Facing our Fear: The Bronze Serpent

Lent IV,  March 15, 2015

Numbers  21:4-9    /     John 3:14-21

The Old Testament reading this morning is one of the weirder ones! It is a story from the time of the 40 years wandering in the wilderness. And as month after month and year after year pass, children of Israel begin to complain about the hardships they have to endure. Nothing weird about that, it happens again and again in the Bible. Then, we are told, the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, which bit them and killed them. So Moses sets up a serpent of bronze on a pole, so that whenever anyone is bitten, they only have to look at it, and they are cured.

What’s that about? It feels like the kind of story that is not quite comprehensible to us today. There is clearly some kind of primitive, magical thinking at work that is very foreign to the way we think today. It has echoes of the Staff of Asclepius in Greek mythology, also a snake twined about a pole, which is still used today as a symbol of the medical profession. There seems to have been some kind of transcultural understanding in the ancient world about the role of snakes in healing, but we have lost the key. So we are left with a weird story, one that we cannot fully understand. How can it have any sense for us?

I have been thinking a lot about fear, lately; mainly because there seems to be so much of it around. Our national mood appears to be much more fearful than just a year ago. Certainly international terrorism has a role to play here. It seems to be having its intended effects. A few bloody attacks by a handful of marginalized, desperate, crazy people has brought Western countries into a state of constant fear. In Canada we have suffered a couple of horrible, senseless attacks which cost two fine servicemen their lives. But these were two very disturbed individuals who perpetrated those attacks, marginalized men, struggling with mental illness, driven to violence by a radical jihadist worldview they picked up on the internet. My question: why do we give these twisted individuals so much power over us?

Because that is exactly what terrorism is aiming for, exactly the way the terrorists want it to work: it gives them a power that far outweighs their actual importance.
After all, as I saw on the internet, as a Canadian one is much more likely to be killed by a moose than a terrorist! I think the news media have a lot to answer for here, for the way they sensationalise these tragic stories, obsessively talk about them in a way that blows them out of all proportion. And our politicians especially have to bear a lot of the shameful responsibility for turning us into a nation of fear, stoking fear because they believe they can profit from it politically.

So when did it become the job of leadership to cultivate fear in the people? Because in my understanding of leadership, we should be looking to our leaders for courage. How far we have come from the days of Roosevelt: “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Now sure, Roosevelt was exaggerating. There are quite concrete things we should fear, as there certainly were in his day. But he was nonetheless right in the wisdom of his statement. It is fear itself that will do the most damage to us, fear that is unnecessary and harmful.

I remember at the time of the horrific London underground bombings – which cost 52 innocent lives, far worse than anything we have experienced on Canadian soil – it was said of the Londoners that they were not a people to let something like that faze them. Having endured Hitler’s Blitz, and years of IRA bombings, they weren’t about to let a few crazy people take away their sense of self-respect by an act of wanton murder.

So it is with thoughts like that that I come to today’s weird Old Testament reading. And I wonder: is it possible that part of what this story is about is fear. Perhaps the lesson it has for us is one about facing our fears. After all, the poisonous serpents that attacked the people of Israel were clearly an object of great fear. We can only imagine the kind of panic they must have caused. By making a bronze serpent, and setting it up to be gazed upon, Moses was challenging people to look their fear directly in the eye – and that proved to be a healing experience.

That is surely usually the case when we look our fears in the eye. It’s hard to do, because of course the thing about fear is that we want to avoid it, with every fibre of our being. Whatever the fear may be, whether public issues like terrorism or crime or global warming, or our private fears: the fear of the painful crisis in the family, the fear of the bad diagnosis – we would just rather not look at it directly. And so we do one of two things: either we panic and blow it all out of proportion, as we tend to do with terrorism; or we enter into denial, refusing to look at it at all, hoping it will go away, as we often do with a serious diagnosis, or with global warming.

But the healthy alternative, of course, is to look something in the eye. I think the name for that is courage, because of course real courage is not about not being afraid, but about being able to confront our fears. When we confront our fears – not panicking, which is really just another kind of avoidance – but soberly and realistically, then one of three things will happen.
• Either we will discover that our fear is overblown, and it will begin to dissolve and set us free.
• Or we will discover that there are things we should be fearing, but that there are also things we can do to change these things; there are steps we can take to solve the problem.
• Or, in the worst case, we may discover that the thing we fear is something we can’t change – that frightening diagnosis, for example – in which case we can begin to come to terms with it, and to make the best of a difficult situation.

In any case, we are better off having looked our fear in the face. We are better off because then it is no longer the fear itself that is controlling us. Gazing on that bronze serpent, we are healed, because we have been set free from the tyranny of fear.

Now John’s gospel, of course, connects that bronze serpent with the crucifixion of Christ. Here again, I have to admit, I’ve never been able to do much with the image, mainly because I’ve found the whole serpent on a pole thing so weird. But if the bronze serpent is about confronting our fears, then it all begins to make a lot more sense. Because that is certainly a lot of what the cross of Christ is about.

A criticism that is commonly made of Christianity is that we have this unhealthy obsession with suffering and death, because we centre our devotions on the grotesque figure of a tortured and dying man. A lot of Christians think this way, too. I think that criticism would be right, if the cross of Christ came out of a vacuum. If human life were really a matter of moving along in happy sunshine, until those sick and evil priests make us think about a tortured man, then our attention to the cross really would be a very bad thing.

But of course that is not what life is like, unless we are incredibly privileged. And it certainly wasn’t what life was like for people in Jesus’s day. The cross is not something the church invented. It was a fact of life in Roman times, a very public instrument of state terror that had a very intentional purpose: to keep the population terrified and obedient. We might suppose it was the symbol of people’s greatest fear in that society: that their life was so insignificant and worthless that they could be swept up and destroyed in this callous public fashion, just for speaking up for their rights, or resisting injustice, or even just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When Jesus went to the cross, then, he was living the nightmare of oppressed people everywhere. He faced it with courage, and with trust in God. And through that courage, and through that trust in God that was vindicated in the resurrection, he proved that the violence of the cross did not have the last word. He faced down the greatest fear of the people, and he overcame it; and in so doing, he set the people free from their greatest fear. No longer could it have the same numbing and terrifying effect on them, no longer could it have the power over them of making them consider their lives worthless and cheap. It’s not as though the threat of the cross went away: we know that thousands in the early church had to face martyrdom. But they went to their deaths with courage, laughing, as it were, in the face of death, because it no longer had the power to make their lives worthless. That may very well have been the key to the success of the early church.

And so, like the serpent in the wilderness, we gaze upon the man on the cross. Not to glorify suffering, but to seek healing and freedom, the healing that comes from facing our worst fears. As we move towards Holy Week, towards that yearly contemplation of the cross of Christ, let us do so with courage and joy, because gazing upon this heart-breaking sight, we will find both our courage and our freedom increased.