What Has A Snake Got To Do With It?

What Has A Snake Got To Do With It
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
15th Sept 2013

1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 24

Christ the Power and Wisdom of God

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

John 3: 13 – 17

13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘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.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

***

Snakes don’t have good press in the Scriptures. In the Garden of Eden Satan appears in the form of a snake, and we know the consequences of that little foray: the Fall of humankind into sin and therefore separation from God.

In the Wilderness, while God is leading his people from Egypt to the Promised Land, God sends poisonous snakes to punish the Israelites when they began to grumble about God removing them from Egypt (the land of sin). The trip to God’s salvation territory wasn’t looking so rosy anymore and they didn’t like the discomforts involved in the changes they were undergoing.

But God does an interesting thing. He takes the very image of what was confronting the people: a snake, and has Moses cast one in bronze and set it up on a pole. When the people looked at it they were healed.

Jesus makes reference to this event in our Gospel reading. He says to Nicodemus, to whom he is speaking at the time, 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Whoever believes in him.

Belief is important. The writer to the Hebrews tells us in Chapter 11 that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Paul says in Romans 14 “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Believing is a big deal.

God gives us more than a hint about the importance of belief. In Verse 15 of our reading Jesus says, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

In verse 16 (i.e. straight after these words) he says this 16 ‘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.

But back to the snake. The first thing the snake did in the Garden of Eden was to undermine belief by casting doubt on God’s word. God had told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because if they did they would die. The snake’s first words to Eve were (Genesis 3: 1), ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

He begins to cast doubt; to undermine belief.

In explaining why the Israelites could not enter the Promised Land, the writer tells us inHebrews 3 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

I think we’ve established that belief is important.

There is much talk today, and not without some justification, about the fact that people are so ignorant of God that it doesn’t help to try and get them to believe before they can belong to the church and learn how to behave i.e. how to live as Christians. Believing, belonging and behaving – that was what most us grew up thinking was the process. A change of heart, a change of association and a change in our behaviour – that it was meant to happen in that order.

Well, I think I agree that it’s simplistic to think that there is any kind of formula we should follow. The important thing is that the 3 bases need to be covered.

Some have said we need to make the church welcoming so that people feel they belong first. Then comes a growing belief and subsequent change in behaviour.

The problem with that is it’s just another formula. Millennials (those born between the early 1980’s and early 2000’s don’t buy into that because before anything they look for authenticity: and largely that comes from what you believe. In other words, the reason you belong is important.

Your belief gives you authenticity. It is the reason you bother both to belong and behave in a certain way. The fact that you are loving and welcoming and interesting lends credence to your beliefs. The fact that your behaviour is commensurate with your beliefs gives credence to your beliefs – gives people the sense that both you and they are authentic.

It seems that our beliefs play a central role.

But belief in what exactly? And if we bother to think about things (and hopefully we do) we’ll find that we’re not alone in trying to puzzle this out. You see our reading is the second part of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus who is nonplussed by Jesus’ words. Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being ‘born again from above’ as he puts it. In other words our encounter with God, if we are to call ourselves Christ-followers, needs to be profound. So profound should its effect upon us be that it has the impact of a complete change of identity – thus born anew.

Some people have attached a methodology to being born again but however you understand it, the important thing is to be open to God and to allow him to so influence every aspect of you that you virtually acquire a new identity – an identity in Christ.

Jesus links this experience to his crucifixion.

Is this then what we are to believe in – the crucifixion? Well, Jesus says, as we read earlier, 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life –so it sounds like we are to believe in Jesus and what he achieved on the cross.

Only the sinless Son of God could die for us – anyone with sin would only have been dying for their own sin.

In our reading from the Epistle (the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth) we read in the second part of Vs. 21 God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

So what is this proclamation? What does Paul proclaim to the Corinthians?

Well, he tells us in the next verse.  22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

Christ crucified is what is proclaimed and those who believe in what Christ is achieving when crucified, are saved. It’s not by wisdom which one could interpret as self-effort.

Gordon Fee explains the words of Paul this way, “So you think the gospel is a form of wisdom? How foolish can you get? Look at its message; it is based on the story of a crucified Messiah. Who in the name of wisdom would have dreamt that up? Only God is so wise as to be that foolish

Furthermore, look at its recipients. Yourselves! Who in the name of wisdom would have chosen you to be the new people of God?

Finally, remember my own preaching. Who in the name of wisdom would have come in such weakness? Yet look at its results.”

As my mother would put it, our faith is not all beer and skittles. It cost God dearly to win our salvation. There is no such thing as cheap grace.

The Israelites were confronted in the wilderness with poisonous snakes. They were in a process of transformation; being taken out of Egypt (the land of sin) and being led to God’s Promised Land where they were to belong and behave (to live) according to God’s ways. They were confronted because they rebelled against the process.

Now here’s the wisdom of God: who would have taken the very thing that confronted them – a snake – cast it in bronze and have them look to it for their healing from the snakebite? Only God.

Who would have taken his own Son who burst into the midst of humankind with all the effrontery of God in human form, confronting the comfortable ways people were living, and had him killed on a cross for the salvation of humankind? Only God.

And God says, to us today: I am in the process of transforming you. Don’t rebel as the Israelites did. I love you too much to leave you as you are. Look to my crucified Son and believe.

As you do that, the work of the cross will begin to transform you and as you yield to the process, you will gain a completely new identity in Christ. You will, in effect, be born anew with your old identity gone.

Yes, God cursed the snake after Adam and Eve sinned, but that is exactly the point. Paul tells the Galatians:  13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— 14in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles,

So Jesus became a curse for us, and as we embrace the fact that

  • that was necessary (and we are therefore deeply remorseful for the fact that our sin sent God to the cross)
  • that the effect of Jesus’ crucifixion is to deal with our sin problem – that believing in him is the sign of faith God is looking for (it is embracing the gospel the good news)
  • that the cross still has much work to do in putting to death that side of us that resists the transformation God wants to work in each of us

… then

  • Jesus would not have died in vain
  • we would have an absolute assurance of salvation and identity in Christ
  • we would have our sense of significance revolutionised with an unerring knowledge of our belonging in the Body of Christ the church
  • we would sense the progress of the work of the Spirit in our lives as he shapes us into the image of Christ

We would grow in believing, belonging and behaving – and more than anything know the love of God: deep down, powerful and all-embracing.

Jesus became that snake on the pole for you.

  • You can’t become anything for him by your own effort – that is human wisdom.
  • You can’t expect him to magically transform you without your believing faith – that is the kind of magical sign that treats God as our servant

Embrace the cross today. It may look like it’s draped with a snake to you. It is. It is the Son of God who loves you and gave his life for you.

And here’s the thing: Jesus has risen from the dead, defeating sin and death, but we still access him and his resurrection power by way of the cross. It is the paradoxical vehicle for the grace of God for those who believe.

God bless you as you do so

AMEN

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