The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Snakes, Mercy, and Work

with 2 comments

Moses serpent wilderness.gifHere's the outline of how it went Sunday morning.

Were you there? What touched you? What didn't? Clue me in?

If you're not a part of the on-site family, what makes sense here to you? Or, how would you change it?

I learned so much! And the Bible was so luscious! And (oh, rats!) I had a snake on a pole and meant to ask someone to shoot a picture of it to include here. Forgot! Sorry!

And I got some help conceptualizing a couple of the parts from Lawrence, whose writing on this is well worth reading.

Fourth Sunday in Lent March 26, 2006
Numbers 21:4-9; Ps. 107:1-3;17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21


Blessed Be The Lord God Almighty

Blessed Be Your Name

Who is Like the Lord?

Healing Grace

Prayer – Sharon

Welcome – Terry
Sharon reads: John 3:14-21

14In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up– 15and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.

Monte: “In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert. . .” Jesus’ hearers were familiar with Moses lifting up the serpent – but we’re not, so much. Let’s look.

1400 years before Jesus and Nicodemus had this talk, the Israelites were in the last stages of their 40-year trip through the desert to the Promised Land. It hadn’t been easy. They were tired and discouraged. Now they came to a place called Edom, and they had to detour around it for safety, almost back-tracking.

It was more than they were willing to take. On the eve of making it, they gave up on God and took it out on Moses. “This stinks. This walk stinks. This place stinks. This stupid manna stinks. You stink, Moses, and God stinks. Count us out.”

More than weariness – this is rebellion.
So they went back to Egypt and got along fine after that.

No? What, would you guess, might happen if they went back to Egypt?
And what wouldn’t happen? You and I might have never heard of Jesus Christ. And you were too important for God to lose. So his reaction was strong:

6So GOD sent poisonous snakes among the people; they bit them and many in Israel died. 7The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke out against GOD and you. Pray to GOD; ask him to take these snakes from us."
Moses prayed for the people.

And here are God’s strange directions to Moses:

8GOD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it on a flagpole: Whoever is bitten and looks at it will live."
9So Moses made a snake of fiery copper and put it on top of a flagpole. Anyone bitten by a snake who then looked at the copper snake lived.

End of story. And then it shows up again in Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus 1400 years later. And Jesus is saying, “Just like Moses put the snake on the pole, so I’m going to be put on a pole. . .” – and I went to bed one night this week thinking “Snake? Snake? Why would God have Moses put a snake on a pole? And why would Jesus compare himself to a snake?”

Know any other snake stories in the Bible? Ah, Genesis – Satan, disguised as a serpent, tempts Eve and Adam. So would serpent, in Jewish stories, represent a good thing or a bad one? So why would Jesus …?

And, do you remember how Satan suggested that God really wasn’t concerned about their best interest? Satan said something like: “Oh, here’s why God doesn’t want you to eat from this tree – he knows you’ll be as smart as him – you won’t need him anymore – you can make your own way into the future just like he does.” You won’t be having God tell you what to do. You’ll be on your own.

Oho – see any similarity now with the Israelites on the Exodus? Perhaps it is a symbol of rebellion – of insisting we’re gonna go our own way, thank you very much, because the way God has mapped out obviously isn’t in our best interest and we can do better on our own.

But how would Jesus be like the snake? He wasn’t bad. How could he be like a symbol of rebellion? Listen carefully to the prophet Isaiah:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;

That would describe Adam and Eve and the Israelites – and me – but the question is, “How could Jesus be a symbol of it?” And listen to the whole verse:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Is. 53:6 NIV]

And listen to this from Paul:

God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God. [2 Cor 5.21 TM]

Jesus doesn’t take his own evil to the cross – he takes mine – he becomes a symbol of sin, like the serpent, for me. Back to John, v16:Sharon: John3:16

This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.

Why did he give his Son? “So that no one need be destroyed.”Numbers again, last sentence: “Anyone bitten by a snake who then looked at the copper snake lived.”
And back to John:


17God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.

He didn't stop at sending the snakes.

But how does it work? Does looking at a copper snake cure snakebite? Do Boy Scouts carry them in their snake-bite kits when they go to Philmont Ranch?

So why on earth would anyone who’d been bitten waste the time and effort to look? They’d been ready to walk away and go it on their own – but they decided to trust. And here’s another way bridge between the snake on the pole and Jesus on the cross. John 18:Sharon:

18Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person's failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.

If the Hebrews could muster enough faith to look at the snake on the pole, God would heal them, they would live. If we today can muster enough faith to abandon our own way and look to Jesus on the cross … listen to this from Hebrews 12:


Therefore, since we are surrounded with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. [Heb 12:1-2 NRSV]

And that’s our story. Here’s the story – of the Israelites’ past, or of ours, from Ephesians. Read along:

Reader: Ephesians 2:1-10

1It wasn't so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. 2You let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. 3We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.

Monte: But he didn’t. That was the snakes part. And here’s the look and trust part:


4Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, 5he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! 6Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah. 7Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. 8Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish! 9We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! 10No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

Doesn't it leave you wishing everyone knew? That’s the spirit in which three of these four Scriptures end – our response to God’s mercy. First, a description of where our world is right now, John 3:19:Sharon:

This is the crisis we're in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. 20Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won't come near it, fearing a painful exposure. 21But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.

That’s the crisis. Our task, 21, (maybe you’d like to circle this in the last verse) is to work and live in truth and reality, rejecting denial and illusion, welcoming light, to come out into the open, so people can see what God has done.And look at the last sentence of Ephesians:

He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

Want to underline work, work and work? Join him in his work, it’s a good work, prepared for us, and he expects us to be at it.

And look at the very last line of the Psalm:
tell the world what he's done–sing it out!

How we gonna do that?

* * *

Could we, as a “thank you” to God, read out the Psalm together? It’s a
Psalm of gratitude for just what we’ve been talking about:

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

1Oh, thank GOD-he's so good! His love never runs out.
2All of you set free by GOD, tell the world!
Tell how he freed you from oppression,
3Then rounded you up from all over the place,
from the four winds, from the seven seas.
17Some of you were sick because you'd lived a bad life,
your bodies feeling the effects of your sin;
18You couldn't stand the sight of food,
so miserable you thought you'd be better off dead.
19Then you called out to GOD in your desperate condition;
he got you out in the nick of time.
20He spoke the word that healed you,
that pulled you back from the brink of death.
21So thank GOD for his marvelous love,
for his miracle mercy to the children he loves;
22Offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
tell the world what he's done–sing it out!


Sharon: Commission and Blessing

Bible quotations are from The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson, unless otherwise marked.

New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society


Written by Monte

March 26, 2006 at 3:58 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I love it when that happens. I was talking over something with someone today who said, “I’ll bet there’s something in this week’s Scriptures about this!” It just seems miraculous to me how God keeps bringing up exactly what someone is talking about.


    (and a compliment from you – the unchallenged queen of visual special effects – about my snake is truly flattering! Thanks!)


    March 29, 2006 at 9:57 pm

  2. Sunday’s message was very powerful, Monte. I think especially to those of us in the Creation Station Ladies Group that met that morning. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role.” This is exactly what we were talking about in our group. When we trust in God and let Him take care of our needs, He always comes through. Perhaps not on our timetable, but in His perfect time.

    (btw, I thought your aluminum snake was very impressive!)


    March 29, 2006 at 4:52 pm

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