For the last thirty years I have waited for someone to ask me one of those “stump the padre” questions—that has to do with the first reading this morning. For in the Ten Commandments the children of Israel are clearly told that “they should not make any graven image, nor any idol, whether in the form of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them for I am the Lord your God.”
And, if you remember the Old Testament at all, you will recall that when Moses came down the mountain bearing the tablets of the Ten Commandments that he found Aaron and the people of Israel busily worshipping a golden calf; for they thought that Moses had perished on the mountain. You remember the story? In anger, Moses smashed the tablets, and punished the people by melting the golden calf, beating the residue into dust and then making them drink the gold dust as a lasting reminder to them about worshipping a graven image.
But then, in short order we come to this reading from Numbers 21. In this story the people are being punished for doing what human nature does best—grumbling. It says that God sent poisonous serpents among them, and I have always wondered about this choice of Biblical imagery because, after all, the cumulative effect of grumbling is to poison relationships and to poison the effectiveness of the community. But then, according to our reading, God told Moses to make serpent made in bronze, and to set it upon a pole so that everyone who looked upon it should live, not die. Which sounds fairly much like a graven image to me. This image was called the Nehushtan which apparently survived as an object of worship until the reign of King Hezekiah, some 600 years later. In the reforms of Hezekiah, the image of the Nehushtan was destroyed in obedience to the Law of the Ten Commandments.
Of course, in the ancient world, the image of a snake or snakes upon a pole was considered a sign of healing. Dating back to perhaps 1200 BC in the tradition of Greek history a physician named Asclepius came to be venerated as a master of the healing art, and for reasons too disgusting for a Sunday Morning sermon, but that you can readily read on the internet, the sign of his healing art became that of a fiery serpent specifically Dracunculus medinensis upon a pole. And, in other portions of the early world, where healing was associated with Hermes or Mercury, the symbol of healing was not the Asclepius, but the Caduceus—a similar symbol, but featuring two snakes entwined around a winged pole, such as one may see prominently over the old emergency entrance into Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Hospital.
Interesting as this all may be, we did not come this morning to enjoy a lesson in ancient history. What is significant for us is that the cross of Jesus is for us the sign of healing. The cross of Jesus is the Asclepius, the Caduceus, the sign of God’s healing presence in the world. In the book the Wisdom of Solomon, the raising up of the serpent is called the symbol of salvation in Wisdom 16.6f.
But now, primarily a feature of John’s Gospel, this metaphor of Jesus’ healing power is tied to his sacred passion and death on the cross. In John, chapter 12:
“I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” And in today’s Gospel the healing power of Jesus is again tied to the image of the cross: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
John drives home to us this point: the cross of Jesus is the medicine of the world. You can choose to be consumed by the parasitical fiery serpent; which John regards as a sign for all that detracts us from the promise of eternal life; or you can choose to look to Jesus that you might not perish but have eternal life.