The Third Wednesday in Advent
December 15, 2010
Text: John 3:9-15
Dear Friends in Christ,
The bronze serpent is perhaps the strangest of the prophetic objects of the Old Testament. Its origin is recorded in Numbers, as we read. It was late in the time in the wilderness, perhaps thirty years or more into the forty years of wandering. The people again grumbled against God. They complained about the food, the manna that God was miraculously providing for them every day. I mean how much can you do with manna. Once you tried manna waffles, manna bagels, and ba-manna bread, what’s left? Ironically, there was no reason to get impatient. They knew that God had decreed that they would wander in the desert for forty years, until all the adults who had left Egypt were dead. One generation would leave Egypt, their children and grandchildren would enter the promised land. So their grumbling about how long it was taking to get to the promised land was a rejection of God’s judgement.
God punished the people by sending poisonous snakes among them. The venom of this particular snake caused a painful, lingering death. The people quickly repented and cried out to God for relief. But instead of taking the snakes away, God did something different. He had Moses make a bronze serpent and hang it up on a pole. Anyone who was bitten who looked upon the bronze serpent was healed and did not die. Looking upon the bronze serpent was an act of faith - a mark of trust in God’s promise. The bronze serpent didn’t save, really at all. It was God acting through this object. God had attached His grace to the bronze serpent.
Afterwards, the bronze serpent was placed in the tabernacle and later the temple. There it remained until the time of Hezekiah who became king in 716 B.C. At that time people were worshiping the bronze serpent as if it were an idol. Hezekiah, a man faithful to Yahweh, had the bronze serpent destroyed, so it could no longer be worshiped.
To a Jew, like Nicodemus, the bronze serpent was one the most familiar objects, though it was no longer present. It was, in this way, like the Ark of the Covenant, it was no longer present in the temple. Yet, all Jews considered it an important mark of God’s grace for His people. When the people in the wilderness looked upon it they were healed of the snake bites.
Consider for a moment that a snake as an image of salvation is odd to say the least. The snake is usually associated with Satan. Most people consider it an unattractive animal to say the least.
Christ uses the image of the bronze serpent to describe His own work. He would be lifted up, as the serpent was lifted up. All who would gaze upon Him, would be saved. This object was pointing to Christ’s crucifixion. It places that event in the very center of our faith. We don’t gaze upon an ugly snake. We gaze upon the bloodied, brutalized corpse of Christ. We gaze upon the bloody corpse and we are saved.
Now we don’t have the corpse here, except in imagery. So our crucifix is only an image of the real thing. But it is an important image for us. The use of the crucifix is a mark of faithfulness to the Word of God. Through the Word, we gaze upon our Savior, covered in blood and gore. It is an ugly image. It is the price of our sins. Christ is made ugly on the cross because our sins are that ugly. Christ understood that this was His purpose. He embraced the cross for us. Many Christians don’t want to see the cross, especially at this time of year. We want a Baby. But that Baby, born of the Virgin, came to be lifted up, so that we would be saved. Many would say, well Christ isn’t still on the cross. But all throughout the balance of Scripture, particularly in the Book of Revelation, Christ is always the slain One. So when we look upon the infant Jesus that we find in the Word, we must never forget the dying Jesus, Who was lifted up like the bronze serpent for our salvation. All who look to this Christ, will indeed have forgiveness and life.
We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ. We are preparing to focus upon the incarnation - that great miracle of the ages, that God become flesh and dwelt among us. But Christ did not come only to have angels sing about Him and shepherds wonder about Him. He came to die for the sins of the world. He came to be the very Lamb of God. For the manger to be of any value to us, it must sit in the shadow of the cross. Only when we understand that this Child will die for us and our salvation, does His birth become important. Christ is not here to promote world peace or peace in our hearts. He came to create peace between God and man by dying for our sins.
The manger is incredibly beautiful. God was laid in a manger. But what we really need to gaze upon is ugly and brutal. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. He must be lifted up and die, so that we would have forgiveness and life. He is in that manger for us. And He is on the cross for us.