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John 3:14-21

Jesus, Like a Serpent, Lifted Up

Richard Rohr says the reason God makes children so cute and adorable is so we’ll take care of them, given that they are such an exasperating drain on the household economy. There’s an article that bounces around the internet now and then, where they tested parents before and after having a baby, and they literally lost IQ points. I looked it up on Snopes. It’s not actually true, but it sure feels true. Caring for something vulnerable is exhausting. It exposes things about our lives that we have trouble seeing. I don’t know how many times I actually did hear the baby crying, but pretended not to. so my wife would get up instead of me. Just the presence of a crying baby in my house exposed my own selfishness and deceitfulness.

There’s the overly competitive camp counselor, wrestling with painful insecurities, who always ends up hurting some kid. Or the sponsor needing the kids to like them, whose longing for acceptance bubbles to the surface. There’s the teacher, whose self-doubt combined with a tiny bit of power, turns them into the Generalissimo Franco of the English department. Or the new parent, beset by irrational fears, who imagines horrible things happening to their children. There’s the child of an authoritarian parent, who lets their own children run wild, hence feeling unloved. Or the child of permissive parents, who says “no” to every request their own children make.

Plop a vulnerable child in the lap of an otherwise confident, coherent, well adjusted adult, and it will expose our every weakness. In this passage we see Jesus in a similar light. There’s something about the presence of Christ that exposes human frailty, much the way children do. It should not be lost on us that Jesus appeared as a vulnerable baby who was just as demanding as any child… and he still is.

A rabbi named Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night”. He didn’t want his Pharisee friends to know about his visit, but he needed to talk. He treats Jesus with respect, and seems genuine with his questions: “You are obviously legit, but I don’t get it. Can you help me understand?”

“You’d have to almost start completely over,” Jesus says, “like from birth.” This goes right over Nicodemus’ head. “You must draw your life from a different source,” Jesus says, “Not the spirit of the age, but the age of the Spirit.”

The Spirit of God is free. It blows where it wants, like the wind. If you refuse to follow, you’ll never get what Christ is doing. You draw life from another source, and that’s your choice. Nicodemus still doesn’t get it.

Jesus zings him a bit. “Are you a teacher of Israel. You should really know this stuff by now. We’ve been teaching and testifying. It’s so obvious, and still y’all won’t receive it. I gotta be honest. It sorta feels like you don’t wanna see it.” So, in this late night jam session with Nicodemus, Jesus takes him back to one of the murmuring stories of the Exodus: a snake-bitten people, lost in the wilderness, and dying by the thousands. Moses put a snake on a flagpole, and those who saw it could be healed.

Of course the snake embodied everything Israel was doing wrong: murmuring, complaining, calling into question the intentions of Moses, and the goodness of God. They spewed poison like the venom of snakes. If you look at an Egyptian Pharaoh’s headdress, you’ll see a cobra at the center of the forehead, the goddess Uraeus, protector of the Nile delta and the Pharaoh’s power. The entire shape of the headdress mimics the cobra’s head.

Snake-bitten and dying some of the people start to wake up. “Ok, we get it. Our murmuring is poisonous, right? Sort of like these snakes? And we keep talking about Pharaoh—the snaky looking guy — gotcha. The snakes are a literal personification of our sinfulness. So, could you maybe, you know, make this stop?”

So, Moses put a copper snake on a pole, and raised it up. And what the people saw was, in essence, the embodiment of their problem, their own sin, the personification of everything that was killing them. It turns out, this was deeply healing for them. I mean, the snakes were a problem, but the real sickness was their own sense of entitlement and grievance, their bitterness and blaming. When they saw it for the venom it truly was, they were healed.

If you’ve been bitten by a snake, you don’t call a lawyer. You call a doctor. In fact the medical seal, to this day, is a serpent on a pole. We don’t need a legal pardon so much as we need a doctor. That’s the switch Nicodemus and his Pharisee pals couldn’t quite seem to make. They wanted a lawyer to defend their righteous case, because they couldn’t see how sick they had become. They wanted a defender, a vindicator, when what they really needed was a healer.

When Nicodemus made his late-night house call, the children of Israel were scattered all over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, wandering in their own wilderness. Nicodemus had given his life to help Israel find their way home. He came to Jesus in earnest, wanting to understand his project.

“There’s a new wind blowing,” Jesus says, “the same wind that blew over the waters in the beginning. You can’t see it, harness or control it, so you don’t want any part in it. You’re going to have to be born again from above to see the way forward.”

Then comes one of the most quoted texts in history, John 3:16. Strangely, the verse almost everyone knows by heart is nearly universally misunderstood. When it says “God so loved the world,” the word “so” is houtō. It doesn’t mean “so” as in soooo very much. It means “so” as: in a particular manner. God poured God’s own self into human flesh in order to be lifted up: not for judgment, wrath, vengeance, or to lay waste to the enemies of Israel, not because God really, really, really loves the world. Rather, because God’s love exposes our sickness and heals it at the same time.

The first kenotic move was incarnation. The formless God takes on flesh and becomes vulnerable in life. The second kenotic move was crucifixion. The God who cannot die, is killed, healing us in death.

Jesus, like a serpent, is lifted up for the healing of the nations, not to condemn. “Those who do not believe,” he says, “are condemned already.” Translation: God is not sending snakes to bite you and kill us. We are biting and killing ourselves, and getting sicker by the day. Jesus lifted up, helps us see it.

That Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark is deeply symbolic of the darkness that plagues humanity to this day. He’s in the dark, as in, he can’t see what is killing him. He’s in the dark as in, he’s feeling vulnerable to all that goes bump in the night. He’s in the dark as in, he’s trying so hard to hide from the others, to escape his own exposure, to avoid being found out.

The problem is that, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the light. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The irony is so rich. Nicodemus comes to the light of the world, under cover of darkness. I feel you Nick.

And of course, we’ve hidden these things — from each other, from ourselves, from God — for a reason. The vulnerability makes us crazy. Let’s just keep the lights off, okay? But, Jesus is the light. This is why I think the pinnacle isn’t John 3:16, but 19–21.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When Jesus, like a serpent, is lifted up?, there will be no more hiding in the dark. Those who live truly — literally, it says the one who does truth — will discover that truth is not something you can write down or tell someone about under cover of darkness. Truth is a way of being that heals us, that makes us true, truly human as human was intended to be.

It’s actually pretty easy to know true things. But we would chase a million lies and conspiracy theories to avoid the pain of becoming the kind of person who does truth, because this requires the vulnerability of exposure. That’s why we love the darkness.

Nevertheless, Jesus is lifted up, the light shines in the darkness, and we scurry into the shadows. Jesus, like a serpent, was lifted up and — if we are born from above — what we see is our own sinfulness and brokenness wrapped in the loving arms of a God who says, “Father, forgive them.”

For those who have the courage to look upon this terrible beautiful sight, they will find healing.