If and when you receive a COVID-19 vaccine, you might happen to look up and see a snake or two attached to a pole.
The familiar medical symbol comes from Greek mythology—either the staff of Hermes with two or the rod of Asclepius with one—as snakes were associated with healing powers.
But Jesus has another story in mind.
He reminds Nicodemus of the time in the wilderness when Moses lifted a bronze serpent on a pole to save the Israelites from deadly snakebites.
It's a deeply disconcerting story—strange, but also terribly, frighteningly relatable.
God has had it with the people God went to great lengths to save.
"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt... (because you begged Me too) to die in the wilderness? (they ask the hand that feeds them every day for forty years).
"There is no food ... and we detest this miserable food."
Parents, how do you deal with children like this?
My Dad would say, "Kill the kid and keep the insurance."
God decides to do it for free; the peace and quiet will be reward enough.
Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
Now before you reflexively jump to judgment or theological escapism—God should have more patience and self-control ... or that's the Old Testament, let's talk about Jesus (whose Bible was the Old Testament and who is the one bringing up this awful story) ... or any other way you want to wiggle out of this divine murder—look at this from heaven's side.
God problem is people.
God's obedient servants are the snakes.
The servants are taking care of the problem.
Maybe that's why the couple got kicked out of Eden but the serpent was allowed to stay.
The serpent at least had potential.
Now think about all the worries and problems that threaten the world and keep you awake at night: an overheated planet, political gridlock, violence, racism, economic injustice, addiction, your dysfunctional family.
What do all these headaches and heartaches have in common?
People are God's second biggest problem.
God's bigger problem, of course, is God's unshakably loyal love for them.
Moses knows this only too well, and prays for the people, and God devises a bizarre and brilliantly wise way to save them.
It's not what the people had asked for.
"Pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us," they ordered their leader.
God didn't do that.
Instead, 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."
God doesn't remove our problems.
God makes us face them, and transforms the problem into the solution.
This is the counter-intuitive insight at the heart of vaccination.
Craft and apply a tiny dosage of the problem in order to mobilize the solution.
Build immunity: build the capacity to overcome the problem, instead of magically removing it, which is better for us, albeit disappointing and difficult to believe, which explains Jesus.
Listen carefully to the wisdom of Robert Capon:
The human race is, was, and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah.
We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it.
We crucified Jesus not because he was God but because he blasphemed: he claimed to be
God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim.
It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; it's just that he wasn't what we were looking for.
Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross...
He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead.
He would do a smart thing like never dying.
It is no accident that Jesus right now refers to himself as the Son of Man—the human one.
He will not entertain our escapist, superhero fantasies.
He's a fully human person who dies an early, ugly, unjust, real death that is hard for us to face.
Paul says that he became sin.
Sarah Stenton notes that Luther called Jesus "the Serpent of salvation."
He's a poisonous snake, he's evil incarnate, and worst of all...he's human.
Jesus is both of God's two biggest problems.
He is us, and he is also God's unshakably loyal love for us.
He became the problem in order to be the solution.
For us, who are snakebitten with the death we bring on ourselves by ungratefully defying God and betraying the dignity of the divine image in ourselves and in one another, Jesus becomes a kind of death vaccine.
He injects us with just enough death to keep us alive.
When Christ calls a man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote when grammar rules were
patriarchal, he bids him come and die.
That's what he is doing with Nicodemus, who came to him at night, when he talks about braving the exposure of the light.
What we try to keep alive in the dark has to die: th