Take a long, hard look
- Numbers 21:4-9
- Psalm 107:1-3,17-22
- Ephesians 2:1-10
- John 3:14-21
‘If you see a snake, stand still!’ We raised our children in Zambia, and that was how every Zambian child was taught to respond to a snake slithering past. Run, and it would attack; stand still, and it was much less likely to cause harm.
Perhaps this experience helps us make sense of the story in Numbers 21. The people of Israel offend God – they are tired of having manna to eat and they hanker after the fish and cucumbers of Egypt (Numbers 11:4). It’s not just about food; it’s a choice of slavery over freedom, the old ways over God’s future. No wonder God is offended! The snakes come to emphasise God’s displeasure, but they come with a built-in, two-stage remedy. The first step is to acknowledge sin and ask for forgiveness. The second is to look directly at Moses’ bronze image of the snake. The people are required to face up honestly to the consequences of their sin, and in doing so, they find healing. Stand still and look at the snake, and it will do no harm.
Looking up at the cross
Jesus picks up on this story as he tries to help Nicodemus, and all of us, understand why he has come. Lifted up on the cross, he will be the source of our healing – not just life but eternal life. But we have to look at him, to face him, lifted on the cross. In Jesus’ time, this was a big ask. Like a snake, a cross was a symbol of death. Crucifixion was a horrible, humiliating, agonising death, the ultimate weapon of a colonial power, and people avoided talking about it as far as possible. There were always some who would mock, but many hurried past. Very few stopped simply to watch. It was only when crucifixion stopped being a regular method of execution that the church began to encourage people to visualise the cross as a source of spiritual strength.
And within the horror of the cross lies the realisation that we are looking at the outcome of our own sin. ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… the Lord has laid on him the iniquities of us all’ (Isaiah 57:4,6). Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we have to face up to the consequences of our sin – and this is the only way we shall find healing. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’.
Opening our eyes
This Lent, we are called to take a long, hard look at places in this world where human suffering is real. Sometimes we want to turn the TV off when an item comes on about drought or famine – we feel we can’t cope with another image of a malnourished baby or a desperate parent, we can’t handle the guilt of knowing that at some level we are caught up in the same web of wrong that leads to this suffering. But the stories don’t go away just because we reach for the ‘off’ button.
And if we do turn a blind eye, our neighbours lose out – but so do we. ‘Just as you helped one of the least of these, you helped me’, says Jesus (Matthew 25:40). The sufferings of our neighbours are the sufferings of Christ, and if we refuse to look, if we turn away from confronting the consequences of human sin, then we shall never find the healing and eternal life which Christ gives to those who do take a long, hard look at his suffering and let it change them for good.
God of compassion,
give us the courage to look at the cross,
the sign of our sin and the promise of our salvation,
and help us to find there the healing you promise.
Through Christ our Lord,
With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Caroline Wickens, Superintendent Minister, Manchester Circuit of the Methodist Church, for providing the March weekly pointers.