The Serpent and the Cross – Neil Carver, Lent 1, Mar 5, 2017

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.”   John 3:14,15

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT  Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

The snake has fascinated people from earliest times. Its ability to shed its skin made it a symbol of transformation into new life, and it was associated with beliefs held in ancient Egypt of life after death. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt had an image of the snake wrapped around the top of their sceptre to symbolize their eternal life and power. After the Hebrews escaped from oppressive slavery in Egypt, their leader Moses carried a rod or sceptre with the image of the snake to symbolize their healing and new beginnings made possible through the power of God. To this day, the medical profession uses the snake on its caduceus emblem to symbolize its Hippocratic oath to save life. So wherever did we get the idea of the snake being a symbol of evil? It seems that responsibility lies in the images, elaboration and interpretations of Christian art and literature. Many people blame the original folk story of creation in Genesis. They are wrong.

Imagine that you have come across the story from the Book of Genesis, not in the Bible, but in a collection of folk tales such as those we find in every early culture dependent upon oral tradition. Reading it like that, you would not for a moment imagine that the snake was anything but a talking snake. That’s what this fable says – “Now the snake was the most cunning of all living things”. And at the end, God does not say, “You are Satan in disguise. Go to Hell!” God says, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all wild creatures. Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” – in other words, you’ll be a typical slithering snake. (The bit about eating dust is just a piece of inaccurate observation!) and the celebrated curse simply means that there will be perpetual enmity between snakes and humans: they’ll bite our ankles, and we’ll stamp on them.

Like so many other fables this one has talking animals and a human-like God who strolls about in the garden in the cool of the evening and calls out to Adam, “Where are you? How’s it going? What have you been up to?” We are in the realm of “Once upon a time”, but it’s a “Once upon a time” story that deals with some very profound questions about our human condition, so we’d best take it seriously.

I take this fable seriously because of its psychological insight. It depicts very subtly the process of yielding to temptation. It shows how we slip and slide from a seemingly secure, happy situation into the isolation and consequent misery of a condition theologians call “sin”.

It all begins with the suggestion that though we have so much, something even better is being unreasonably denied us: ‘The serpent said, “Did God say ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” Note the exaggeration! The woman replies truthfully enough, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” Isn’t there just a little hint of resentment as she mentions the tree they must not touch? – just sufficient resentment for the subtle serpent to probe? It’s next move is a direct challenge to the prohibition: “You won’t die! The Lord God just wants to frighten you off what he doesn’t want you to have. After all, if you eat it, you’ll be like God himself and know all that God knows.” So she allows herself to eye the fruit. It looks good – and if it does really give you a new experience, and introduce you to a whole new reality . . . almost before she knows it, she has stretched out her hand, plucked the fruit, and taken a bite. And, after that, Adam is a pushover!

This story is not simply a fable, it rings true to life! From time to time we’ll hear it suggested that the “thou shalt nots” of a responsible life are unreasonable and that a life lived within the bounds of respect, honesty and commitment is not “life in all its fullness”, and that you owe it to yourself to deny these in order to find fulfillment.

I take this fable seriously because of its spiritual insight. As does most good fiction, it describes the reality of our human condition. It is our story. “Adam” is the Hebrew word for collective “humankind”. “Eve” is the Hebrew word for “life” or the “womb of human existence”. The story describes our human behaviour, it recognizes the situation we have created for our human condition.

If we only had the creation fables as told in the first chapters of Genesis, the picture would be of beautiful people ‘in the image of God’, living in perfect bliss within a beautiful, fruitful world. But that’s not the way it is. We have to work for our survival. There is pain and suffering, even in the process of creation as experienced by a mother in childbirth. Conflict, confusion and chaos seem intrinsic to our human condition.

The creation stories of Genesis recognize and seek to understand this reality that brings with it human envy and murder, natural death and disaster. We are among those who have turned their backs on God our Creator. Theologians have a label for this fundamental fact of human existence. They call it “original sin”. Like children of parents with HIV, we were conceived and born into its condition. We are not perfect creatures living in paradise. As Paul explained it, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That is the picture of Genesis 3, and I take it very seriously.

I take this fable seriously, because of its influence on Jewish and Christian thought. It influenced the manner in which the earliest followers of Christ understood the identity of Jesus and came to terms with his death and interpreted this in terms of resurrection.

If you examine the preface to the gospel of John, you’ll see how he introduces a new creation in words that remind us of the first creation story in Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word. . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” But the other three synoptic gospels reflect the second creation story in Genesis that we heard this morning. In them, Jesus is presented as a second Adam. Just as the Lord God drove the first Adam out of the security of the garden, so also the Spirit of God thrust Jesus, the second Adam, into the wilderness, where he remained for forty days and forty nights.

Forty represents a lifetime, and this is but another way of saying, Jesus spent his lifetime in the wilderness of our human existence. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “Because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted”, and “We have not a high priest (that is a mediator) who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In other words, despite the temptation, Jesus never hid himself nor turned his back on God.

Throughout scripture, the wilderness experience of the people of God describes their growth of human consciousness. It is to experience life. Our wrestling with doubts and fears are part and parcel of our being aware of the possibilities and consequences of the life given us. To be tempted by Satan is to question the holy, both in the present moment, as well as in our origin and destiny. The wild animals represent the mental, physical and spiritual assaults that can immobilize any and all of us. Every one of those doubts and uncertainties remained with Jesus throughout his lifetime, even up to his very last breath on the cross. Yet, even then, angels came and ministered to him. Despite appearances to the contrary, God never abandoned him, nor shall God abandon us.

We’ve heard two creation stories this morning. Two stories that speak of our human condition. The glory of God was disclosed in a human life, and in the second Adam – Jesus – God reaches out to you and to me. Jesus said, “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.” The second Adam stretches out his hands upon the cross to embrace all humankind and to draw us back to paradise, that we might live with God eternally. As the second century theologian Irenaus put it, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”

Just as the story of the first Adam is our story, so also the story of the second Adam is your story and mine. Jesus calls us to return and to revere this life in all it’s sacred wonder. We need no longer hide from God. Now is the time to repent, to turn around, to come out of hiding, and to celebrate this good news.

Carver 05.03.2017  The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo