Tuesday, August 9, 2011
The Healing Pole
*This sermon was originally preached at North Baltimore Mennonite Church, April 3, 2003
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food." Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Numbers 21:4-9
And 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." For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned; whoever does not believe is condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest their deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been wrought in God.John 3: 14-21
The medical profession has a rather strange symbol for healing. It is two snakes intertwined around a pole with two wings at the top. This therapeutic symbol is known as the caduceus. The symbol was appropriated from the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods. According to Greek mythology Hermes came across two fighting snakes. He threw his magic wand at them. They became entangled and stopped fighting. The staff of Aesclepius is similar. Aesclepius was a physician living around 1200 B.C.E. who became the god of medicine. His staff was a single serpent intertwined around a pole. Isn’t it a bit odd that venomous and deadly snakes wrapped around a pole became symbols of healing and life?
The writer of the gospel of John doesn’t seem to think that a deadly snake lifted up on a pole is an odd symbol. He uses this symbol to point to the paradoxical death-dealing and life-giving cross of Christ. John draws an analogy between the lifting up of Jesus on the cross and Moses’ lifting up of a serpent on a pole in the wilderness. The comparison of Jesus on the cross to a snake on a pole is odd enough. What makes it even stranger is the fact that for John the lifting up of Jesus on a humiliating cross is his exaltation and our salvation. Death has been transformed into life.
In order to better understand the comparison of Jesus on a cross to a snake on a pole, we need to walk back through the pages of the bible and sit ourselves down in the wilderness with the Israelites and Moses. As you look out over the barren landscape your throat begins to dry. You can feel the grit of sand in the teeth. Sweat glistens on the brow and cakes the dirt on your skin. Your belly growls. Why has Moses brought us out here in this godforsaken wilderness? Some leader you are. We had it better back in Egypt! Yahweh, send us something besides this god-awful manna. We’re sick of it! Manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Give us a break! It tastes like chewed up and spit out motzah. Yuuuck! So, God sends the complaining Israelites something else besides manna. Hssssssssss. Did you hear that? Sounds like….sssssnakes. Look ! Look! Hissing snakes sliding out from behind the rocks. They’re everywhere! The snakes begin to bite the people and they die. Their only legacy will be the dirt mounds they will leave behind in the wilderness. Moses falls on his knees and prays fervently for the people. And how odd of God, who says to Moses, “Holy Moses, I need you to get off your knees and go make a sculpture. I want you to make a poisonous snake out of bronze and wrap it around a pole, so that whenever someone is bitten by a serpent they can look upon the snake raised up on the pole and live.” There you are sitting in the wilderness gazing up at death nailed onto a pole, staring at a symbol of that which has brought death in your midst as a way of gaining healing and life. Strange indeed.
Well, maybe not that strange. There may be healing and life offered to us by gazing at our dark and deadly side, by holding up our own snakes on a pole. We all have a venomous side that can poison our soul if not brought into the light. Psychologist Carl Jung referred to it as “the Shadow.” The shadow side of our personality is formed when we repress, shove into the closet of our unconscious, a part of ourselves that does not live up to our or others expectations or ideal standards, such as moral codes. And though we may look away from our dark and deadly side, it may thrust itself in our faces until we claim it. Let’s say that in seeking to conform to the Christian ideal of being a peacemaker someone identifies with that ideal to such an extent that they suppress or deny their own anger and violence, their shadow side.
There are many who have grown up in pacifist traditions whose shadow side is an unacknowledged anger and violence hissing beneath a stony exterior. I have always thought of myself as a naturally peaceful person. As a child I didn’t like the thought of killing animals, while my friends hunted with bee-bee guns. I avoided fighting and rarely, if ever expressed anger toward another person. At 19, during the Vietnam War, I registered as a conscientious objector because I felt I could not take another human being’s life. I seemed to be naturally peaceful person. It was only after I entered the wildernesses of life that I began to see my darker side. After five years of preparing for the ministry I was forced to resign from my home church under poisoned circumstances. I spent the next three years doing sweaty, manual labor at tire stores unable to connect with another church position. I complained to a silent God. I held in the venom until I could taste it in the corner of my mouth. I still remember my frustration exploding in rage as I slammed my fist into a tire where I worked.
There were other wilderness experiences, like the long and winding road my wife and I traveled after we adopted two of our children, who had been raised in an abusive home. It was tough when they were young, but when they hit adolescence all hell broke loose! My anger, rage, violent thoughts and feelings boiled to the surface as I had to constantly deal with children who were unconsciously recreating chaos in our home, which was to them normal. I have had many such wilderness experiences that have forced me to gaze upon the venomous snake wrapped around my soul, consciously acknowledging I have an angry, violent side, even as I seek to be a peacemaker. Like the apostle Paul had to acknowledge; that which we despise, we do. Only in looking upon the snake wrapped around the pole of my soul have I found any salve of healing and life.
Only as we gaze upon the snake intertwined around our collective soul can we behold the possibility for healing and life. There is such a thing as a collective shadow. A social group can repress and suppress its own shadow in the light of its own professed ideals. Failure to look upon the snake coiled around our collective soul, as in the soul of a nation, leads to death and death-dealing. We are seeing the deadly effects of our nation’s failure to gaze upon its own shadow side in the light of our professed ideals. We are country that prides itself and announces to the world its democratic ideals, the land of the free….
At the same time, in the wilderness of our historic fears of communism and terrorism we have violently suppressed emerging democracies and created the U.S. Patriot Act to rob citizens of numerous liberties. We say to the world we are a peace loving people. We care for those in need. And yet, within a century we have engaged in hundreds of military interventions into other nations from Argentina to Zaire and we have poured billions upon billions of dollars into the war with Iraq and now the war in Afghanistan, while our economy teeters on the brink of the abyss and funds for the weak and vulnerable in our own society are strangely never available. We stand on top of a mountain of weapons of mass destruction and demand, demand that others stop developing the same. We once pointed a crooked finger at Saddam for using WMDs against the Kurds, while we forgot that we once supported Saddam and supplied him with these WMDs! We forget that we were the first and only nation to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagazaki. Rather than acknowledging our shadow side, we deny it, suppress it, and project our violence onto others, while intoning the words, “God bless America.” Jesus was well aware of this deadly dynamic when he said, “For with the judgment you make you will be judged…Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye.” We fail to gaze upon the snake intertwined around our own collective soul and still....we are not healed.
Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there healing in the cross? And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man, the Child of Humanity, be lifted up. The cross our healing salve? A political instrument of humiliation, torture, and death become Christ’s exaltation and our salvation? How odd. How utterly strange and paradoxical. Jesus on the cross like a snake on a pole? There is a shadow side that curls its scaly skin around the cross. I am indebted to cultural and literary theorist Rene Girard for helping me to see what he calls the “scapegoat theory” and “sacred violence” not only coming to play in the cross, but as a dark dynamic within the human history.
Without getting into the complexities and problems with the theory, Girard illuminates the cross as an event which radically exposes the shadow side of humanity, uncover our violence hidden beneath religious rhetoric, myths, and rituals. The cross becomes a revelation, an unveiling of our poison in the innocent victim who was strung up on two pieces of wood. The cross exposes to the light our complicity in victimization. Or as the African-American spiritual moans, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and the silent confession must come back: Yes, we were there. In the mob mentality and the cries for blood. We were there. In the blaming and in the projection of our own shadows onto others. In the scapegoating and the drawing of the sword. We were there. In feigned innocence and washed hands. In the denial and betrayal while standing comfortably by a warm fire, or a glowing TV set, forgetting, forgetting that we are disciples of Jesus. We were there in the drama of the cross. Gazing up at last at the venom of our violence…..and the hope of our healing.
There is a healing balm in the cross. And as odd as it may sound to some, there is a glorious side of the cross. That’s why John can speak of the lifting up of the cross as his exaltation. For it is in the event of the cross that our sins, our scapegoating, our complicity in violence were not only exposed, but forgiven. In the cross God transforms death into life, defeat into victory, humiliation into exaltation. In the cross the voice of God speaks through human vocal chords and says, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I’m not talking about easy forgiveness or cheap grace, but a change of heart that takes place when, through the splintery cross and the Christ who hangs upon it, we see who we really are and allow God to transform us into who we are supposed to be. An early Jewish targum or commentary on the story of Moses and the serpent on the pole says that it was not just the looking at the serpent that brought healing to the people, but their change of heart. Or should we say there was a “cure of the heart.” The deadly cross offers a healing balm. It is only a cure of the heart that will change the world, that will save the world. Poet Wallace Stevens speaks this truth in earthy images:
It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves.
We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground
Or a cure of ourselves, that is equal to a cure
Of the ground, a cure beyond forgetfulness.
O, to believe that this kind of healing were possible would be life indeed. Where could we look for such life? The kind of life that God has, the kind of life God offers. Eternal life. Life that does not perish or wither. Life that does not demean nor destroy. Life that offers forgiveness and restoration. Life in all its fullness and abundance. Life healed and whole and holy. Paradoxically, life risen from the tomb of death. Where can we find such life? Look. Look. Gaze upon the cross, the healing pole. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Child of Humanity be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.