University Baptist Church, Austin, Texas
Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
It’s late at night, I’m kind of sleepy, and I’m channel surfing to find something interesting to watch on TV. I see this guy lying on a sand spit in the Nile River about ten feet from forty crocodiles in a feeding frenzy on a wounded hippo. These crocs are huge, ten and fifteen footers. And this guy is beside himself with joy. He turns, looks into the camera, and says, “This is the greatest day of my life!”
He is called “The Crocodile Hunter,” an Australian herpetologist who is like Robin Williams on speed. This guy loves his work. He is an over-enthused evangelist with one message: reptiles are our friends. He is so charged with adrenaline, I can’t sleep for two hours after watching him! I’m stalking the house looking for crocs.
On another program the Crocodile Hunter crisscrosses the United States in search of different varieties of rattlesnakes. I can’t believe my eyes. This guy is crawling on his belly into rock crevasses with five or six snakes in them, pulling out ten foot rattlers out by the tail, jumping back every now and then to avoid their strikes, and controlling them with a six inch twig. “Look at this Sheila!” he exclaims, his nose about a foot away from an angry female diamondback coiled and threatening: “Isn’t she be-yoo-ti-ful!” And then he turns to the camera and says, “Don’t try this at home.” Well, he doesn’t need to worry about me!
Snakes have a reputation, the Crocodile Hunter notwithstanding. They are the symbols of sneakiness, craftiness, hiddenness, evil, danger, and death. Snakes are our natural enemies. You call someone a “snake,” you probably aren’t feeling too kindly towards them, am I right? According to my friend Kyle Childress, where he grew up in West Texas the general rule was if you were on your way to a fire and came across a snake, you would stop to kill the snake.
The ancient Hebrews remembered a story about what happened to them back in the days when they were wandering in the wilderness. They were grumbling again. They were recalling their days back in Egypt when they had all the food they could eat. Sometimes freedom is harder than slavery because you have to take responsibility for yourself. And the past always becomes “the good old days,” no matter how terrible they actually were, in comparison to the problems pressing us at the moment. “We’re tired of manna,” they whined. “Baked manna, barbecued manna, fried manna, sautéed manna, manna etouffé. We want some mulligan stew. And we’re tired of walking around in the desert. Sure, God delivered us from the hand of the Egyptians, and gave us fresh water to drink and manna to eat, but what has God done for us lately?” You know how some people are grateful for every little crumb of Providence while some folks whine at the least little bump in the road and blame God for not taking care of them in fine enough style? Put the Hebrews of the Exodus in category “B.”
The Bible says God, weary with their whining, sent poisonous snakes among them which bit the people, and many died. No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. The people regret their impudence against God and pray for deliverance. But God does not take the snakes away. Instead, God has Moses – the original Crocodile Hunter with the staff that turned into a snake and back into a staff again when he grabbed it by the tail – God has Moses make a snake on a stick so that when the people get bit, they need only look at this snake on a stick. And then they won’t die. Curious story. The only way to healing is for them to face the very thing that’s killing them.
“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” (John 3:14-15). The evangelist John says the cross is like that serpent on a stick. It tells us what’s wrong with us and heals us of it at the same time. Only in this case, it is not God who sends the snake to bite us. We do that ourselves. We run to those places where the snakes hide in the darkness, and we get bit. “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” (John 3:19-20). God doesn’t have to judge us; we judge ourselves. God doesn’t have to punish us. The punishment is built in, the natural consequence of our behavior.
We don’t want to admit John has read our e-mail, nailed us on the head, but what he says is true. We’re already on the outside looking in, wondering if God knows us as we really are, and sure if the people around us knew the truth about us, they wouldn’t like us. We make excuses, plead extenuating circumstances, blame other people for our own mistakes and weaknesses. With serpentine logic, we convince ourselves that bad is good and dark is light and wrong is right. But the cross is inescapable. It says, “Look at this. This is who you are.”
As Frederick Buechner says, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news.” It is the news that we are all sinners, we have all fallen short of the glory of God, we all need saving, every single one of us. I know the church throughout its history, especially most of the churches in which we grew up, beat us over the head with the “s”-word until we felt no grace at all. Always telling us we are sinners, always trying to make us feel guilty, always naming our shame, until we all felt like that other “s”-word – “sorry.” The church is wrong when it shames people into submission. The preachers are wrong when they speak as if they had no sin themselves. And some of this preaching is just self-righteous emotional manipulation to gain power over people. Real Baptists don’t believe in preachers having power over people. But some of this old-fashioned Bible thumping preoccupation with sin is an attempt to overcome our deep denial that we are sinners at all.
I am thinking of sin as anything that does damage to ourselves or others, which breaks our relationship with one another or with God. And we’ve all done something along the way that throws us into this category. Because we’ve been spanked by the Bible belt so many times, we are tempted to throw away the concept of sin altogether and preach grace as a kind of no-fault insurance policy. Bad form. We dare not take sin glibly. Sin breaks God’s heart. Sin makes God angry, as we feel angry with our children when they mess up. But we feel angry precisely because we love our kids and want them to prosper and be the best they can be. Where is grace in a God who doesn’t care if we do damage to ourselves or to each other? There is no grace without a passion for justice and righteousness and health. In the cross of Christ, guilt and grace are held together simultaneously.
Sin is ubiquitous, so we should never feel we are better than anybody else. Sin is known by its consequences, and we need merely look honestly at our lives. Sin kills. Sin kills relationships. Sin kills community. Sin kills your best hopes and dreams. Sin kills your soul. But sin is specific; we each have our own particular character flaws, shortcomings, and self-destructive tendencies. Sin comes in many forms. Tradition listed seven categories: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. There are more modern names: addiction, arrogance, aggression, abuse, violence, hatred, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and so on.
We don’t need to pretend we don’t struggle with our own particular shadow sides. But we do pretend. Like Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit, we try to hide from God. Shame makes us hide from one another and even lie to ourselves. “There is nothing worse than self-deception,” lamented Plato, “where the deceiver is always with you.”
It’s scary to be honest with ourselves about ourselves, or to confess our sins even to someone we trust. What happens if we admit we have a problem, and then don’t have the power to change? As Elaine Pagels observes, “People would rather feel guilty than helpless.” It feels risky to name your demons because they might step up and control you, like the people in Harry Potter novels who are afraid to say the name of the evil Voldemort, lest they accidentally offend him or invoke his presence. But the truth is, it is the unnamed demons which drive us mad and run our lives. Consequently, the first step to healing is to name our demons, to confess we are sick. You don’t get treatment for snake bite until you admit you are snake bit.
You know what they do with the venom they milk from all those vipers they corral at those rattlesnake roundups they hold every year out west of here? They make anti-venom from it. Do you hear the lesson in that? You are saved by transforming the very thing that kills you into the thing that saves you. Carl Jung suggested that we should not hide from our shadow side, but admit it, embrace it, and transform it. Stubbornness can be turned into determination. Anger can be turned into a passion for justice. Lust can be turned towards the capacity for mutual intimacy. There is hardly any character flaw that can’t become a strength. Thomas Moore suggests that instead of fighting depression or rage we should listen to what our diseases and negative feelings may show us about ourselves. They may be guides from God telling us what we are missing, what we need to do, where we need to go. In other words, we need to take our snakes by the tail and drag them from their dens, see their beauty but avoid their bite so we can live with them in peace.
One way or another we cannot find healing until we are honest enough and authentic enough to admit we need it. As Leonard Cohen sings: “There are cracks, cracks, in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” We are cracked and fractured and struggling to hold it together, but that’s where the light gets in. That’s where we meet God. Because just as we finally admit those places where we are out of control and our lives are unmanageable, we discover there is more than enough grace to heal us in the love of God. God loves all us cracked-up, snake-bit, darkness-loving sinners, and won’t throw any of us away.
“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” (John 3:16). I’d like to find that old boy who crashes all the sporting events sporting his John 3:16 sign to say, “Way to go buddy, but you need to add verse 17, too!” “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God doesn’t want to condemn us like those preachers who used to give us a good old-fashioned Bible bashing. But God shows us what ails us so God can show us what saves us. What ails us is right there on the cross. This is what we do when we’re at our best. A friend of mine tells me of a mantra shared in AA groups: “Your best thinking is what got you here.” There is no use in any of us denying it or hiding from it. We know this about each other, and certainly God knows it. And we don’t have to be afraid to be honest about ourselves because God has the power to change us and tame our demons and turn our snakes into our best friends.
The cross shows us what our best efforts can do. This is what our best legal tradition does, the Roman law. This is what our best human religion does, the Jewish tradition. This is what all of us do, again and again and again, as Jurgen Moltmann says, “We push God out of the world and on to a cross.” But this is what God does. God takes it. God absorbs it. God transforms it. God keeps coming back to love us anyway, because “nothing can separate us from the love of God” – not even ourselves. The irony is, this one event, this one symbol, this cross of Christ holds both the consequence and the cure.
I am remembering the time Andrew and Zach got sick and I took them to the doctor. They were about four. The doctor wanted a blood test. She pricked Andrew’s finger and he naturally began to bawl. Zach’s eyes went wide, he started shaking his head, and he literally started to climb the wall backwards. He was not going to let that get near him! I had to grab him and hold him down like a calf being branded. I felt like a monster. But the sting that hurt helped the doctor discover the medicine that healed. Isn’t it a mystery, how healing usually hurts before it helps?
One Sunday evening at the church I served in New York, a young man who was fairly new to the church spoke up during prayer time. He confessed to the church that he drank too much and had problems controlling it. He confessed he had jumped into his car one night to go get some more booze when he struck a man on a motorcycle and nearly killed him. He was so ashamed and scared, but here he was telling this group of pretty righteous straight laced Baptists what he had done.
Well, I listened and gritted my teeth, not knowing what to expect of their response. You know how Baptists can be when it comes to alcohol, and not without reason since it damages a lot of lives. I was concerned they might be too harsh or avoid him altogether, but you know what they did? They hugged him. They prayed for him. They loved him. They listened to him. He learned he was still acceptable and welcome, even though he was a drunk. He also learned there were two recovering alcoholics in the church. “I thought I was the only one,” he told me later. The truth was, he was the only one who had the courage to name his demon authentically and to confess it in the congregation. It was a beautiful moment of courage, the way he trusted the church. And it was a beautiful moment of healing, the way the church loved him.
The cross is not a word about God’s angry judgment, but news about God’s incomprehensible love. You don’t have to be afraid that God is going to throw you away. You don’t have to pretend you have no flaws, no problems, no struggles. We’re all a bunch of cracked pots here. You need to stop fooling yourself that you’ve got it all under control. Instead, embrace your shadow side. Look honestly at yourself and see your snaky ways. And by the grace of Christ start the journey towards healing surrounded every moment by the God who loves you. Let the light shine through the cracked places of your life and erase the darkness where the snakes thrive. Then take the snake by the tail and toss it aside.
Therefore, I invite you: come to the cross of Christ and see your own darkness. Come to the cross of Christ and accept forgiveness. Come to the cross of Christ and be healed by the God who loves you just as you are. Who knows, maybe this will be “the greatest day of your life!” Amen. May we pray?
God, we are each of us sinners, and we need your help. We are all of us sinners, so we need not hide from each other. Give us the courage to be honest today, to accept the truth about who we are and get over it. Then, in the specific places where we struggle, may we transform our snakes into the very means of our healing through the power of the cross.
Senior Pastor Emeritus of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune served as its senior pastor from 1987 to 2017 and made headlines after UBC ordained its first openly gay deacon in 1994, resulting in the church being disfellowshipped by multiple conservative Baptist organizations including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Having formally retired from active ministry, in his current role he works at the state capitol advocating for social justice and inclusion of all Texans. He has also served as president of the American Baptist Churches of the South and president of its Ministers Council.