My daughter was bitten by a snake once. She was white water rafting in Fayette County, went ashore and climbed up some rocks. There was a large snake sleeping there and she stepped on it. She was bitten on her leg and immediately knew that it was trouble. Her friends got her to Uniontown hospital where she was treated and released. She came home and told us what had happened, and we took her to Passavant hospital’s emergency room where a doctor began to care for her. She stayed overnight; the doctor did a lot of research to find out what kind of a snake it was and what she needed to do about it. It turned out that the snake was a cottonmouth, an old snake, which meant that the venom wasn’t as strong or as intense as a young snake’s venom would have been. Our daughter got through all of this with some pain and some difficult moments with her leg, but it all turned out all right. She is at this moment living a happy life in San Diego with her fiancé.
I don’t think that snakes have been a large part of my life. We saw some rattlesnakes when we were driving in Arizona, but they stayed away from us. Snakes pay a part in the lesson from Numbers when the Hebrews become discontented with Moses and with God because they are in the desert with no food and little water. Because of their anger, God sends poisonous snakes among them and some are killed. I hate to criticize God, but I thought that this was a bit of an overreach, but nonetheless, they complain to God about this and God tells Moses to create a snake on a pole so that anyone who is bitten by a snake can look at the snake on the pole and live. The other use of a snake in scripture is in the Garden of Eden when Eve wonders about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the snake tells her that she can eat of it without trouble. After she eats of the fruit of the tree, the snake tells her that she can also let Adam eat of the tree. This results in both of them getting thrown out of the garden by God and from that moment on, humanity has been cursed by not having peace, but always knowing the difference between good and evil in the world, in others and in ourselves and making our own judgements about what we think of the evil that we see.
Then we have the story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s two sons. They were vastly different, Cain a wanderer, a hunter and Abel a farmer. Cain was very jealous of Abel because he seemed to be accepted where Cain was not; so he killed him. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain answered with that famous line: Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain was also exiled and lived in the land of Nod.
We all have moments when our selfishness leads us into sin. Sometimes we find ourselves in dark places needing very much to find healing and hope. This is why we all live in community, where we can take care of each other in these dark times. In my ministry, I have seen many people in difficult situations where they needed help to get through them. Without care from others, life could be difficult and even dangerous. I have known young people who were addicted to drugs and who needed to be given help to get away from their addiction. It was only by conversation and caring that they were enabled to do that. The twelve-step process created by Alcoholics Anonymous has led many people through hard times back to a semblance of normality. I think that programs like this are what are meant by the snake on a pole that people who are in trouble can look at and find curing. Helping each other is the essence of religion. Jesus told us to love one another as we are loved by God. That is what we are asked to do in this world to help each other with the hard times and to help us to know what joy is in the middle of our lives.
Jesus alluded to this in John’s gospel when he says that just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so Jesus must be lifted up so that people can see him and find the way to eternal life. That is a great use of the Old Testament lesson. It tells us that there is the way through evil. Evil that exists all around us and that can invade our lives easily. Keeping our eye on our Lord Jesus, who died for all of us that we might lose our sin and be admitted to everlasting life is the essence of Lent. It is why we are here together in these pews each week. We are here to love one another and to take that love with us into the world where there are people being set upon by evil all over the place. When we help them, we help our God to make this earth a more heavenly place. That is what was in God’s mind when he sent Jesus to teach us.