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Final voyage: The ferry left Prince Rupert on March 21, 2006, at 8 p.m. with 101 passengers and crew on an overnight voyage to Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island. The ship collided with Gil Island at approximately 12:22 a.m. and sank. Survivors were taken to either Hartley Bay, a nearby First Nations village, or the coast guard ship Sir Wilfred Laurier. (Canadian Press - Huffpost British Columbia)
The Serpent

Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 107

John 3:14-21

March 15, 2015

Lent 4 Year B

This morning we are back to one of those neglected books in the Bible, back to the book of Numbers. Back to the story of the Exodus and the wandering of the people in the wilderness. As the story from scripture unfolds - again the serpent is at odds with God.

This morning the serpents come into the story as a consequence of the Israelites’ lack of trust and faith in the healing power available to them.

It was not the first time. It was not the last time. But as Moses took the people of Israel down from Mount Hor and they set off by the way of the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom - these people began to murmur, complain, whine, bellyache, gripe and grumble. Why did we ever leave Egypt? There is no food, no wine, no water, too much sand, too much walking, too hot and no television.

They wished they were somewhere else, anywhere else would be fine. As you might expect, Moses and God got tired of all that murmuring, and self-pity. Then God sent fiery serpents among the people and when a serpent bit someone, that person died. God said
“You Israelites think you are so smart, fine then, go ahead without my care, protection and guidance. Just remember; there are a lot of serpents out there. You better learn to take care of yourselves when they bite you.”

After a while the people came back to Moses and God tells Moses to put the bronze image of a serpent up in the middle of the camp, placed high on a pole so that everyone might see it. Then Moses is to tell all the people that when they are bitten by the snake, if they will look at the bronze serpent, they will not die. But if they do not want to look at the bronze serpent they will die.

We will come back to this story but first just a bit of history regarding the serpent. There were pages and pages of information, and I have attempted to keep it short and at the same time tell you enough so that you understand why this serpent is so relevant to both the Old Testament, and the New Testament.

It was a general belief in the ancient world that snakes don’t die of old age like other animals, but periodically shed their skins and emerge renewed, or they are reborn into another life. Greeks called the snake’s cast off skin, “old age.”

A basic serpent-myth said that the dual Moon-goddess of life and death made the first man. Her bright side suggested making him immortal like a snake, able to shed his skin, but her dark side insisted that he should die and be buried in the earth. Eternal life and serpent-hood are still equated in the Italian expression “being older than a serpent.”

The ageless serpent was originally identified with the Great Goddess herself. The ancient Aegean world worshipped primarily women and serpents. Men didn’t participate in religious ceremonies until late in the Bronze Age, when Cretan kings were allowed to become priests of the bull-god.
Even then, the priest’s role was subordinate to that of the priestess, until the priest himself took the title of serpent. The word for priest among ancient
Akkadian peoples literally meant “snake-charmer.”

From ancient time the snake was connected with ageing, with life and with death. The serpent was part of the mythological story that gave meaning to life. And this serpent worship hung on - the serpent was worshipped in Palestine long before
Yahweh became popular. Early Hebrews adopted the serpent-god because their contemporaries revered this belief system. At this time, the serpent was worshipped in combination with the moon goddess.

Early on, the Bible shows that Yahweh was a hostile rival of the serpent
Leviathan. These two gods battle it out and they engage in a final battle in the book of Revelation at doomsday. (Revelation 12) Biblically that is supposed to be the end of the serpent.

But before that the serpent becomes
Nehustan, described as the god of Moses. Nehustan, was once the supreme ruler of heaven until he was cast down to the underworld by a rival. Nehushtan was the same god whose image Moses made : a fiery serpent according to Numbers 21:8. The Israelites worshipped him until the reign of Hezekiah, when the new priesthood cut down the groves and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made.

Yet serpent worship continued in Israel. I like this version of the story:
Seraph, is the Hebrew word for the divine fiery spirit. The seraphim were originally serpent-spirits, and were copied by Moses and the tradition that followed his teaching. This continued until the time of Jesus, and many Gnostic traditions identified the serpent with Jesus, and many held that the serpent was the father of Jesus.

So, in many ways this serpent worship, or serpent myth, this belief system hovered throughout religious history. Hence, the first verses from the John passage:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of man be lifted up. That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus had to have all of the qualities that would make him the Messiah.

So John gives him the connection back to Moses and the serpent. If Jesus had to be lifted up as the serpent to be a viable Messiah- so be it.
Back to the story.

When we read the Numbers passage we are left with the idea that this story is about healing. God says, take care of yourself when the snake bites, and the snakes are going to bite there is no preventing it. God is saying that we have to risk and give the snake a good long look- it is when we pull out all the stops that we find what we are looking for. If we don’t look at the serpent, we will die. Not a physical death but a spiritual death.

As somebody said this week, there are no shortcuts. In the spiritual journey there are no shortcuts to spiritual wholeness. There is no way to escape being bitten and in turn, facing the serpent. If we are to know God and know our spiritual selves at a deep meaningful level, then we live our lives getting bit by the serpent. But in turn, the serpent is what makes it all worthwhile because it is the catalyst that moves us through life, it moves us along to live according to God’s hopes and dreams for a good life.

What does that good life look like?

It will look different for each one of us.

I remember the Thursday that I took the
Queen of the North from Skidegate Landing to Prince Rupert, a seven hour ferry ride. When I arrived at my meeting the next morning the first news I heard was that during the night the Queen of the North had gone down just outside of Hartley Bay. It was unbelievable that it was just gone. That event played havoc with the minds of the people on the island. The ship was about our lives. It brought us our food, it took us away when we needed to be away, and it offered us safe passage to the mainland. When it went down, all of that changed. People lost their vehicles, their possessions, but most of all they lost their faith in what they believed was secure and certain.

That experience was the snake bite, we had to look at the serpent if we wanted to live. We had to find ways to heal from what affected our lives in so many different ways.

All of us at one time or another experience the snake bites, and we are hurt, we can’t imagine that we will ever be okay again. We are angry with what has happened because the experience has made our lives more difficult. The people in the reading, blamed God for their experience and most of us are happier, when we can blame others for what’s happening around us, but eventually, most of us have to take responsibility for our own lives.

In the story from Numbers, God is calling them to suffer through their experience and to find ways to heal their wounded spirits and move on.

This is a good time to talk about suffering. God does not call us to be involved in needless suffering. If we are suffering we have to find away through that, so that our spirits are whole and intact. Then we can be in relationship with others, and we can empower them to live whole, fulfilling lives. If we can’t do that for ourselves, then we can’t offer it to others.

Suffering has to lead to a life that enables us to be free. We don’t necessarily learn good things from suffering. The battered woman doesn’t learn from her battering she learns from her power to look at the serpent and be healed. She learns from her journey to freedom, she learns from what empowers her to have a free and whole life. Needless suffering that goes nowhere is just what it implies - it is useless.

The journey out is never easy. It is hard. Ask those people in the desert who have lost their sense of place and they have no food, no water, no wine, no TV, no academy award movies to watch - they knew, Moses knew, God knew, it was hard. But, they kept up the journey, they looked up at that serpent on the pole and they lived!

We will be bit by the snake, there is no way around that.

Might we always have the courage to heal and to be made whole. Might we always know goodness, and grace, and the presence of the spirit and of the serpent - today the serpent is being offered to us as a metaphor to seek wholeness, and in this process we are given the opportunity to explore numerous options that might lead to wholeness.
Sharon Ferguson-Hood