March 10, 2024: Object of Terror, Beacon of Hope

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Object of Terror, Beacon of Hope

As I was growing up in New York City, my interactions with the natural world were limited to trips to my dad’s childhood home in the Tennessee mountains. One day, on a hike through the mountain trails, with its crystal-clear streams and spectacular views, the only one who noticed the copperhead snake in our path was my dad. Before any of us could scream or leap away, a rock flew out of dad’s hand, instantly killing the snake. We city dwellers were much more cautious for the balance of the hike, very grateful to know that the years had not diminished my father’s aim.

It is one thing to be able to dispatch a lone venomous snake on a mountain path, but what can be done about an infestation? This is the terror that the Israelites who were encamped in the wilderness dealt with (Numbers 21:4–9). Many people were bitten and died. The writer attributed this calamity to divine wrath.

Whatever the cause, the people asked Moses to intercede for them. Moses’ prayer was answered in an unusual way. The snakes were not removed. No anti-venom kits were distributed. God told Moses to create an image of a snake, erect it on a pole, and instruct all who were stricken to look at the image and be cured. What a curious solution! For people to survive, they had to gaze upon the source of their terror.

When Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent . . . , so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14), he was describing the horror of crucifixion. This means of death was cruel and degrading. Empty crosses were placed at strategic locations by the Romans to frighten the populace into compliance. And yet, through Jesus’ death on a Roman cross, that object of terror was transformed into a beacon of hope. The cross lost its evil hold over the imaginations of the people.

As the people of Israel gazed upon the serpent and lived, so you and I set our sights on the cross and live—abundantly in this life and eternally in the life to come. Amen.

Dawn E. Volpe, pastor
Ephraim Moravian Church, Ephraim, Wisconsin