Let’s face it. Snakes are scary. A recent Harris poll on what people fear most concluded that 36% of all adults listed snakes. The clinical term that describes this fear is called Ophidiophobia. Not only are they slithery and off-putting, but many species are truly dangerous. I recall as a kid traveling to the desert out in Arizona on a family trip. No one was bitten, but signs were posted everywhere warning hikers and sight-seers about rattle snakes. If you were bitten, and you didn’t have access to proper medical care, consequences are life-threatening. The venom contained by many species of snakes and other animals is deadly.
But there are surprising properties to some strands of venom too. Consider the following story, reported by National Geographic back in February 2013:
Michael decided to go for a swim. He was on vacation with his family in Guerrero, Mexico, and it was hotter than blazes. He grabbed his swimming trunks from where they’d been drying on a chair… and jumped into the pool. Instead of cool relief, a burning pain ripped through the back of his thigh. Tearing off his trunks, he leaped…from the pool, his leg on fire. Behind him a small, ugly, yellow creature was treading water. He scooped it into a Tupperware container, and the caretaker of the house rushed him to the local Red Cross facility, where doctors immediately identified his attacker: a bark scorpion…one of the most venomous species in North America. The fierce pain from a sting is typically followed by what feels like electric shocks racking the body. Occasionally victims die. Luckily for Michael…the bark scorpion is common in the area, and antivenom was readily available. He had an injection and was released a few hours later. In about 30 hours the pain was gone. What happened next could not have been predicted. For eight years Michael had endured…a chronic autoimmune disease of the skeleton, a sort of spinal arthritis. No one knows what triggers it. In the worst cases the spine may fuse, leaving the patient forever stooped and in anguish. “My back hurt every morning, and during bad flare-ups it was so horrible I couldn’t even walk,” he says. But days after the scorpion sting, the pain went away, and now, two years later, he remains essentially pain free and off most of his medications. As a doctor himself, Michael is cautious about overstating the role of the scorpion’s venom in his remission. Still, he says, “if my pain came back, I’d let that scorpion sting me again.”
Incidentally, recent discoveries have been made regarding the medical benefits of venom, even beyond creating anti-venoms for treating bites and stings. Venom in some scorpions as well as some snakes can actually be healing or therapeutic in certain cases, despite the fact that it’s also deadly when transmitted through bite or sting.
What a strange fact of creation: Something as deadly and poisonous as a scorpion or snakebite can also, under the right conditions, be a means of healing too.
Sinfulness, or separation from God, is like venom infecting our souls, and yet that same sinfulness when we see it reflected back to us in the perfect sacrifice of Christ Jesus, becomes a mark of God’s redemption of us.
Ephesians tells us that each one of us was dead due to the trespasses of sin. Each person is bound to a fleshly nature against which we wrestle. But God who is rich in mercy has made us alive in Christ Jesus. By grace, we are saved from the guilt and power of sin. We are raised up by God in Christ and seated in heavenly places, or in other words, we are made strong in faith and righteousness. And all of this is pure gift. It’s not the result of works. Rather, it’s the consequence of God’s immeasurable kindness and grace toward us, which is revealed to us in the saving work of Jesus. Sin destroys. But once we realize that sin destroys and that, by faith, we are healed and set free in Christ Jesus, our understanding of sin marks the beginning of inward transformation.
There are obvious connections to the Old Testament lection for this week (Numbers 21:4-9). As John Wesley once put it: “Know your disease; know your cure.” Sin confessed through God’s love and mercy leads to places of healing.
In Numbers chapter 21, the Israelites have begun to grumble. They’d been wandering in the desert, complaining of not having anything to eat, and in the next breath, complaining that they hated the miserable food. God had grown fed up. So, the text says, God sent poisonous snakes among them, and many of the Israelites were bitten and died. Subsequently, the people realized what they’d done. They came to see their sin, and they pleaded for Moses to go before the Lord and to take the snakes away. But when the Lord God answered through Moses, he didn’t take the snakes away. Rather, he had Moses create a bronze statue of a serpent and then to put it on a pole. From that point on, whenever one of them was bitten by a snake, if that person looked at the bronze serpent, he or she would live.
Pause to think about how strange this story is.
That God would send snakes in the first place to teach his people a lesson about their sin, killing them one by one because of their grumbling—it seems a rather harsh thing to do, when considered in light of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus and the epistles: “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Love your neighbor as well as your enemy.”
Further, it’s strange that the answer to the Israelites prayer for deliverance from the snakes comes in the form of a fiery serpent that was enshrined on a pole. As one commentator observes: “Is this not an idol, and an Egyptian one at that? Didn’t Pharaoh wear a headdress with a spitting cobra on it?” And wouldn’t the Israelites have noticed this?” Add to it the fact that history tells us that the bronze serpent was preserved by Jewish religious posterity. Eventually, it caused problems for later Israelites. Five centuries later, it’s hauled out in the temple at Jerusalem. King Hezekiah eventually destroys it because of the division it would cause: “He [Hezekiah] removed the high places, and broke the images, and cut down the Asherah poles, and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it…” (2 Kings 18:4).
How do responsible interpreters make sense of these questions?
Suffice it to say this. When we read the Scriptures, we must always consider each passage in light of what John Wesley calls the “analogy of faith.” The Scriptures as a whole reveal to us that humanity is broken and deeply flawed. And yet, there is a remedy, when we are empowered by grace to look deeply within our own soul. When Israel comes to recognize how far from God they have drifted (or how poisoned they were inside), God’s people find their healing balm.
It’s true for the church too.
When we see our sinfulness in the crucified Son of God who bears it for us, we are freed from its power, and we are enabled to live as God intended. Ephesians 2:10 says: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” When we acknowledge our brokenness, we start to see that something new is possible—not of our own doing, but of God’s doing within us.
It’s a strange fact of God’s redemptive plan that something as poisonous as sin and alienation from God, when we see it taken up in the perfect sacrifice of God’s suffering servant, leads to liberation from the effects of that very same sin.
Sin confessed through God’s love and mercy leads to places of healing.
Whatever it is that torments—angst or despair or frustration or willful sin—Scripture exhorts us to see it in the light of Christ’s sacrifice. See it in the light of the one who carries it with us and for us, who heals us, and in whose name redemption is found. See it in the one who was lifted up for human transgressions, so that those transgressions, when laid at the feet of the crucified Son of Man, would be rendered into something new, as we are led by the healing grace of God toward salvation. Amen.