The Covenants God Keeps (4): Broken

. 6 min read

Christ Church, Mountain Top
to Worship, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22
John 3.14-21
Numbers 21.4-9
we continue working our way through the covenant story in the Scriptures, using
the curriculum of covenant to discern the grace of God and the obedience of
faith, we have discovered that, over and over, God is the initiator of
covenant. Our God desires a relationship with us, longs to know us and love us,
and hopes to receive our love in return. Yet, over and over, we break the
covenant. We reject God’s love. We turn upon one another.
      It’s been that way since the first human
encounter with a serpent. “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of
it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”
(Genesis 3.4-5). Well, then, since you mentioned that … I’ve been thinking that
this fruit does look pretty tasty, and I’d enjoy being god-like – isn’t that
the goal, anyway? The serpent was lying. “The serpent struck Adam in paradise
and killed him, Israel in the camp and annihilated him” (Ephrem the Syrian, ACCS, OT III, p 242; see Bede, ACCS, p 241).
we come to this odd story in Numbers, tossed into the mix of several other
stories with which it shares little except a geographic progression from one
mountain region to another. It includes the story of Moses making a brass snake
on a pole, in what seems a clear violation of the second commandment to make
“no engraved image”, but – at least in this story – is explicitly commanded by
God (see Justin Martyr, ACCS, p 241).
It includes the people whining, which surely must be humans at their very
worst. And, why whine now, so nostalgic for Egypt? In the text, it has been
YEARS since Egypt, and they might have learned before that their complaining
only makes God mad. And, it includes God’s response to their whining, which
seems downright spiteful: “Well, if you really believe you were brought here to
die, that can be arranged!” Then, there’s the weirdness of Jesus’ remark in
John’s gospel that the snake on a pole is somehow parallel to Jesus upon the
cross. But he wasn’t biting people like a snake, or a vampire, was he? Of
course, analogies are just that, analogies. They do not work in every detail,
but only in limited particular details.
      Before we go into the story itself, I do
want to list a few key details in which the analogy does work:
The serpent on the pole was a sign of judgment;
Jesus on the cross is a sign of God’s judgment on our sin.
The serpent was a symbol of sin; Jesus came “in
the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8.3, see Bede, ACCS, 241).
The serpent on the pole was not alive; Jesus
died on the cross.
The serpent was lifted up for all to see; Jesus
was raised upon the cross for all to believe.

The people of Israel were
suffering for their sins, whining turned to wailing, pining into pain–snakes
bit them and many died.  God told Moses
to put a brass snake–the cause and symbol of their suffering–on a pole;
whoever looked to it would be cured of the snakebite and live.  But whoever did not come to look had no such
assurance of healing.  In the words of
John, they “are condemned already” (John 3.18).
      Have you ever lived life conscious of such
condemnation?  Have you ever felt the
weight of guilt and shame so heavy that nothing could dispel it–not drugs or
drink, not efforts to change, not running away, not anger?  Remember the play of Shakespeare: Lady
Macbeth, guilty of murder is constantly trying to wash the blood off her hands,
and she constantly fails.  “Out,
out, damn spot!”  Nothing she could
do removed the guilt, the shame, the burden she carried, the burden of her own
      I grew up with a strong strain of
perfectionism.  That is, I had a
hyperactive sense of guilt and shame. 
One of my greatest spiritual struggles was to come to assurance of
salvation, being certain that I was indeed forgiven and reconciled to God.  I remember as a child being reduced to
tears–alone, not in front of others (You just can’t share shame.)–in fear
that I would be left behind when Christ came to take his church to himself.
      Now, I was a child and I certainly hadn’t
committed any “heinous” sin. 
Perhaps some of my extreme response was developed out of the kind of
Christian teaching I received, or perhaps it can be attributed to my
personality.  But the fact remains: no
matter how perfect I was (and I was a cherub), I was still guilty; no matter
how honored I was, I was still covered by shame.  Have you ever felt this oppressive weight?
it is time to take that Lenten move to look up at the snake on the standard, to
say, “There, there is my sin, there is my guilt and shame.”  It is time to allow it to be a banner and
      Wait, wait, wait.  This is a private thing.  I keep it to myself.  You said you cried alone, preacher, and so
will I.
      No, this isn’t my message.  I’ve always found it much easier to keep the
skeletons in the closet.  This is the
word of God reminding us that if we do not come, we are condemned already;
reminding us that the first step in coming to Jesus is to bring all of life into
the light of Christ.
story doesn’t tell us how many came to the serpent standard and how many stayed
home to die.  But we can imagine the kind
of barriers that would exist in the human heart.  We have named one of them: we do not want
to expose to light the guilt and shame that fills our souls.
  But there is another.  And it is that we are not willing to trust
the grace of a God who judges us.
No, it is much easier to trust the fairness of a judge, not the grace.
      Remarkably, those who are willing to
expose their guilt and shame discover that the judgment is removed, discover
that they are indeed healed.  The
serpent’s bite has lost its power, death has lost its sting, the grave has lost
its victory (1 Corinthians 15.55, Hosea 13.14). 
This surely is grace, but where has the judgment gone? 
      I’m going to make a leap here, so I warn
you that it is not entirely clear in the passage.  My suggestion is that the serpent standard
was not only the symbol of their sin, with its attendant guilt and shame, but
that it was also symbol of their suffering, a suffering of judgment.  In a peculiar way, the look of faith
transformed the serpent into a spectacle and transferred the condemnation . . .
      . . . to the cross.  The symbol of the cross is no casual
thing.  It is a sign of our sin, and the
place of our healing.  Never take it lightly.  What happened at the cross is the center of
God’s covenant with God’s people.
eventually learned that the grace of God was truly trustworthy.  I eventually learned that I did not have to
earn the favor of this divine judge.  And
I have become sure that I am forgiven, fully and freely forgiven. 
      Are you willing to join the ranks of the
“condemned already” who willingly confess their sin and trust the
grace of our marvelous God?  Are you
willing to look to the cross?
so, you may discover some other analogies that connect the story of Jesus with
the story of the brass serpent. Analogies were the staple of interpretation in
the ancient church, and some of them are quite creative and beautiful.
      Tertullian writes, “in this case he was
exhibiting the Lord’s cross on which the ‘serpent’ the devil was ‘made a
show of’” (ANF, iii:166; see
Colossians 2.15).
      Ephrem the Syrian writes, “Thus it was
revealed through this brazen [serpent], which by nature cannot suffer, that he
who was to suffer on the cross is one who by nature cannot die” (ACCS, 242).
      Augustine writes, “What is it to be made
whole of a serpent by looking upon a serpent? It is to be made whole of death
by believing in one dead” (ACCS, 242).
Jesus invites us to be made whole of death. But it begins by acknowledging our
An Answer to the Jews, c. 198 A.D. 
(ANF iii:166).

Ancient Christian Commentary on the
Scriptures, OT III