing more nor less than the living out of a profoud identification with Christ crucified. Paul in his ministry cannot stand at some distance, as if he were explaining even the most beautiful of works of art to people. The Gospel can only be proclaimed in and through this radical identification with Christ and him crucified, the embodiment of divine love.

Christ cannot be ‘known about’ as a substitute for the Life of Faith – in the end all attempts at apologetic are doomed to failure and those that apparently bear fruit do not. Thus Lesslie Newbiggin’s assertion that the church when it is being truthful to itself is the only hermeneutic of the gospel available to us. This is precisely the point that Paul is making. He has to reveal the gospel in himself and that is only possible in the radical identification with the crucified and risen one.

At the heart of all the problems in the Corinthian church as we shall see is precisely this shying away from such identification.

‘if you would be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me’