Seasoned practitioners of many spiritual traditions have come to understand a basic premise. In moments of profound crisis, the ordeal afflicting our spirit often contains, hidden inside it, a truth we need. We need to encounter, to acknowledge, and finally to reckon with this truth, in order to be healed.
Somehow, the poison contains the medicine.
The corresponding question then becomes:
How do we extract the medicine and live to tell the tale?
In this short story from the book Numbers, Moses uses what anthropologists would call sympathetic or imitative magic. Traditional societies often use an object representing a common threat or affliction – in this case, the mysterious, powerful viper – to heal the affliction caused by the thing itself. Encounters with desert-dwelling snakes would have been frequent in the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Moses’ response in the text suggests an imitative logic: fight fire with fire. Subdue the literal burning of snake venom in the flesh with an image of a snake cast from burning, molten metal. This is underscored by the word-magic of the Hebrew: the word for snake, nehash, sounds evocatively like the word for bronze, nehoshet.
Numbers 21: 4 – 9
Psalm 107: 1 – 3, 17 – 22
Ephesians 2: 1 – 10
John 3: 14 – 21
If it feels as though you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, it’s because you have! No wonder, then, if you are shaking your head, and thinking to yourself, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that way today. I bet a number of people are thinking to themselves, did I miss something?
Our gospel lesson today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in a sense secretly, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation about water, and being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Numbers 21:4-9 / Psalm 107 / Ephesians 2:1-10 / John 3:14-21
It seems to me that there is a common theme in the lessons appointed for today, and that this theme captures the essence of what it is that Christians believe about God and about humanity.
What shall we say about the human condition? What can we say about God, and about God’s activity in our lives and in the world? What is at the heart of the Christian message, the “good news” we have to offer to others? Wherein lies our hope? Today’s lessons offer us rich insight into these questions.