Do any remember Samuel L. Jackson’s film “Snakes on a Plane?” If you saw it, and you might not want to admit it – a gangster puts snakes on a plane to kill a witness and the poisonous snakes run rampant biting people until the hero saves the day! Today’s scripture could easily be called “snakes in the wilderness.” Like the movie, the plot is simple: the people get impatient and complain about the quality of God’s meal plan, God gets angry, and airdrops scores of snakes in the crowd, hundreds die; terrified, the people say they’re sorry; God has Moses make a snake headed staff as an antidote to snake bites; and all’s well that ends well. Except, that God’s snakes still run free among the people, terrorizing children and provoking anxiety among parents. People still get bit but now there’s a cure. God helps, but not that much, if you’re snake bit.
Sometimes we hear words from scripture, and go along with them without question because, after all, they’re in the bible. I remember being in a service in which the appointed reading of the day was Psalm 137. The Psalm begins well, and we politely read – “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.” And, when we got to the final verse, “Happy are those who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” the congregation kept on reading without batting an eye, and then responded, “thanks be to God.” Thanks be to God – for little ones killed at God’s initiative.
I recall seeing a bumper sticker that announced “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” But, what does it settle? Does the Bible solve all our problems, or does it sometimes create new ones, spiritually, ethically, and intellectually? If we settle for a literal reading of certain passages we would all be in jeopardy: for example, the bible prescribes the death penalty for murder and rape, but then…it also prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality, cursing and disobeying a parent, adultery and to some that includes remarriage after divorce, women who have sex before their wedding night, and taking God’s name in vain….according to scripture God killed Onan, because he refused to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife and God killed every man, woman, and child in Jericho, except the family of Rahab who betrayed her people, and on Passover, God killed all the first born in Egypt. At least for me, these passages are a big hole in the Holy Bible? A hole we need to fill with truth and grace.
The Bible is a very honest book – in fact it’s a library of books, 66 books if you are Protestant and if you are Catholic or Orthodox, at least a dozen more – that raises a variety of contrasting positions, and often texts disagree with one another. For example, Job was written to counter Leviticus and Deuteronomy’s assertion that bad things only happen to bad people and that good people always prosper; Jesus also challenged that belief system; Jonah’s vision of God’s care for Nineveh challenged the extreme nationalism of other books; the book of Ruth challenged the edicts of Ezra and Nehemiah that made all marriages between Jews and Gentiles such as Ruth the great grandmother of King David illegal.
I feel comfortable counseling you to see the story of snakes in the wilderness as a legendary reflection of the Hebrews’ experience of a plague of snakes and their identification of that plague with God’s wrath (even though such terrorism is note God’s way); still I can’t approve of legendary accounts of God’s reigning of fire and fury on Sodom and Gomorrah; or God’s causing a flood to destroy all humankind and the earth’s land animals; or God’s sanctioning the slaughter of everyone in Jericho, regardless of their age or moral standing.
Compare those passages ethically and spiritually with the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” “God is love,” as the epistle of John proclaims.
“God so loved the world.” Now, while the John 3:16 passage challenges images of divine snake attacks, fire in the sky, flood on earth, and apocalyptic destruction in some visions of Christ’s return, it still doesn’t let us off the hook. We can’t do what we want without consequence. To truly experience God’s love, we have to trust in God, believe God’s promises and act on them.
There is a consequence for unbelief and immorality, and the passage makes that clear. We forfeit the full joy of a relationship with God. We miss out on the party God has planned for us.
Still, we ask about our ultimate salvation and the salvation of people outside our faith and people who have done evil. I remember a Georgetown student, sure of her faith, telling me the following, “My parents are good people, but they don’t accept Jesus as their savior, they’re non-practicing Buddhists, and I’m sure that when they die, they’ll go to hell, along with other non-believers who did good things like Gandhi and Buddha.” Another student chimed in, but “What about Hitler? He was evil, but if he made a deathbed confession, would he have eternal life?” My glib student answered “yes,” without batting an eye.
To me, as sweet as this young lady was, she missed the point of John 3:16, the cross of Jesus, the reality of God’s love, and the meaning of grace. God reaches out to us even when we run away; even when we wallow in sin; even when we are filled with shame; even when we can’t undo the impact of past actions. As Paul says, while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Friends, it is important that we read our bibles. It is important that we love the bible enough to ask questions and challenge our previous assumptions about God and salvation. We can, as theologians throughout the ages, look for the gospel within the bible, the kernel of the good news, and today, I proclaim the good news of scripture: that you can trust God’s love, that our lives matter and though we need to face the consequences of our willfulness and self-interest, at the end of the day, God’s love will save you; God’s love will save our wayward friends and relatives. God loves the world and God loves you, and nothing – not even sin, guilt, shame, and death – can separate us from the love of God.