Snakes on a Pole
A phase in one of the Avett Brothers' songs says: "Dumbed down and numbed by time and age." I'm feeling that this week, looking back three years at what I wrote for you. I like this piece, but for it to mean much, you should first read the texts for this Sunday here.
At the time, I called this, "I Don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means," but now I'm heading more in the direction of "Snakes on a Pole." Drive safe in the storm, all. See you Sunday!
Snakes on a Pole
Where I come from, old wood lobster traps used to litter the ground by the thousands. You may remember the type, with the rounded tops and flat bottoms. After a fashion, wood lobster traps were replaced, like wood coat hangers, by wire, which lasted longer in the salt and didn’t break so easily when the traps were hauled on board the boat. What to do with the wood traps, then? People tripped over them and cursed, though, being a practical, and often cold people, many traps were busted up for kindling in the wood stove.
But then, one day, so the story goes at the Sebasco wharf, Clarence Pye needed a new coffee table, and nobody in the family was working for CMP at the time and couldn’t get him one of those empty wood spools that make wicked decent coffee tables. Clarence and his brother, Charlie, were on their way uptown when they happened to trip over one of those old wooden lobster traps in the yard and it flipped up and they saw that it had a flat bottom. They built a cradle for the top, turned the trap over, put an old piece of glass on the bottom, which was now the top, and a legend was born. After a fashion, people began to make the old, rounded wood lobster traps again just so they could turn them over and make coffee tables out of them. They became a big hit; tourists loved them.
Has there ever been anything in your life, maybe something you keep from days gone by, from your desert experiences, your wandering in the wilderness, to remind you you aren’t there anymore? Something that once got you through a tough time? (I have this spoon, but that's another story). It’s nice to get through those times, but if those things we used to get through become objects of worship themselves - if they just get in the way of where you are now, and where God might be leading you, if you are tripping over them and cursing - maybe it’s time to turn them over and find a new use for them, or rid yourself of them altogether.
The noted theologian Kenny Rogers wrote: “every gambler knows that the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.” After the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile, around 538 BCE, they told the story of how one good king, Hezekiah, tried to reform the worship of Yahweh, including removing the bronze pole with a snake on it. Once upon a time, that pole had been an instrument of God’s healing power, but now it was turning into an idol; a substitute for the God they were supposed to be worshipping. Something God had once used to save them was now something they were using to condemn them.
Fast forward 500 years and we find Jesus turning the story of the snake on a pole over again, changing it back from being a story of condemnation to a story of salvation. As Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. End quote. What happens next is editorial, including John 3:16. For all of those folks out there who think it is important to write “John 3:16” on a bed sheet or a piece of cardboard and hold it up behind home plate, or in the end zone, the next verse is just as valid as that: “God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” If you ever see someone holding up “John 3:17” at a ball game, that would be me. But Jesus and Clarence Pye and Kenny Rogers remind us we have a choice to turn over those old ways of death that aren’t working for us anymore, that new life might be discovered in them.
Paul says the same. Once, Paul wrote, we were dead through the trespasses and sins in which we lived. All of us lived that way, by nature children of wrath. Then God, rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us, even though we were dead through our separation from God through our sins, made us alive together with Christ, raising us up with him.
John 3:16, it seems to me, is like that snake on a pole: something God had once used to save us is now, through our worship of the text itself - our bibliolatry - something we are using to condemn ourselves. Marcus Borg, in “Speaking Christian,” writes, of this passage: “Note how one understanding of this verse sounds the main themes of heaven and hell Christianity: we are saved - we get to heaven - by believing that Jesus is the only son of God, who died for our sins. And that God’s love is conditional - “for God so loved the world” - but only those who believe in Jesus will be saved. The rest will be perish; they will be condemned to hell forever.”
As the noted theologian Inigo Montoya might have said to our heaven and hell brothers and sisters, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Borg reminds us that, for John, and in the New Testament generally, “the world” is both the divinely created world and the powers of this world that rejected and killed Jesus: “this world” Paul speaks of today. God loves the whole world, enough so that God was willing to give his only son; to become flesh and dwell among us. The idea of a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins was still 1000 years or more away, developed by Anselm of Canterbury, and is not in the New Testament. Believing isn’t believing in this or that proposition about Jesus - that turns faith into a work, and Paul reminds us today that faith itself is a gift of God, not a work. Believing Jesus is about beloving Jesus, Borg contends, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to him. This is the way into new life, even eternal life, which isn’t something that only happens in the future, it is the realm of God we are called to participate in now, and model. Thus, Borg concludes, “In John, this verse is not about believing a set of statements about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later. It is about beloving Jesus and beloving God known in Jesus, in the incarnation, and entering into the life of the age to come now.
Seeing old things in a new light is often part of the path to salvation. Folks, we have a choice in these days in the church - in this church - as well as in our personal lives - to remove what isn’t working for us anymore and to keep what is still working for us, whatever is helping us into the way of Jesus, the way of life with God now; and to use old things in new ways, lest those old things themselves become objects of worship, like Nehushtan, the snake on a pole. For who knows? Sometimes, tripping over something and turning it upside down winds up bringing a new purpose and a new life. The person Jesus is speaking with was Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sent to check Jesus out. Later, he defends Jesus before the ruling council of Israel. Later still, he does see Jesus lifted up, for it is Nicodemus (and Joseph of Arimathea) who take Jesus down from the cross. Nicodemus is the one who brings the extravagant amount of aloe and myrrh to embalm Jesus’s body, fulfilling John’s own stated reason for writing the Gospel, that through believing we may have life in Christ’s name. We are what God has made us to be, a new creation in Christ, alive together in him. Amen.