In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John (3:13-17), Our Lord Jesus Christ refers to an amazing story in the Old Testament Scriptures, in the book of Numbers chapter 21. Starting at verse 4 we read:
“4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way.5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronzec serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” Num 21: 4-9
The people complained against God and we see that according to Scripture it is considered dangerous and sinful to complain, to speak against God and against those whom God has placed over us in our lives. Certainly this applies directly to the clergy but also can be understood as applying to others whom God has placed over us such as parents and teachers, coaches, instructors etc.
When the people spoke against God and His servant Moses we are told that God sends fiery serpents among the people as a form of correction. It can also be understood that God simply removed His protection from the people in order to teach them not to blaspheme and grumble against Him. When we speak about God or address God directly, we are reminded that we must do so carefully, even within our hearts and minds. God is due reverence, thanksgiving, awe and holy fear. God is not your maid or your genie to grant all of your wishes. God is also not Burger King and you can’t have it your way!
However God did not abandon the people who repented and turned back to Him. Those who confessed their sins and humbled themselves before God’s servant Moses were given mercy. God allowed the serpents to come and He also heard the cries of the people for help. He had an answer and it defied logic, reason, science or anything that one might expect. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten by the serpents running through the camp, the person who was bit was to look to the bronze serpent and they would not die but live.
The Lord tells us that He Himself became as the bronze serpent. We can say that the bronze serpent was a prefigurement and foreshadowing of Christ Himself. What the bronze serpent was able to do for the physical health of the people in the wilderness, Christ would do for the spiritual health and salvation of the whole world, especially for those who looked to Him with faith, as the crucified Lord. In today’s gospel reading we are reminded by our Lord Jesus Christ that God has loved, does love and will continue to love the world and His people who are in the world. Those who seek Him, and love Him and serve Him in faith.
We are like the people in the wilderness. Sometimes we grumble and complain. Sometimes we lack gratitude to God for all of His generous blessings. Sometimes we fall into sins. At times our falling into sin can bring us to the point of despair. We think that we can’t recover, that everything will be lost, that we can never become holy, that we can never draw closer to Christ. Yet we are reminded that we already have the antidote, we already have the vaccine. This vaccine is greater than any that has ever been made in the history of the world. When you take any vaccine it cannot prevent death. Yet Christ offers us exactly that. He offers us the ability to transcend death because He has died for us. If we have faith in Christ and are faithful to Christ, we will be saved and restored to life in, through and with Jesus Christ. Yes we can be bitten by the spiritual snakes. Yes we can be struck by the demons and feel that we are mortally wounded due to our sins and failings, but Christ reminds us that the antidote is close at hand and this is offered freely to every man, woman and child. He offers His life for our life. St. John Chrysostom says “These two things, more than anything else, declare his unspeakable love: that he both suffered for his enemies and, having died for his enemies, he freely gave them by baptism the entire forgiveness of all of their sins.”
St. Gregory the Theologian writes “Let us praise the Son first of all, venerating the blood that expiated (wiped away) our sins. He lost nothing of his divinity when he saved me, when like a good physician he stooped to my festering wounds. He was a mortal man, but he was also God. He was of the race of David but Adam’s creator. He who has no body clothed himself with flesh. He had a mother who, nonetheless, was a virgin. He who is without bounds bound himself with the cords of our humanity. He was victim and high priest—yet he was God. He offered up his blood and cleansed the whole world. He was lifted up on the cross, but it was sin that was nailed to it. He became as one among the dead, but he rose from the dead, raising to life also many who had died before him.”
Let us never forget that God is love and that this love was proven for us, poured out for us upon the cross. God sees our condition. He knows our state. And He has provided the medicine for our healing. May we be like those Israelites in the wilderness who quickly looked to the image of the bronze serpent to save their lives. Let us also look to the image of our Lord crucified, that we might find health, joy and life even unto everlasting. AMEN