© 2021 Evan D. Garner
It's the email you don’t want to open, the text message you don’t want to see, the phone call you don’t want to answer. There’s a pretty small gap between how good it feels to send an angry message and how bad it feels to get a response. You were right, which is to say that you were justified, in sending it, but sending it feels a lot better than getting a response. How long can you let that email sit unopened?
There’s a saying in sports that the game film never lies. The coach may not have seen you miss that block in real time, but, when it’s time for the team to sit down and look at the film, you know that you won’t be able to hide from it. Even if you skipped school that day or left the room before that particular play was reviewed, you know that your mistake will eventually find you.
It’s harder to hide from our mistakes these days. A few decades ago, our worst fears were a yearbook photo from our college days getting out. Now every social engagement, every conversation, every sophomoric political stance is recorded for the whole world to see years later, when we’re all grown up. Who wants to relive everything they did or said in their teens and early twenties? Don’t all of us want to hide from our worst moments—from our worst selves?
Thankfully, God seems to have a different plan in mind. On their way through the wilderness, the people of God grew impatient. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness,” they complained against Moses and God. “For there is no food and no water, and our very selves detest this worthless, loathsome food to our core.” We might not blame those who had been forced to survive for years on only manna and quail for becoming a little impatient, but the irony of their complaint—the ungracious, unappreciative, faithless whining of God’s people at the one who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and who actually had given them food and water in the desert—should not be lost on us either.
In response to that complaining, God did what God did. God sent fiery, burning, poisonous serpents among the people to bite them and kill them. Who knows how many times the Israelites had encountered poisonous snakes on their journey through the wild territory between Egypt and Canaan, but now that the LORD had withdrawn his protection from them, they were in danger. The hardships of the wilderness, from which God had sheltered God’s people, now turned against them.
The reaction from the people was as swift as it had been from God: “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you,” they said to Moses. “Pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” Immediately, confronted by the consequences of their faithlessness, the people of Israel repented and returned to the one who had saved them and who had brought them safely thus far. So Moses prayed on behalf of the people, but the answer he received was, at first glance, utterly surprising: “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” In other words, make an icon—an idol—of the people’s suffering and hold it up on a standard bearer so that those who look upon it shall not die but live.
God commanded that the people would be saved by gazing upon the very symbol of their disobedience and punishment. The thing that had killed them would become not only a reminder of their failure but a path to their renewal. Instead of commanding that the people would turn away from their misdeeds and never look back, God told Moses to hold the symbol of the people’s sin up to them so that they might look upon it and live. Repentance, we see, is not an effort to escape from our sin but to turn around and go through it back to God.
Centuries later, God’s people would make sense of this strange episode and record what it had taught them in the Book of Wisdom. There, the ancients wrote of that bronze serpent,
For when the terrible rage of wild animals came upon your people and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents, your wrath did not continue to the end; they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all.” (Wisdom 16:5-7) 
God’s people understood that, by looking upon the image of the serpent, they were saved not by the poisonous snake itself but by God, “the Savior of all.” In order to return to God and God’s salvation, the people needed to search for God not by hiding from their sin but by looking for the merciful one who stared back at them from the other side of it.
Doesn’t that change the way we hear what Jesus said to us in John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” How strange it seems at first glance to hear Jesus comparing his death with the bronze serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness. Usually, when Christians quote John 3, they skip verses fourteen and fifteen. But, when we think about how God used that serpent on a stick to bring God’s people back, the image of the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up that serpent in the wilderness makes perfect sense. The cross of Christ shows us that God saves us not when we hide from our sin but when we believe—when we trust—that God’s love is more powerful than our worst moments, even our worst selves.
We have a hard time confronting the magnitude of our shortcomings. All of us would rather hide from them. Is it any wonder that the systemic sins of racism and misogyny continue to plague humanity? Who wants to face the truth of our part in those sins? Wouldn't we all rather pretend that we aren't caught up in them? How strange and yet how wonderful it is to hear that our greatest hope is found when we confront those sins head on!
Think of all the ways we undermine the magnitude of God’s saving love by pretending that God only loves us when we’re good. We tell ourselves that good people go to heaven. We convince ourselves that we, too, are good enough to squeeze through the pearly gates. But that only makes us want to hide from our mistakes even more because we’re afraid that we won’t measure up. But believing in Jesus—believing what he says to us in John 3:16—means exactly the opposite.
We look upon the one who was crucified on our behalf and there confront the fullness of our sin. We do so not to wallow in shame or to cower in darkness but to be reminded that we belong to the one whose love is bigger than our sin, whose mercy is greater than our faithlessness. Good people don’t go to heaven because they’re good. They go to heaven because of God’s infinite goodness. And the same is true for sinners like you and me. We are saved not because we deserve it but despite the fact that we don’t. That’s the way God’s love works. That’s who Jesus is. That’s what we are asked to believe. And believing in that is what gives us eternal life.