Symbol or Idol?


Sermon for March 11th, 2018



Around the year 715BC, a new king came to the throne of the Kingdom of Judah. The King’s name was Hezekiah; a young man, a reformer, and by the account of our scripture, a good king. Hezekiah could see how his people had over time drifted away from the right worship of God. They had slipped into various forms of idolatry and they were worshipping in various high places around the country in ways that maybe resembled their pagan neighbors a bit too much…at least too much for Hezekiah. So he went about tearing down these other altars; he encouraged his people to worship only the God of their ancestors, to obey his commandments, to trust in him, and to make their sacrifices at his temple in Jerusalem. But there is an interesting footnote to Hezekiah’s reform is this little half verse that we find in the Second Book of Kings:


“He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.”


He broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses made. We can’t really date Moses in the same way that we date Hezekiah. We don’t have the same historic artifacts, but what we can be sure of is that he would have lived a long time before Hezekiah. So this bronze serpent would have been at least 500 years old. Think about this: this was an artifact of the great prophet Moses; something he actually touched and made; still there, in the same place. It is the kind of thing that Indiana Jones would have risked his life for, but Hezekiah has it destroyed and broken into pieces. That should have shocked people; it should be shocking to us; you would think that the scribes would have condemned Hezekiah for this bit of destruction but they don’t; they applaud him for it. Why? Why was Hezekiah so intent on destroying this sacred relic?


The clue is there within the verse: “…the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” Because it had become an idol. It wasn’t an idol when Moses made it; God told him to make it, it was a powerful symbol. But now people were bowing down to it and serving it; they were breaking God’s second commandment and treating this piece of metal as if it were a God itself: making offerings to it and treating the statue as if it had magical powers. The people no longer understood where the true power of the bronze serpent came from, so as far as Hezekiah was concerned, it had to go.


If the bronze serpent didn’t have magical powers, if it didn’t have power in itself, surging up and down the metal, then where did its power come from? How did it save the children of Israel? Why did Moses make it?


Well let’s review for a moment what is happening in our passage from the Book of Numbers today. The children of Israel have been freed from bondage in Egypt, they have received God’s commandments on Mount Sinai, and now they find themselves wandering in the desert for 40 years. And almost every step along the way is another complaint: it’s hot, why did you bring us here, where are we going, we’re thirsty, we don’t like this food. It doesn’t seem to matter how many miracles Moses performs, his followers are never happy for very long. You would think that with all they have seen that they would trust God by now, but No. “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.’”


Well, yes, people that are hungry and thirsty can get a bit cranky, but I don’t think that’s what’s really going on here. In the first place they do have food (by their own admission) they just aren’t satisfied with it. God has been feeding them with manna from heaven since they have been in the desert, and they don’t even have to work for it. They just have to pick it up. So they aren’t starving. And if you look in the last chapter you will find that when the people were thirsty Moses was able to make water come from the stone, so they have had water. Still these people just don’t seem to be satisfied with anything that God has done for them. They don’t trust in God’s promises, they have a loose adherence to his commandments, and worst of all they don’t like his food. How insulting!


There is another biblical story that comes to mind when God’s children didn’t trust him, didn’t obey his commandments and weren’t satisfied with his food. It seems to me that Adam and Eve had a pretty good thing going: all the food they wanted that they didn’t have to work for, comfort, security, God’s protection and only ONE commandment. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. And who was it that convinced them that their food wasn’t good enough? Who did Adam and Eve decide to trust more than they trusted God? Oh yeah….a serpent.


The serpent’s punishment for his deception is to forever eat the dust of the earth and to live in enmity with the children of Eve. “He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” Adam’s punishment was that he shall now have to work for his food.


So here we are gathered in the desert, the children of Israel are not trusting in God and they are complaining about God’s food that they didn’t even have to work for. So I imagine God looking down upon the children of Israel, who also happened to be children of Adam and Eve, and saying: “so if you would rather trust in the serpent and where he is leading you, then so be it. Let the serpent feed you.” Sometimes you have to let people make their own choices, even if they are the wrong ones. And the people quickly discovered the mistake they had made: the age old curse was still true; the serpent did bruise their heels and instead of offering them food, feasted on the children of Israel instead.


So what is God’s solution? He is, after all, a God of mercy and surely doesn’t wasn’t his children to suffer. If that were the case he could have just left them in Egypt. How does he get these people to recognize the destructiveness of their own behavior? How does he remind them of his own faithfulness and their own propensity to ignore his promises and become impatient and ungrateful? He tells Moses to make a symbol. Put it up high where everyone can see it. And what should that symbol be? Something glorious and beautiful? No. Something grotesque. Make it a symbol of death. The very thing that is attacking them, the symbol of their own sin, the serpent. Put that on a pole and when they are suffering from that serpent’s sting, let them look on that symbol and they will be saved.


Was there some kind of magic in that bronze pole? I don’t think so. Hezekiah didn’t seem to think so either. The real power of the bronze serpent was that it forced people to confront their own failure. The Israelites had been untrusting of God, impatient, ungrateful; they listened to their own desires more than they listened to God’s promises and the ultimate symbol of that was this snake. In gazing upon the snake they realized, inside, how much they still needed God. The power of the snake was not in the metal, it was in the change of heart that it caused inside those that looked upon it. Symbols have great power, not by magic, but by how they direct our souls to truth and reality that we often ignore or simply cannot see. When the symbol stops causing us to look within, and becomes an object of devotion in itself, then its true power has been lost. That’s why Hezekiah tore it down.


Even though that statue was long gone by the time that Jesus walked the earth, its fame lived on. The people still needed a symbol. People still needed to be confronted with the reality of their own sin; humanity still needed to look its own failure square in the face, and individuals still needed to turn their hearts back toward God and his promises. Jesus predicted that there would be a new symbol. It would take its place high on a hill like the last one, it would be held up for all to see, but this time it wouldn’t be a bronze serpent on the pole, it would be his own flesh. The grotesque image of death would be his own, but the message would be the same: turn your hearts back to God. Don’t hide from God like Adam and Eve, cowering in the darkness, unable to face the reality of sin, but look it in the face; come into the light and trust that the God in the garden, the God in the desert, and the God on the cross have all come not to condemn, but to save. Eat the food that God has given you, and trust in where he is leading you. The symbol may be different, but the effect within us can be the same. It still has the power to give life to those that are dying.


What do you see when you look at a cross? Do you see a magical talisman? A good luck charm? Protection against vampires and evil spirits? Do you see a reminder of someone else’s sin? A relic of Roman oppression or religious hypocrisy? An innocent man put to death? Is this symbol only about someone else, or is it also about you? Does the symbol force you to confront something within yourself that you would rather not look at? Do you see your failures, your sins? Do you see God’s mercies? Is anything happening within your heart? Does the symbol change something within you? Does it have power and if so where does that power come from? What do you see when you look at a cross?