The people grew impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21.4-5)
The Wee Hours
In John 3, a prominent Pharisee named Nicodemus pays Jesus a late-night visit. It’s painfully obvious why he chooses this time of day to seek out the Rabbi Who’s making waves. Jesus has just outraged the religious establishment by driving profiteers from Jerusalem’s temple. When challenged to explain His actions, His cryptic reply heightens suspicion that He’s big trouble. Still, something about Jesus resonates with Nicodemus. He goes to Him after hours, when neither man is likely to be spotted, looking for answers to questions that trouble him.
While artists traditionally place their meeting in a moonlit courtyard, I like to picture it in a modern setting—an all-night diner, perhaps, where two people who’ve heard about each other finally get to hunker down in a back booth and talk into the wee hours over bottomless coffee cups. Nicodemus jumps right in, assuring Jesus, “We know You’re a teacher come from God, because You couldn’t do what You do if God hadn’t sent You.” His statement of faith enables Jesus to reveal what’s really going on. Since Nicodemus is a noted theologian, Jesus dives into the deep end, using rebirth as a metaphor for spiritual insight, informing the man that he’ll need new eyes to see Jesus is doing the work of God’s kingdom. Nicodemus doesn’t get it. “How can anyone be reborn?” he asks. Jesus explains He’s talking about spiritual rebirth—awakening to a truth that transcends natural law. Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. Somewhat frustrated, Jesus asks, “Aren’t you a teacher? How can this be so hard to understand?” And then, in verse 12, He says, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Here to Die
One imagines Nicodemus staring at his coffee, feeling smaller by the minute. In verse 13, Jesus tactfully apologizes for talking over his head: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man,” He confides. (Translated: “Of course you can’t understand what I’m talking about. We come from different worlds.”) So Jesus reaches into Hebrew Scripture to explain Himself in terms Nicodemus can grasp. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” He says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (v14-15)
Nicodemus perks up. It’s all coming together. This Rabbi Who talks in riddles is exactly Who many say He is: Israel’s Savior. He provoked Jerusalem’s temple officials on purpose to fulfill His mission. No doubt, Nicodemus has heard rumblings that Jesus must be got out of the way. Indeed, concern for Jesus’s safety may be what prompted his visit. Now he realizes that Jesus knows what’s going on and why He’s unfazed by the brewing conspiracy to get rid of Him. In effect, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “I’m here to die.”
New Life and Healing
Jesus's allusion to the Old Testament’s infamous snake episode is both tasty and timely. It’s the kind of horror tale that glues teenaged boys to their seats, and it’s probable that Jesus and Nicodemus associate it with their youth. As told in Numbers 21, the story finds the Israelites grumbling once again about roaming the desert. You’d think they’d have adjusted to wilderness life by now, as they’ve been at it for 40 years. What’s more, with God’s help, they’ve just pulled off an amazing coup, destroying a Canaanite tribe that attacked them and took some of their people hostage. Spirits should be very high. But verses 4 and 5 read, “The people grew impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and water, and we detest this miserable food.’” Their impertinence turns into self-fulfilling prophecy. Venomous snakes infest their camp and many die. That wakes them up. They run to Moses and beg him to beseech God’s mercy. God instructs Moses to craft a facsimile of a snake and hoist it on a pole. “Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live,” God declares. (v9)
The timeliness of Jesus’s mentioning the story to Nicodemus reveals how finely attuned both men are to scriptural nuance. The story transpires when Israel is on the cusp of major transition. Aaron, their chief priest, died just prior to the victory over their enemies. They’re due for a changing of the guard, as Moses transfers leadership to a new generation that will usher Israel into the Land of Promise. Yet here they are, as impatient, ungrateful, and shortsighted as ever. It’s been four decades since they walked away from Egypt. But they won’t let it go. If anything, they’ve romanticized it to the point of absurdity—to the point that it still enslaves them. Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? It’s a dangerous question to put to God and the prophet. Asking it almost kills them off and very well might have, but for one critical factor. God promised Israel a land of its own and God’s promises hold true, whether or not we accept them. Thus, to honor the promise, God raises an improbable symbol of new life and healing in the desert, instructing Israel to look and live.
Toward the Lifting
The subtleties of Jesus’s metaphor aren’t lost on Nicodemus this time. He sees the religious climate of his day is also polluted with impertinence, impatience, ingratitude, and shortsightedness. He senses the world is on the cusp of major transition. Jesus has come to usher in a New Order, to lead us into a new Land of Promise. His gruesome execution will become God’s improbable symbol of new life and healing, an unconditional offering of love to all who look and live.
And so it is that Lent’s desert—where 40 short days can feel like 40 long years—finds us headed toward the lifting of God’s Son on a crude cross. There He will hang as God’s promise of healing and new life. And make no mistake: we are snakebit with venom that flows out of our impatience, ingratitude, and myopia. We cling to Egyptian reveries and wax nostalgic about enslavement. Sentimentality for old regimes blinds us to new opportunities. Major victories evaporate from memory. Yet in the midst of our discontent and impertinence God raises a Savior Who invites us to look and live. May we honor that invitation and find new healing and life at Calvary’s cross.
Look and live.
Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/02/25/snakebit/.
Postscript: Question 4
In John 3.3, Jesus tells Nicodemus unless we’re born anew, we can’t see the kingdom of God. And in Numbers, God raises a symbol of pain and death to open Israel’s eyes to new healing and life.
When we look at the cross, what do we see? How does it reveal God’s kingdom to us? I can’t help but think we all see the same thing. Yet given our personal histories and perspectives, we view the cross in marvelously unique ways. I’ve shared some of what I see in the comments. What do you see?