Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 16 March 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
‘And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole’.
I’ve been waiting for years to preach on this Old Testament lesson. It is the story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent and it is the subject of the very large mural on the west wall of this church, above the name of Berdmore Compton, Vicar of this church 1873-1886. He was the Vicar who said: “Let us be outwardly, what we are inwardly, English in our Catholicity, not Italian or Belgian.” You can’t miss it. And that’s the problem, because on several occasions when I’ve been hanging around the church, visitors come up and say, why have you got that big snake on the wall? And it’s not easy to explain, because people want simple answers on their own terms, and this story requires a bit of effort.
There’s the right answer to that picture, and then there’s the real answer. Here’s the right answer. The right answer is that this story, and the picture, are warnings to the congregation that if they complain they will be bitten by poisonous snakes. That’s what’s happening. The Israelites are wandering around Edom and complain about the food God has given them, indeed they no longer trust God, and so the air is filled with poison. They have been delivered from slavery by God, yet they are an impatient people. They are forgiven, as we must be forgiven our impatience in Lent, but what is interesting is that even when God forgives them, some of them still get bitten by these poisonous snakes and die. In other words, the effects of what we are doing carries on, whether we’re forgiven or not. We don’t just close our account. But God is able to combat the effects of what we do, just as a homeopathic remedy can ward off snakes or cure snakebite – which is what the bronze serpent set up by Moses is about. In the Near East the snake is often a symbol of both death and life, and Moses sets up this metal image of a snake which can heal those who look upon it, as a reminder that God will remain true to his promise to lead the people through their desert to the land where they can be free. But it’s difficult to convince visitors looking at our picture that it’s about worshipping God, not a snake, isn’t it? I’m comforted that this problem was discussed in Old Testament times, in the book of Wisdom, in a passage unknown to me until I had to prepare for this evening. The author talks about the rebellious, quite hopeless Israelites: he says, when they were perishing from the bites of writhing snakes, God’s retribution did not continue to the end. Affliction struck them briefly, by way of warning, and they had a saving token to remind them of the commandment of your Law, for whoever turned to it was saved, not by what he looked at, but by you, the Saviour of all. Now that’s a very basic outline of a story which has sources in several different traditions, snake cults, God knows what, but I think we can be confident that the right answer is that here we have one of many stories about how the people God saves turn against him, and what God does about it.
That’s the right answer, but it’s not the real answer. The real answer is found in St John’s Gospel, chapter 3, verse 14 and 15, in the Authorised Version: ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’. That’s why it’s on our west wall. The pole put up by Moses in the wilderness has become a cross. It’s our faith, in code. Those who had been bitten by poisonous snakes looked on the bronze or copper snake put up by Moses, and they lived. We who are conscious of our separation from God look upon Christ crucified, the son of man who is to be lifted up on a cross, and we live, we are given eternal life. In the days when that mural was put up, the faithful, and schoolchildren too, had learnt how to be code-breakers of the infinite, to see connections in what was called salvation history, the story of God in the world, and to put themselves into the story too. It’s time to ditch a dull religion which is right, but not real. We walk when we should be flying. I mean flying, because the real answer, the answer of faith, is only achieved by a suspension of reason. So the Israelites in that snake-pit of a desert were saved by an irrational act: looking up at a metal snake. We are saved by the most irrational act of all, looking at a man crucified.
In Lent, as we move towards that saving act, the crucifixion, it’s time to become code-breakers again, decoding our lives and our worship and everything we do, seeing there an expression, or image, of the infinite. This is nothing less than love paying attention to what is really happening, the real answer behind the right answer. Faith is not about explaining everything all the time. It is much more a process of connecting images, letting them live again in our hearts and in our imaginations, trusting what comes forth, welcoming the new life they bring, bringing Jesus Christ into sharper focus in our lives. St John’s Gospel is in code too; we have to work at it. When St John says in that key verse of our faith that the son of man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life, he precedes it with a reference to this bronze serpent. Why? It’s so clever. It’s so that when that image flashes across our minds, we are no longer thinking conventionally about Jesus being lifted up to God’s right hand as a judging figure. We think of him being lifted up to height just above us, where we can look upon him, the height of a cross, and he’s not a judge, not a distant figure, but a saviour, who draws all poison away from us, who fulfils God’s promise, and who heals us as we move forward together through the wilderness. At the heart of our Christian pilgrimage, our Lenten fast, we find God’s mercy.