By Philo Kinera

Num 21:4-9, Jn 3:14-21

This morning, I will be leading you on a slithery path. At the end of my reflection you may be confused, have doubts, be disturbed, try to make sense of it all, have nightmares and have a hate/love relationship with snakes.

I don’t just dislike snakes, I hate snakes.

Snakes terrify me.  Maybe it is my fear of snakes, my hatred of snakes, that has prevented me from seeing beyond the literal words when it comes to this morning’s gospel text.

I never imagined that a snake could lead me to a new understanding of the words put into the mouth of Jesus, by the gospel story-teller that we call John. It came as a complete surprise to me.

Today’s reading begins: “And 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”. Then John continues on: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”   John 3:16, or as it’s popularly known: THE GOSPEL in a nutshell.

Either you believe or you don’t.

Believe? Believe that God sent his only son to die, to die for you, to die for your sin, to die a horrible death on a cross, so that God our heavenly Father, could be satisfied, and muster up the grace it takes to forgive you and I, wicked sinners that we are. Bow down and believe or face the wrath of the Father. Bow down and believe John 3:16 lest ye be judged. Bow down and believe John 3:16 or face damnation! Bow down and believe.  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

I considered the possibility that the wall of doctrine is just too high to climb and far too wide to go around. Lord, let there be a way through that wall of doctrine. A wall that is made of bricks forged in fiery furnaces of hellfire and damnation.

We will set aside this text and look at another lectionary reading, Numbers 21:4-9.

My slithery foe peeked through the cracks in Genesis and slithered its way into the life of Moses.

In Numbers 21:4-9. the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, bitching and moaning, some of them sniping at Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.” Manna from heaven could not satisfy this bunch of complainers. Poor old Moses, what could he do to please his people? “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”

“And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” Does Moses give the people what they want?

“So, Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole: and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” Healing by way of a serpent; a serpent made of bronze? You’ve got to be kidding me. What am I supposed to do with that image? I’ve been trapped by a serpent! I wanted to wipe out that image, no more slithering serpents.

A snake on a pole, lifted up high, will heal you?

“And 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.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

NO! Take him down off that damned pole! No more hocus-pocus! You evil little snake, where are you slithering off too? Well, I followed the snake and the snake slithered into the life of Hezekiah king of Judah (2 Kings 18).   King Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord.”  But not Hezekiah’s subjects; no not them. They just couldn’t help themselves: their own search for healing brought them to the bronze serpent which Moses had fashioned in the wilderness. No longer able to see beyond the symbol of the bronze serpent to the God to whom the serpent pointed, the people bowed down to the sacred pole. Idolizing their own notions about the Divine Source of all works in the world. They worshipped the sacred pole itself and failed to see the work of the Divine in their midst. So good old Hezekiah cut down the sacred pole. “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offering to it; it was called Nehushtan.” The idol to which the people bowed down was crushed by King Hezekiah so that the people could see beyond their beliefs, beyond what they trusted to heal them, beyond the religious trappings of their day, to the source of their healing, to the Divine reality that lay at the very heart of their existence.

I followed that snake as far as it could take me. In Hezekiah’s day that same bronze serpent had become an end in itself. Judeans were worshipping the snake instead of the God to whom the statue pointed. So, that idol-smashing King Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses made.”

Which made me wonder about the idols we have created out of the doctrines established in the 4th century when the Council of Nicaea adopted a narrative to describe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth which insists that we bow down before a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered for our sins.

The writer of the Gospel of John finds healing in being lifted up on the cross—just as the Israelites found healing in Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. But in 2 Kings, we see how the symbol no longer points beyond itself to God. Instead, it has become a simplistic formula: if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple. But God cannot be reduced to a formula.

(Numbers 21:4-9)
A fourth covenant,
centred on a bronze serpent:
look to it and live.

Not the cure itself,
the raised symbol points beyond
to the source of life.

How often we see
the ‘serpent of bronze’ yet miss
its deeper meaning.
Jeff Shrowder, 2024

Today, for many Christians, John 3:16 has become the same sort of gimmick: read this verse and believe, and you’re saved.” We have the formula. Snake on a pole. Just believe.

But God cannot be reduced to a formula.

Taking John 3:16 out of its biblical context has allowed the fashioners of idolatrous doctrine to narrow our focus onto the death of Jesus and so we have failed to see beyond the cross to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the ways of being in the world that he embodied in the flesh.

By staring up at the image of a crucified Christ to the exclusion of the living Christ we have become trapped within the walls of our own making and we cannot muster the strength to take up our crosses and follow Jesus into a new way of being. The Gospel, the Good News cannot be contained in a nutshell; especially not a nutshell that has been robbed of its flesh.

The writer of the Gospel according to John, whoever he was, lived and died at the end of the first century as a faithful Jew who knew the history of his own people. He told the story of Jesus of Nazareth from within the context of a religious tradition that encouraged people to see beyond the symbols and stories to the God to whom the symbols and stories point.

We cannot let our images, our idols, our doctrines, our speculations, or our scriptures, prevent us from peering through the cracks to see BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also, to the ONE to whom Jesus of Nazareth pointed.

Jack Spong reminds us that “nowhere in the Gospel according to John, does Jesus die for our sins.” The gospel-story teller we call John wrote that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that all who believe in him may have eternal life.

Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that God needed Jesus to die as a blood sacrifice, before God could forgive us. Believing in Jesus is about trusting the experience of God that we encounter in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.   Jesus said: I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is eternal life; eternal that which has no beginning and no end. This is our great gift: life to be lived abundantly. Life with no beginning and no end – a mystery beyond our comprehension. Life to be lived abundantly loving our God who is the Source of this eternal life, and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.

This is the Gospel, the good news: we have been given the gift of eternal life, to be lived abundantly, loving God and loving our neighbours, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.


Francis J. Maloney, The Gospel of John

John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious

John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture

John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love.

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