Moses’ bronze snake was a good gift from God…until it became an idol. That’s what we do with so many of God’s gifts: we worship them as false gods. What are some of the idols ruling over us today? And how can we find our way out of idolatry?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Fourth Sunday of Lent, year B
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
It began as such a good thing.
When poisonous snakes attacked the people of Israel in the wilderness, they prayed to God for forgiveness and help. God answered their prayers by telling Moses to craft the image of a serpent, and to lift it up high, so that people could look at it and be healed. It sounds strange, but it worked. Everyone who saw it was made well. The aggressive snakes didn’t disappear, but they no longer held the same terror for God’s people. There was now a way forward, leading them out of death and despair.
We know that this bronze snake was dear to the people because the book of Kings tells us that, hundreds of years later, it was still in Jerusalem. Faithful people preserved this vehicle of God’s grace not only through the wilderness, but through the conquest, through the time of the Judges, through years of wars and civil wars until it finally found its home in the holy city. This object, this bronze snake, told the story of those hard years wandering in the desert. It symbolized salvation in the midst of danger and pain. It was a reminder that God’s mercy is always greater than God’s anger. And it was made by Moses’ own hands. Of course it was honored. Of course it was well-loved.
But something went wrong. By the time of King Hezekiah, around the year 700 BCE, the symbol had become twisted into something ugly. People forgot what the bronze snake really meant and started worshipping it as an idol. Devotees burned incense to it, as if this old piece of metal could accept their sacrifices or answer their prayers. They took this good gift from God, and turned it into a false god. So Hezekiah took this sacred object, this symbol of salvation forged by history’s greatest prophet, and he smashed it. It started as a bridge between God and the people, but now it was a barrier, so he broke it into pieces.
It’s a bit heartbreaking that that’s how the story of the bronze snake ends, with idolatry and loss. But isn’t that what we always do? God has given us so many good things in this life for our enjoyment, for our flourishing. Our world is overflowing with abundance and beauty and delight. We are surrounded by good gifts that please our bodies, lift our spirits, and engage our minds. And we so easily turn these things that God has given us into our idols.
Take food, for instance. It is a truly marvelous thing that we can take such joy in nourishing our bodies. Meals don’t just keep us alive – they excite our tongues, stretch our imaginations, and strengthen our relationships. This is pure gift. And yet, we so often treat food as if it is the center of our lives instead of something that serves our lives. How much does our culture teach us to fixate on what we put in our bodies? How powerfully are feelings of virtue and shame tied up in what we put in our shopping carts, as if our worth could be measured by our menus? What if we, as a society, put half as much energy into serving God as we put into thinking about our diets? Because this idolatry comes at a great cost. When we let food become our god, it is not a kind master. It inspires obsession, anxiety, self-doubt. When we turn this gift into a god, it takes and it takes – sometimes until there is nothing left.
Or consider knowledge. God gave us these brains, the wonder of which we are just now beginning to understand, and filled us with endless curiosity. Our lives sparkle with the joy of discovery as we learn to understand the world around us. But then we can turn simply knowing things into an ultimate good. We use it to posture over each other, to glorify ourselves instead of learning to better love our neighbors. Or we treat athletic or artistic talents as though they were the sole purpose of our lives. Or we obsess over our possessions, enjoying good things but then demanding more and more until they own us instead of the other way around. Whatever they are, we all have our idols. Things that God has given us to enjoy on this earth become our ultimate concerns. The bronze snakes that were meant to lead us to healing and wholeness sometimes just leave us more broken.
This is particularly true for the church. How often, in the history of our faith, have we loved our ideas about God more than we have loved God? It seems absurd to think that anything as wonderful and sacred as our theology, or our worship, or our Bible could become an idol – but that’s probably what people thought about Moses’ bronze snake. It is so very easy for us to mistake our tradition for God, and to act as though our specific understanding of faith is the thing that needs to be loved and served. Or we get so attached to our institutions that we can’t recognize when they’re no longer serving our relationship with God. Instead of striving to do the work of the Gospel, we work to defend the things that we have created. Or we become so set in our interpretation of scripture that the words on the page make it hard for us to hear what the living Word is saying to us today. Over and again, we can say we’re worshipping God when we’re really paying all glory, laud, and honor to ourselves and our own work. Again, the earthly things of faith that we love are good, and God-given, and filled with grace – but they are not God. Sometimes we need to put them back in their proper place. Sometimes we might even need to break them apart so we can encounter God anew.
But there is good news here. For all that we turn God’s gifts into idols, God gave us one more gift that we know can lead us safely through the wilderness. It’s a gift that we might misinterpret or misuse, but that can never be corrupted or destroyed. For God so loved the world that God gave the only-begotten Son to show us the way to eternal life. Christ is the greatest gift this world has ever known, and he shows us the way out of all our idolatry. When our longing for certainty and stability turns good things into false gods, Christ shows us that we only find ourselves when we give ourselves away. When our desire for knowledge turns good things into false gods, Christ tells us that God’s wisdom is found in folly. When our love of power turns good things into false gods, Christ shows us the way of the Cross, and empties himself of all the power of the cosmos for our sake. And when our sense of inadequacy turns good things into false gods, Christ shows us that we are loved – absolutely and unconditionally, no matter who we are.
For as long as we are on this earth, we are going to misuse the things that God gives us. We’re going to make sacrifices to false gods. But we know where we can look to see our true God, and we know that when we look to Christ, we will find life. No matter what dangers surround us, no matter how far we have gone astray, we will find life.