The power to heal


Numbers 21:4-9

File:Staff at Sunset.jpg

Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.


By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The serpent’s head


Revelation 12


2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

What language shall we use to discuss the monstrosity of evil that rampages across our world?  The use of sarin gas on children in Syria, the slaughter of shoppers in a mall in Nairobi, the deluded hunter in the Navyl Yard, the hijacked airplanes flown into the twin towers, and whatever it is we should call the twisted reign in North Korea.

What language shall we use to describe the evils that erupt again and again in human history?  The pograms and death camps and slaughter of innocents?  The marching of peoples out into the desert to perish?  The torture of prisoners of war?  The bombing of churches and marketplaces.  The lynchings and disappearings?  The hidden crimes against children?

And what of those tragedies without evil intent that seem to overflow with human misery?  The famines and floods and earthquakes?  The forgotten brake on a train that engulfs a town in a holocaust?

How do such evils erupt in a world where most people are good neighbors and kind to animals and looking only for peaceful lives?  A dragon seems an apt metaphor, a serpent writ large that writhes across the sky and threatens to devour all that is good.

Our questions are not answered by a rational explanation of the wiring of the human brain and the functioning of human societies, or by a theological exposition on that nature of God, suffering and human will; they are not a quest for information but a cry of anguish and confusion and a hunger for hope.  Still our sighs and groanings do contain an important spiritual question, the answer to which requires the language of metaphor: there is a dragon, a dragon that must be slain.

Day after day, again and again, in every human heart, there is a dragon that must be slain.  I cannot yield myself to ignorance, to hate, to anger, to revenge, to tribalism, to the comfort of lies and illusions.  I cannot yield myself to pettiness, bitterness or despair.  I cannot yield myself to callousness of heart or soul.  There is a dragon that must be slain.  Drowned in the waters of heaven’s promise.  Cast from the throne that God alone may rule.

And to those who seek the better angels of our natures – as well as to those who think there are none – comes the news: the dragon is thrown down.  Purged from the heavens he storms about the earth breaking what he can.  Yet, it is but a child’s tantrum; his days are numbered, his defeat sure, his destiny is the pit.

In the garden of Gethsemane came the words “not my will but yours be done,” and the serpent’s head was crushed.  He lives now only by the life we give him, and even that shall come to an end.

The language is the language of metaphor, but the promise is sure.  There are many witnesses to the cross, the tomb, and the risen Christ.  And we feel the power of his Spirit.

The news has come from the battlefield: the victory is won, the lamb who was slain has begun his reign.  Captured, empowered and sustained by this word, we live with courage and joy and sing the song of heaven.