As we all continue through our Lenten journeys this year, a story from Numbers 21 reminds me of how uncomfortable it can be to deal with the poison of sin in our veins. In this passage (Num.21:4-9) the people are grumbling against God and against Moses, bringing a profoundly deep rejection before the Lord and calling the perfect manna from heaven “worthless food.” So the Lord sends venomous snakes into the camp that start biting the people and some of them start dying. The people rapidly get the point and repent and ask Moses to intercede for them to ask God to remove the snakes. Moses prays, and God does something a little strange. He doesn’t take them away. He tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake, put it on a pole high in the middle of the camp, and when anyone gets bitten they can look at it and live. What an odd thing, they just have to look at it, and they’ll be immediately healed.
Why would God make them look at a depiction of the very thing that was afflicting them in order to get better? Why not just take the snakes away? Because our process of being healed has to involve honesty about what it was that hurt us. The people had to look repeatedly at the source of their affliction, a snake, the image of sin entering the world and the enemy of humanity, in order for God to remove the poison of death. It was such a small action required on their part, they just had to look up.
When we are in the midst of our afflictions, and realizing the poison of sin that courses through our veins, Jesus only asks us to look up. To name the things within us and in our world that bring death and destruction, and to look at the cross for our healing. In John 3:14-15, right before our iconic John 3:16, Jesus says this:
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Jesus says our process now is the same as it was for the people in the wilderness. Just as that particular group of Israelites had separated themselves from God and had brought violence and death into their community, so the sin of all of humanity has rejected God and we are the perpetrators and recipients of violence and death in our world. And just as the serpent was raised up for their healing, this object and force that was outside of themselves, so Christ was nailed to the cross to do what we cannot do for ourselves. To epitomize before God everything that is hateful and unrighteous, and to absorb the punishment that ought to be falling on us. Then as now, the problem lies within us, and the solution lies outside of us in the person of the crucified Christ.
Like the serpents remaining in the camp, sin is still within us and around us. It hasn’t yet been completely removed, although we know that one day it will be gone for good. But for now, when we feel the pangs of death in us, we need to face them and name them for what they are, so that Christ can encompass them and heal the wounds that they have caused.
I grew up the youngest of three children, and during my senior year in college my middle brother was killed suddenly at the age of 24 while serving in Iraq. That was by far the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced and had to deal with, and the next two years in particular were full of intense suffering. The way I experienced my relationship with God at the time was to feel that He was very far from me, and therefore must have abandoned me. I couldn’t have articulated it this way at that point, but I essentially thought that God was displeased with me somehow and that if I tried harder I could earn back His favor and He would comfort me in my grief and love me again. And then I would feel like a failure because I kept being a mess, and I would be haunted by the fear that I would always feel this way and it would never get better.
(My brother Sgt. Jesse Strong)
Around that time I started going to a little Anglican church plant called Grace Anglican, and I started hearing this teaching about how it didn’t matter whether I had it together or not or was worthy or not, Christ was for me and not against me. And I started a slow process of not trying to be perfect anymore. It was a radical new thing to think that I didn’t have to hold it together and craft perfect prayers to say what I thought God wanted to hear and what I wished I meant. I had the freedom to tell God exactly what was going on in my mind and heart, and what was causing me to suffer, and what I wanted Him to do about it, and what I feared He wouldn’t do about it, and what the crap was all this for anyway? That was when things started to change and when I started to recover and be brought back to life. When I stopped trying to heal myself and I just looked up and said, “Here I am, Lord. Please be in my life who You say that You are.”
Whatever poison of sin is coursing through your veins right now, know that Jesus offers an eternal antidote. He doesn’t extend it to you when you finally try hard enough to earn His help, but when you are finally honest about your inability to heal yourself. All you have to do is lift up your eyes to the Giver of Life, the One who suffers and dies and is raised to life in order to raise us up with Him.