And so, the worm turns . . .

If you are one of those people who always liked to ask the question “why” as a child, then today’s first lesson should give you plenty of reasons to ask that question.

Why, when God liberated the people from slavery in Egypt and provided for them did they complain?

Why would God, if he were a loving God, send poisonous serpents among the people and allow them to be bitten?

Why, when the 10 commandments clearly tell us that we should not make graven images is Moses told to make a representation of the fiery serpent and set it on a pole so that those who are bitten might look upon it in what sounds like an act of worship, that they might live?

What does this have to do with the Gospel in the allusion that the Lord Jesus makes to being lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness as a sign of life and healing?

Dracunculus medinesis is the technical medical name for what is also known as the Guinea worm. While it is unknown in civilized countries, there are still some places in the world in which this nasty creature exists. It is a parasite that affects chiefly dogs and humans. You contract this creature by drinking or bathing with an open sore in contaminated water. It takes about a year for the creature to incubate in the human system. And when it has reached maturity, the creature burrows through the subcutaneous layers of the body, eventually making its way out, often through the foot. People who have experienced Dracunculus medinesis universally report that the sensation of pain is like being on fire. To seek relief, most commonly people put the affected area into cool water, which has the effect of starting the life cycle of the Guinea worm all over again.

In the ancient world, anyone could be susceptible to this unpleasant malady because all it took was contact with water that had been contaminated with the eggs. Rich, poor, or anywhere in between, it did not matter. It was an equal opportunity affliction. Dating from 1200 BC a Greek physician Asclepius began treating patients by placing the one end of the snake on a stick and allowing it to curl up on the stick until it was out of the patient, which is why the symbol healing in the medical arts to this day is a snake or twin snakes curled up around a pole.

So, when Jesus says “I if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me,” He is making a statement of a profound nature. Contemplate for a moment just how profound this statement is: Jesus is saying, “I am the cure that draws the poison, the parasite, out of all mankind.”

And that poison is what is called sin. Sin is that thing that dwells within and causes just as much pain as the worm, the fiery snake. The cross is the pole by which the wound is healed. This is a powerful image of the gift of salvation and healing. And when we look at the cross, if the only thing we can think about is guilt about the suffering of our Lord, we are essentially caught in our own narcissism about the cross; when we look at the cross and see the promise of healing, we have a more exulted understanding of why Jesus suffered and died for us.

And understanding that He died for us that we might be healed is quite different from what is generally taught—that Jesus died for my sins as a punishment for me. He may have died for my sins, but not just mine and yours; his sacrificial death is the treatment for all humankind.

The other thing that this saying, “I if I be lifted up will draw all unto me,” calls to mind is that we have a choice. We can choose to drink from the infected water or we can choose to drink from the well of living water, who is Christ our Lord and savior. When we drink from the adulterated well, we are taking into ourselves the fiery serpent and what comes out is the manifestation of the fiery serpent. When we come to the fountain of living water, we are drinking of grace and it should indeed be that grace flows like a river from us.

Come to Him that you may know that grace. Come to him that you may indeed be healed.

Faithfully,

Canon Greg+

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About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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