In the 18th century – smallpox was ravaging Europe. 400-thousand people a year were dying from it – including five European monarchs – and more than twice that number were left horribly scarred.
A smallpox vaccine was developed centuries before in China, and appeared later in the Ottoman Empire. Even the New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather advocated for it and vaccinated people in and around Boston – sparking controversy.
In 1796, Edward Jenner introduced his vaccine for smallpox. He noticed that milkmaids who had caught cowpox – a related, but much less serious disease – did not come down with smallpox. So he started introducing fluid from a cowpox lesion into patients’ skin – and they became immune to it.
But not everyone bought into his vaccine. Many were afraid of getting cowpox – or worse, smallpox. He was ridiculed by many: a cartoon from that era shows Jenner vaccinating patients, who start to have cows pop out of their skin.
That is the nature of vaccines – you use something that can hurt you to save you from that very thing.
The same is true for antivenin – which is given to people who have been bitten by poisonous and venomous snakes. There are people who milk snakes – basically, squeezing the venom out of their fangs. (A career I’m not at all interested in pursuing) Small doses of the venom are introduced into animals, which produce antibodies that are given to snakebite victims.
Using something that can hurt you can save you from that very thing.
We see that in this story from Numbers. The people are complaining again: no water, bad food, “You brought us here into this desert to die.” You’ve heard it all before. So had Moses.
And so had God – who sent poisonous snakes to bite the people. Many died, so the people quickly came to their senses and confessed their sin to Moses and asked him to intercede with God for them.
He did – and God gave Moses a prescription for healing the people: Make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Those who had been bitten and looked at the snake would be healed. Apparently, those who did not would die.
So God was the first to use something that could hurt His people to save them from that very thing. But it was not the last time.
In our passage from John 3 today, Jesus was explaining His mission to Nicodemus – a Pharisee – and why he should trust Jesus. When Nicodemus still didn’t understand, Jesus reminds him of the story of the bronze serpent – the snake that God used to save His people from snakes.
In verse 14, Jesus was hinting at the way he would die – by being lifted up on a cross. And more clearly in verse 15, He was explaining how people would be saved – by looking to Him:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Once again – God would use something that was hurting His people to save them from that very thing. God would take His perfect Son – and place the sin of the world on Him – and make Him a sacrifice for those sins. As Paul put it in II Corinthians 5:
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus Christ – the spotless Lamb of God – became sin for us on that cross. And when we look to Him and His cross, we are saved from that sin.
Jesus told a crowd of Greek Jews the same thing in different words in
John 12: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
This is a radical challenge to the Greek and Roman mythology that was competing with the worship of the One True God. Remember Medusa?
A female human with wings – and venomous snakes for hair. You’d hate to be her hairdresser. Those who looked too long at her face would be turned to stone. But looking to the bronze serpent on the pole saved the Israelites who did. Looking to Jesus on the cross saves those who do.
Which is why you often hear expressions like “may the cross of Christ be lifted up” in prayers. Because that is what the Church does. We lift up the cross – making it visible to those around us.
We cannot make them look – but we must do whatever we can to make it visible for them in our lives. We do this in the words we speak, the choices we make, the compassion we show, the justice for which we work.
But that is not enough – we have to get better at pointing to Jesus and His cross. We have to explain to people why our lives are different, and why we have the hope we do: “Look! There He is – the One who can save you from the sin that would destroy you. Look to Jesus and live.”