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.
At the top of Mt. Nebo, just northwest of Madaba in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, there is a statue of a serpent lifted up on a pole reminiscent of the one Moses lifted up in the wilderness after the attack of serpents. You know the story from Numbers 21: The people complained about being out in the desert with nothing to eat so God sent some serpents to bite them. Lots of them died. Then the people said they were really sorry and asked Moses to pray for them, which he did. God told Moses, “Alright, then. Make a bronze serpent and put it on top of a pole. When people look at it they will live.” And that’s what happened.
That is the serpent that Nicodemus and Jesus were talking about in the gospel reading for this morning. The serpent was lifted up and that brought life to the people. Jesus was also lifted up on a cross, and his sacrifice to violence is what heals us from the wounds we all receive just by virtue of being alive. It’s a pretty good comparison. But, we really should follow it through to the end.
Do you remember what happened to the serpent on the pole? Well, it worked pretty well. People really were healed when they looked at it. Eventually, people were so enamored of the snake on a pole that they started burning incense to it and worshipping it! King Hezekiah made them destroy the serpent on a pole. It had become an idol.
That’s how the story of the serpent on a pole ends, and it is how the story of Jesus on the cross should end too. It has become too much of an idol, especially in certain branches of Christianity. The crucifixion should not be the object of our attention any more than the serpent on the pole. Like all idols, they have to be destroyed.
This reminds me of a story from Islam. It’s a story about Moses. In the story, Moses got a stomach ache and so he told God about it. God told Moses to eat the leaves of a certain kind of tree and he would be healed. Moses went out and ate the leaves and he was healed. For years Moses didn’t have any more trouble with his stomach. Then one day he had another stomach ache. Moses remembered what God had told him and so he went to the tree and ate some more leaves. Moses expected to feel better, but he felt worse instead. “God,” he said, “Why didn’t the leaves heal me?” God replied that healing was never in the leaves. Healing was in hearing and doing the will of God. Then God told Moses to eat the leaves of a different tree. Moses did and he felt better right away.
We are looking for some way to relate to this God which is an unrelatable, complicated, impossibly incomprehensible being. So, we look to things like Jesus on a cross, serpents on poles, leaves, even doctrines like the Trinity.
Whether we call God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; or in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti; or something more modern like Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer doesn’t matter. That is not who God is. Muslims have 99 names for God, all of them seem true to me and none of them seem to be anything near the whole. Jews have seven basic names for God, but the rabbis added some names, and the Kabbalists added some names, and they all seem right, and they all seem inadequate too. But there are not seven, or 99, or three Gods. Still only one. Still unmanageable.
The doctrine of The Trinity arose out of a need to say what was true and what was not true about Jesus, who he was, what kind of being he was. Good people did the best they could to figure it out and some of them, people we now call heretics, had taken some kernel of truth and made it their only truth. There can’t be any condemnation in that, though a lot of them did get burned at the stake. (#BadOutcome) The fact of the matter, though, is that we have replaced the heretical kernel of truth with the Trinitarian kernel of truth. There really are three expressions of God, and at least 3,000 more. The heresy is not in naming them, but in thinking that we can somehow manage the nature of God by naming and organizing it.
Here are some alternative Trinitarian formulations:
Oh, God… Beginning, Middle, and End.
Oh, God… Giver of life, Trouble, and Death.
Oh, God… Creator, Destroyer, Desolation.
Oh, God… Lover, Fighter, Weirdo.
Oh, God… The question, The Answer, The Wonder.
It’s all really just a reflection of us. What about you? If you have to reduce it to only three, what Trinitarian formula would you use? Can you recognize that the tired old patriarchal formula we currently use is really just the best people could do at the time, not the end-all and be-all explanation? Let the wind of the Holy Spirit blow in some new ideas, new names, new ways of thinking and talking about the one who is beyond words. And, if it turns out that you’re a little bit of a heretic, don’t worry. We all are.
Linda McMillan is currently in Amman, Jordan… Near Mt. Nebo.
Image: The Trinity. Andrei Rublev (1370-1430). Moscow