Fear on a Stick – Lent 4b

John 3:14-21
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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, 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.’

Living as I do in South Africa I have grown up around snakes. I remember as a small boy in my first year at school, living in the sub-tropical lowveld of Nelspruit . My mother spoke no Zulu, but the first word she learnt was “I’Nyogka!”.  Screamed at the top of her lungs it brought Isaac, the gardener, running with a shovel to dispense the terror. Usually a deadly black mamba or boomslang.

I was taught that snakes were to be feared, and it was only later in life that it began to seep slowly into my consciousness that snakes are probably more afraid of us than we are of them. Truth be told, when I encounter a snake today, I realise that seepage isn’t complete. There is still a powerful residue of fear.  I have believed the Christian mythology that taught me snakes are evil.

So I ask myself, why would lifting up a serpent, the symbol of evil, be healing?  Why would the Son of Man, identify with the serpent?

In the Old Testament we read that the Israelites set out from Mount Hor, where Aaron was buried, to go to the Red Sea. However they had to detour around the land of Edom (Numbers 20:21, 25). Frustrated and impatient, they complained against Yahweh and Moses (Num. 21:4-5). This is the last of the complaint stories in the Book of Numbers. Just east of Palestine, God plagued them with “fiery serpents” for their murmurs against Him. For the sake of repentant ones, Moses was instructed by God to build a serpent of bronze that was used as an instrument to heal those who looked upon it

According to Lowell K. Handy, the Nehushtan was originally the symbol of a minor god of snakebite-cure within the Temple. The name of this god is unknown, however, the use of “brazen serpent” is a subtle play on words that are based on the metal that the snake is made of: נחש (nachash) means “serpent”, while נחשת (nachoshet) means “brass” or “bronze”. (More here)

It would seem that my boyhood fear of snakes connects me with the entire human race! The fear of snakes is global.

Is it going too far then to speculate that by comparing the Crucifixion with the Nehushtan ritual of Moses, Jesus is teaching that we need to confront our fears if we want to be healed?

The conversation with Nicodemus that dark Jerusalem night was literally a life and death interaction. These were the topics on the agenda.
‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’
Jesus’ response speaks about being born from above and then he speaks of his own death in the gospel passage for this Sunday.

As primary as my ophidiophobia is the assumption that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus about saving his soul by being “Born Again”. I was taught at my Sunday School teacher’s knee that John 3 is only about being saved.
I find myself wondering if the heart of the conversation isn’t “Salvation” as my evangelical upbringing has taught me, as much as it is Jesus confronting Nicodemus with humankind’s two greatest fears?
The fear of change, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” and the fear of death (the ultimate change), “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.”

The longer and the deeper I journey in my life as a Christ follower in the church, the more I am aware of how I resist change and how much I think of my own death and the death of the Church.

It is worth remembering that when Jesus referenced the Nehushtan ritual it had been destroyed as part of the repertoire of Jewish Liturgy. He was calling upon a practice that had been outlawed in the time of Hezekiah

2 Kings 18:4 He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.
Scholars suggest that this was an act of removing Egytian cultural references to endear himself to Assyria. An abortive attempt for he fell into thrall of Assyria some years later anyway. (You can delay but never fully avoid confronting your fears)

Nicodemus the scholar would have known all this background.
The fact that he had come to Jesus indicated however, that his orthodoxy was no longer serving his needs. He needed something more than the dogma of the day.

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. –  James R Lowell

In Jesus, Nicodemus found what he was seeking. One who could help him face the sum of all his fears, change and death.
It transformed Nicodemus forever. Jesus was leading Nicodemus, the Orthodox Jew to salvation, but not as Orthodox Christians may believe!

As I contemplate the gospel this week, I wonder what could become of me, if I allowed myself to see, in the Cross of Jesus, the concentrated essence of all my fears being lifted into consciousness and awareness, and then waiting patiently to see what God can do with them, and me?

Fear on a stick?  It is about salvation after all!

Rebirthing the Powerless Rabbi – Lent 2

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.

I am a child of Apartheid.

I was born when the Nationalist Government, the architects of the policy, had been in power for almost a decade.  I arrived when there had been just enough time to alter the social structures of society in favour of whites like me, at the expense of other races, who were the majority in South Africa.

As a child of Apartheid, I was the first of my extended working class family to graduate from University and then to proceed with post-graduate studies.  This was not only due to my abilities, I wasn’t the first bright child in the family.  I was however, the first generation who didn’t have to compete with so many others for a space. My education, social and familial formation all taught me that I was better than other people and that I would be expected to take a position of leadership in society when I grew up.  It was called “baasskap”Afrikaans for “boss-ship”.

My name should have been Nicodemus.

Nicodemus literally means “conqueror of the people”.  Small wonder he rose to the ranks of the party of the Pharisees. If James Hillman, the Jungian writer, is correct, that “the whole oak tree is already in the acorn” then perhaps the whole of Nicodemus’ life was prophetically packed into that name.  Nicodemus, the conqueror of people would expect “baasskap” in his life.  He would lead, he would command, he would conquer.

Jesus told him that he needed to start his life over. As a conqueror of people he could function well in the Kingdom of the Pharisees and the Kingdom of the Roman and Jerusalem Politicians, but the Kingdom of God needed another kind of life orientation.  To even see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus would have to start again from the beginning.  The very beginning, because every white South African knows, you can drink in prejudice with your mother’s milk!

Perhaps this is why in the fledgling days of the Christian Church, those who chose to follow Jesus were expected to change their names.  “Christian” names were the mark of the radical re-orientation that was required to follow Jesus into the Kingdom of God. I wonder what Nicodemus chose as his Christian name. I would like to speculate that he became DOULOS-demos (Doulos=Greek for slave/servant)

I am bemused by what the evangelicals have made of Jesus’ very specific command to the “Conqueror of people” that told him he needed to be born from above. They have made it into a hollow external ritual that has very little to do with radical internal transformation, and everything to do with signing on for an evacuation programme from the realities of life. The “born again” brand of Christianity really does not require a change of name and identity.  It is merely an arrogant label by which others who are not in the country club are made to feel less than equal.   Nothing could be  further from the clandestine conversation that Jesus had with a man trying to understand the alternative Rabbi from Nazareth.

What a contrasting encounter it was!  The Conqueror of nations and the Suffering servant, Son of Man.

Power, prestige and privilege, in conversation with compassion, servanthood and service. This must be why Nicodemus found it so difficult to understand Jesus.

Being “born again” [Greek=gennao anothen], can also be translated as “born from above” and even as “rebirthed”. Any way you slice it, Jesus is emphasizing the radical change of heart, values, worldview and orientation that is required of those who want to see the Divine Domain.

Being a child of Apartheid, a well trained “Baas”, it has been transformational and traumatic to have to learn to live as a minority in a nation now legitimately governed by the majority who for forty years were conquered and silenced by the people of my culture and complexion.

My greatest joy in serving Post Apartheid, and still mainly white, congregations, has been to see the previously powerful conquerors, compassionately serving the communities of poor and dispossessed.  That silent, suffering majority of South Africans whose own leaders are unable or unwilling to care for them.  Despite the fact that the power wheel has turned full circle, the little people that Jesus came to seek and save, are still invisible to the conquerors of nations, in South Africa, Libya, Zimbabwe and I suppose everywhere?

Nicodemus, the conqueror of nations, member of the party of the Pharisees, was not empowered nor informed enough to understand the mysteries of Jesus’ way of Liberation.

I as white, privileged, powerful, boss, have not only had to go back to school, I have had to be rebirthed.

In the dark night of dispossession I have had to learn that my incarnation was never intended to extend and maintain illegitimate power, prestige and privilege. I have had to be rebirthed by grace to be a re-incarnation of the homeless, powerless, rabbi of Nazareth.

It is a daily process, slow but sure, like a seed growing in the depths of my being, but by grace, it will also fruit in new life for others.

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