The bronze serpent

Fourth Sunday of Lent -Year B- Let Us Believe in Jesus, and not be Like the Murmuring Israelites Bitten by the Seraph Serpents

On the first Sunday of Lent, we were reminded of the reality of temptation, which is the central battlefield for the Christian warrior. The lesson learnt was that as Jesus triumphed over Satan, we are also called to do the same. With the celebration of the second Sunday of Lent, we saw how the transfiguration of the Lord, picked up another angle. It reminded us that the journey to glory involves a via crucis. This is the war part of the “Christian fighter.” Hence, we were told that no cross, no crown. Then, the third Sunday was the cleansing of the temple, requiring us to serve the Lord in holiness. And today, we are reminded to be faithful disciples and not to imitate Nicodemus, the night disciple or the murmuring Israelites, who were bitten by seraph serpents in the desert. That seraph serpent followed the Israelites all through their history, whenever they sinned against the Lord, as we see in our first reading today (2 Chronicles 36:14-17, 19-23).

The gospel of today is the conclusion of the Nicodemus narrative in John 3 that produced the idea of the ‘born again.’ The entire narrative of this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus runs from John 3:1-21. So, the gospel is only a part of the dialogue that took place. It is presented in a lecture form delivered to Nicodemus. Also, it is used as a rebuttal to the Jewish opposition to Jesus. The reason for this is that the problem with the majority of the Jews in John’s gospel is fundamentally their unbelief (apistis), which led to their non-acceptance of Jesus as the son of God, who came down from above. No wonder, ‘belief’ features prominently in today’s gospel.

Hence, from the standpoint of Jesus, two things were central to the dispute: belief and unbelief. In other words, if you believe, this is a turnaround and counts as a rebirth, or a change of person. In other words, “born again” is a “turnaround” and not a change of church. But if you are still in your unbelief, then you are still your old self, in need of renewal and conversion like Nicodemus and the Jews. So when Jesus brings in the incidence of the bronze serpent in the gospel of today, he links the role of faith in their religious history with the role of faith in him now. What healed the Israelites in the desert was faith in the word of God, and not the bronze serpent they were asked to make. In like manner, what brings salvation now is total and committed faith in Jesus.

The reference to the healing act of the bronze serpent in today’s gospel reminds us that our Christian journey involves a total faith in Jesus. We are constantly in need of cleansing. In this regard, the text of 1Corinthians 5:7 is quite helpful. Here, Paul said: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” Like the wandering Israelites, who murmured against God in the desert, we are also the ‘homo peccator’ or sinners in need of redemption via the exaltation of the cross. This is a subtle way of repeating Paul, who adamantly insists that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In other words, we have been bitten by the “serpent of sin.” Hence, we need to look up to the cross of Jesus in faith for healing. Today, the faith that delivered these sinful Israelites from the punishment of sin, which was snake bite, is offered to us once more in Jesus. And we do not need to be actually bitten by physical snakes before turning totally towards him. Also, we do not need to look up to the bronze serpent of the Old Testament. Now, we have to look upon the one, hanged upon the cross. It is by doing this that we can experience that God is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4-10).

Despite the ugliness of our iniquitous conditions, Jesus makes a deal with us today, in this fourth Sunday of Lent. He wants us to believe in him totally, unconditionally and unreservedly, so that we may be saved through his exaltation on the cross. But we must decide whether we want to continue to be like the murmuring Israelites bitten by seraph serpents, or a “night disciple” like Nicodemus, or a city built on a hilltop. It is important that Lent ushers in a new era of Christian living for all of us. Let us firmly believe in Jesus in the hope that it will be morning in our lives again. So this fourth Sunday of Lent reminds us that it is time to have a spiritual rebirth that will usher us into the right disposition, as we await the resurrection of the Messiah. Let us be renewed spiritually, so that we can become worthy to encounter the risen Lord on Easter Sunday.