Remember the tree with the snake in Paradise? God pointed out to Adam and Eve: Don’t eat of that one! The evil one wrapped himself around the very same tree and enticed the very same people: “Don’t you believe it. Don’t you see, how lovely it looks and how delightful it would be to eat of it? You won’t die. You’ll be like God.” And the tree of life, delightful and lush, flourishing in its enticing beauty, good for eating looks suddenly quite different to those first people. God had enshrined it in a no-go zone guarded by his lawful command “Don’t eat!” and protective boundary and threat: “Otherwise you’ll die!” The tree was of course the pointer to God’s law: Don’t eat! Just that. Not with the raised bar: Don’t touch! And if they would have obeyed, all would have stayed not just ok, but very good. But they didn’t heed the warning. The law ran its course. Paradise was lost! Our forebears lived as outcasts from then onwards.
Where does it come from, this strange attraction to evil, godless ways? Crazy flirtation with sin. Reckless jumping over the wall and cliff and into the abyss. Why? I don’t know. Why this mad attraction to darkness, scepticism, doubt, unbelief, mistrust in God’s goodness? Sin, devil and our own corrupted selves. It changes good into bad and worse. Makes a mess of good things. Loses paradise and rather than abiding in God’s ways prefers to go straight to hell. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s been the sad story of our generation and all those before us.
With Article XIX of the Augsburg Confession we believe, teach and confess: "of the cause of sin that, although God does create and preserve nature, yet the cause of sin is the will of the wicked, that is, of the devil and ungodly men; which will, unaided of God, turns itself from God, as Christ says John 8:44: When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own."
Several centuries later we hear of another tree. Rather a poor reflection of a tree. Something like a deleaved christmas tree with just the skeleton remaining. Remember, we’re no longer in paradise. We’re out in the wilderness now. Out with the creepy crawlies, scorpions and lots of poisonous snakes. Vicious, noxious and lethal even. A serious punishment. A calamity of sorts. And Moses gets the instruction from on high to put up this snake up in a tree, more like scaffolding probably to raise up this bronze serpent. No leaves, no fruit, no lovely beauty, just the old serpent – this image of the old evil foe. Again it’s a pointer.
At first sight it points to God’s stark law and his awful wrath over transgression and non-compliance. Remember the snake? Recall his deception? Remember your failure to stand up against his deceit, lies and treachery? You trusted that wily foe and poisonous creature more than me. But then, it was to be another lesson too. God is merciful and gracious. He’s ready to forgive iniquities and save you from your sin and hopeless mess. He doesn’t want you to die from those venomous snakes. Rather would want you to experience help and come to the knowledge of truth, that he is the good Physician, the seeker of the lost and the saviour of the hopeless and poor. If you are bitten by those fiery serpents, then look up (don’t get transfixed by the evil ones and what they’ve done to you!) rather lift up your face, fix your eyes on the image up to that snake on that stake – look at those signs of God and his pointer snake and you won’t die, but live. It’s God’s gospel promise. His saving word. Nothing to entice them slyly and no attempt to catch them with a deceptive trap, just the straightforward warning sign of a bronze snake and the inviting word of promise.
The law clarifies that listening to the old deceiver, sly, frightfully insightful in our weaknesses and hidden desires, but always out catch us out, trip us up and make us fall and fail. Following his deception, you’re always bound to be disappointed getting caught up in his treacherous net, finally hopelessly lost and distraught – gone to the dogs like Lazarus or pigs like the lost son. It’s both rather hideous and should be a turn-off really. However, on the other side, putting your hope in the living God, the one, who failes us never, then you’ll be ok, fine and go strong even if it is by clinging to a straw in the raging floods or looking up to a bronze snake in that snake-invested wilderness or in our day and age listening to the one, who was crucified, but now lives and reigns at the hand of the Father because he, the Father bids you so, then you’ll be building on solid rock, you’ll be grounded on firm foundations and you’ll be following very best practices, God’s holy will: “What God ordains is always good. He never will deceive me…”.
God’s hidden ways of helping his people in dire need bringing forgiveness, life and salvation through cross and dying and although they thoroughly deserved all of Job’s calamities themselves for all their arrogance, enmity, rebellion and just going about things as if there was no God if not going against him openly and violently. It’s why we sing: “Lift high the cross” and St. Paul’s says: “I know nothing but IX and him crucified.” Philip Melanchthon used the bronze snake in his family crest, as his badge of honour and coat of arms. You know the Lukas Cranach masterpiece: IX on the cross, St. John the Baptist pointing to him. Behold the Life pouring from him – blood and water – cup of salvation, font of life + It’s the medicine of life, Pharmakon Athanasian: Shed for the forgiveness of sins, life + salvation. It’s the tree of life, there on Golgotha. Eat of it’s fruit and you will not hunger,drink of that fountain and you will not thirst. It points us to God’s glorious work of salvation, bringing life through death glory through shame, justification of sinners by the innocent death of the righteous one IX died vicariously for us, so that we might live eternally with him. Amen.