Bronze Serpent

Right before dawn, I’d like to grab a seat on the top of Mount Nebo in Israel, to stare into the darkness to see if I can make out the image of a cross.

There actually is a cross there on top of Mount Nebo. It’s a bronze cross, created by an Italian artist, Giovanni Fantoni. This cross is often called the “Brazen Serpent” because there appears to be a serpent circling around and up the cross—circling over something that appears to be someone’s head. The head seems to bend forward slightly under the oppression of this serpent, as arms extend to form the full picture of the cross.

Someday, I’d like to take a hike under the shadow of darkness, so I can watch the sun rise over this sculpture on top of Mount Nebo. I may not be able to see it well in the dark, but that might just help me see; because, under the cover of darkness we need the light to shine.

This was certainly the case with Nicodemus. In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus, under the cover of darkness, to ask him some questions. At first blush, it looks like Jesus ends up raising more questions than answers for Nicodemus. But Jesus, in the conversation, foreshadows how he would bring light to all people.

I imagine Nicodemus left that conversation still in darkness. I doubt he stayed up talking to Jesus until the sun rose, and I wonder if the significance of Jesus’ words really dawned on him at that time. Perhaps this conversation was meant to drive Nicodemus to a deeper understanding of the darkness in which he lived.

Nicodemus was clouded by the darkness of night, the darkness of misunderstanding. He lived under the same darkness that still plagues all people to this day, including us.

Our darkness is the shadow of death. This shadow of death has been cast over us since we humans first heard that serpent’s promise of a way to become like God. While it might be tempting to simply pass judgment on Adam for this first fault, I’ve got to admit I’ve fallen for that same trick over and over again.

I think of this when I see a picture of this cross at Mount Nebo, the way this serpent of old wraps himself around us, and wrapped himself around Jesus as he hung on the cross on Good Friday.

But when Jesus talks with Nicodemus, he brings another snake to light. He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:14).

I love this stuff. Time and time again, Jesus not only fulfills a specific Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah, but he also fulfills major patterns, events, and roles from the Old Testament. This is a classic example.

Here we can go back to Numbers 21:4-9, where the Israelites once again began grumbling against God. God responded in his righteousness by bringing their judgment upon them without delay. He sent “venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died” (21:6).

After being plagued by these snakes, after watching their loved ones die from snake venom, I’m sure the last thing these people wanted to see again was a snake. But God commanded Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look on it and live” (21:8).

A snake?! Look at a snake? Why should they do that?

Perhaps there’s a sense of humility demanded in looking into your own curse in order to be healed. In doing this, they were called to really reflect on their own darkness before seeing the light of healing.

That’s why the impact of Fantoni’s sculpture on Mount Nebo is so striking. In this weathered bronze sculpture, you can see the image of Jesus Christ on the cross, weighed down by the burden of this snake—even the burden of our sin.

In conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus Christ said he needed to be lifted up just like Moses’ serpent, so we can look on him and see our curse suspended on that tree. And when we look at that curse, we’re called to contemplate how Jesus bore the full weight of our curse as darkness wrapped itself around God’s Son.

We can see it in the cross on Mount Nebo. The snake at Nebo reminds us of the shadow of death; it reminds us of our sin that caused and still causes this death and darkness. But Jesus entered into our darkness on the cross, and that’s what we contemplate on Good Friday: the darkness that came over Jesus, our judgment and wrath that was handed down on God’s own Son.

But on our darkest day, when it looked like evil had overcome God’s Son, when it looked like Jesus had only been lifted up to be swallowed under the shadow of death, God’s glory was just beginning to break forth. When death and darkness tried to intertwine themselves with God’s true light, they got burned.

God’s Christ didn’t just take in the darkness that Good Friday. He didn’t just stay in the darkness of his tomb either. Bursting forth in glorious light, on the third day the tomb was empty! He is risen!

Looking at his cross is more than just contemplating the way darkness made the light of Christ difficult to see. It’s really seeing the image of God’s greatest victory for us! We’re invited to look at God’s greatest work on our behalf, the sacrifice of his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.

I may never make it to Mount Nebo to see the sun rise over that cross. But more importantly, I praise God that he has brought me out of the darkness and into the light of his rising, when the “Son” of righteousness rose, with healing in his wings. In the cross of Christ I glory! I praise him for the empty tomb, and I await the day that his restoration is complete.

Pastor Daniel Berge serves Immanuel Lutheran Brethren Church in Eugene, Oregon.

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