Sermon Illustration from "Snakes on a Pole"

Snakes on a pole or The Rut That I Love (John 3:13-21)

And just 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 he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14–18 NRSV)

This morning I want to address the question: what is salvation? How are we to think about this work, especially in the context of what this famous little passage is saying?

Three images: * Healing * Connection and * Light

Healing

First, let’s begin this message about salvation and the love of God with something that seems unrelated: a snake on a pole.

[Read John 3:14–15]

This is connected to an obscure Old Testament reference – that I assume you all have memorized – where Moses is told by God to:

“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:8–9)

In searching around for some help with this, one scholar I read pointed out that there is a potential link here to the ancient Greek god for healing, Asclepius.

“His symbol was two snakes entwined around a pole (which I believe is where the AMA gets its symbol). The idea was that opposites which war within are brought into harmony, resulting in healing.” Link

Another connection is to our word pharmaceutical. In ancient Greek culture the root of this was Pharmakon: “a drug is a poison that, taken in the right dosage, is also a remedy.” Link

I like this image of snakes on a pole, not to be confused with confused with Samuel L Jackson’s film, “Snakes on a Plane,” because it reveals the work of Jesus as being about healing.

John’s image here is one where Jesus replaces the serpent on the pole as the symbol of our healing.

He is the one being lifted up, he is the medicine that we are to trust for healing.

[Referring to translation of “believe” and “eternal life”]

A word about this translation “eternal life.”

We have covered this before, and those of you reading through Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” right now for Fresh Bread have been thinking a lot about this recently.

The words “ζωὴν αἰώνιον” are the ones that have been translated “eternal life.”

Q: Any one want to take a stab at what these means?

The word aion means “age” as in “the spirit of the age.” Aion has a distinctive beginning and end point. It doesn’t mean forever the way we think about forever as being like never-ending days of 365 days each year (Bell 59). It means more like an era or a period of time. The modern era. Downtown Abbey is a show about the era of British nobility.

So for Jesus there are two ages, two eras. The “Spirit of this age,” the one we are living in or as John talks about it here the darkness that the son enters into and there is “an age to come.” Not just JEsus, but the prophets of the Old Testament, believed that history was moving somewhere, that God was working throughout people and culture to bring about a new age. So this is not about what happens after life, so much as what God is trying to do right here, right now.

[Translate adding “trust” and “the life of God in the age to Come.”]

What I think John is saying about Jesus is that he is the one who heals for good, his medicine doesn’t require more and more medicine, and the healing that comes from a life healed by Jesus is one that actually frees you to live in the new and coming age of God right now.

We might talk about it as heaven here and now.
Or the eternal now.
Or tell the story about the first time you realized the love of God was within you and surrounding you on all sides.
Or when the scales fell off your eyes and truly saw things as they were.

I like how Rob Bell puts it:

“Jesus drags the future into the present…”

We are free to live now the way we might expect it to be like in the age to come, because the kind of healing that Jesus brings is one that makes it possible now.

But this image is a double-edged sword, because it requires me to not just “trust the medicine,” but to actually accept my own darkness.

To be healed I must first be willing to go to the doctor.

In order to be made whole, I must recognize my dependency on God and my need for wholeness.

Connection

A second image of salvation is connection. It might be a plug, or a chain-link, or linked arms.

Whatever image comes to mind for connection, the critical point is that you see the direction of movement in this passage.

God moving towards us.

God gave, God gifted,  God bestowed.

The Gospel of John is about God bringing Jesus to humanity.

In John 3, we are not the ones who go out on a search expedition for God, the onus of the hard work of searching falls on God not us.

Which, when you think about it is kind of amazing.

We spend so much time worrying if God is there, if God likes us or is angry at us, and right here in this text it says “God loved the world – not just Wess, or Jason, or Sheri, but the whole freaking world and everything in it – that God gifted, bestowed, the son so that all who trust and are healed will experience the overflowing life of God now.”

In other words,

We can stop our searching.
Call off the dogs.
God in Jesus has come to you.
God is the one looking for you.
God is the one who is on a search and rescue mission to reconnect with the whole entire world.

Jesus is the one whose work is about reconnecting the love of God with the people of God.

But let’s be honest, this connection can be difficult for some of us and it’s difficult not because God isn’t out there looking for you, but because we have been taught to be afraid of God. We have been taught that God is angry with us, and that if we don’t sit-up and act right we’re good candidates for the ongoing torture of hell.

I don’t know how it is for you, but it’s hard for me to feel like I can really connect with the very being who seems so capricious and trigger happy.

So we have often misread John here to say something like this

“Indeed, God sent his some to condemn the world unless you said you believed in his name…”

But of course this isn’t what the text tells us at all.

The word condemn literally means to separate. John is telling us here that God is not about emotional-cutoffs, God is not about separation, the movement of God is towards connection, it is towards each and every one of you.

Jesus is working to reconnect you with the love of God that has always been there.

This is why it says that the work of Jesus was not condemnation or separation but “salvation.”

Our word for salvation in John 3 means things such as:

to rescue; to preserve safe and unharmed, to bring safely to to cure, heal, to deliver from, set free from, restore to health

It is the embrace of the father to the Prodigal Son.
It is the good Samaritan who reaches down and takes a hold of the hand of the one fallen.
Or for something a little more contemporary, It is Luke Skywalker pulling off the helmet of his father Anakin so that they can see one another before he dies.

This is the kind of re-connection that salvation can bring.

So I think it really matters whether you primarily think of Jesus’ work in the world as being rooted in condemnation or salvation.

We too often think of GOd like a really angry football coach, or an angry teacher who is constantly trying to catch you in something bad so they can punish you, make you run more laps, or push you to your limits.

But the text tells us that God is more like a caring doctor who notices that you are sick and comes along side you and helps you become well.

One vision is about those who have it out for you, the other is one who has your best intention and your wholeness in mind.

How does that help to shape who God is to you?

To Live as Children of Light

Finally, then to this question about what salvation is, I want to add that not only is it about healing, and connection, but it is about how you actually live as people of truth and Light.

John says:

“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 all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19–21 NRSV)

The judgement then is rather simple, that we prefer our own self-defeating behaviors rather than facing into the places where change is required, that we prefer to remain in our sickness rather than take the medicine, that we prefer to remain disconnected and emtionally cut off than to connect back up.

This isn’t God doing this to us. This is about how we do this to ourselves. The judgement is our loving darkness rather than light and the inevitable consequences that life brings.

For me, darkness is a rut I get myself into that I love Or a particular story about myself that keeps me from becoming truly well because it keeps me comfortable. It is the places where I am blind to my own rivalries with others, or the ways I blame others rather than take responsibility for my actions in a situation. For me, darkness is really the exact opposite of being open to transformation.

The light sheds truth on all of this. The light welcomes us into wholeness. The light is honest with us, but honest with us not to hurt us our harm us, but for our well-being. Light is the color of love shining on our souls.

We need some new language and images for salvation because we are a people in need of healing and that is Okay. We need new ways of talking about salvation because we need to be re-connected with God, with our true selves, and with one another. We need new language about salvation because the “darkness around us is deep.”

Closing Prayer from Early Quaker Dorothy White:

For our God is Love, and we must be made like unto him in all things. O little Love, overcome, overcome all your hearts, that Life may fill your vessels, that bowles of compassion and tenderness may flow one into another, that every Soul may swim in the fulness of Love…(1662) Link

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.