I am probably not a salesperson’s dream customer. While I may not be the worst customer, unless I know exactly what I want when I enter a store, when I am asked, “May I help you?” I invariably reply, “Just looking.” This is in contrast to my mother, who always found a way that a salesperson could help her, and rare was the salesperson who didn’t profit from that encounter. For my part, I usually just want to look over the store in peaceful solitude. The problem is that I seem to convey this attitude a little too effectively, since if I do ultimately find something that I want, the salesperson has suddenly become very hard to find.
To say that one is “just looking” is to convey an attitude that, if not one of utter nonchalance, at least stays well short of commitment. Commitment might be somewhere out there on the horizon, but it certainly isn’t imminent. If someone visits a church, for example, she may be interested someday in becoming a member, but if she says that she is just looking, you know that it isn’t going to happen very soon. She is likely weighing other options as well.
There are plenty of times when we should be “just looking.” With regard to shopping, this perhaps should be most of the time. With regard to most things of middling value, things that are only of relative importance, we should probably just look until we have decided on how they fit with the things that are most important. This includes political policies. However, I am afraid that, too often, we reverse the process. With respect to what is actually most important—God, for example—most Americans are “just looking,” and with respect to things of middling value they aren’t looking at all. Instead, with regard to middling things many have settled into hardened ideological camps, neither listening to nor looking at what the big picture really might be, nor to what their still sane neighbors are thinking. Thus, they become deeply committed to things that really are indifferent, or nearly so, and not at all to what is most important. The result of this inversion is a sort of uprooted restlessness that results from a lack of awareness of which way to go or of where we come from. Anxious that we should know what really counts but that we really don’t, we pretend to know, and thus adhere unswervingly to notions of ideological purity, substitutes for real faith in a real God.
That is a mouthful. But, once one puts it that way, it is easy enough to say how to cure that problem. Commit to what is important; go lighter on everything else. One might even say that it is a matter of finding a polestar in the heavens to guide you in life. Having one can save your life.
But how does one do that? The problem in finding a polestar when you don’t have one already is knowing where to look. Well, I want to suggest, one does it by “just looking.” This is a different kind of “just looking” than that of the uncommitted. This is the looking of the attentive gaze, the looking of the sort such as a man in the wilderness does when he looks earnestly for the polestar in the northern sky for guidance. It is looking to the God who will help, knowing that God will help. The psalmist says, “To you I lift up my eyes, O you that are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of his master, as the eyes of a maid looks to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us.”
Now, I would like to suggest that it is such looking, and all that it means, that is the point of one of the most ancient and also most bizarre stories in the Bible—the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness when they encountered an infestation of poisonous serpents. This infestation was, as usual, the Israelites’ own fault since they had just been complaining about life in the wilderness, wishing they were back in Egypt. As a result, God sent a bunch of poisonous serpents which bit a number of people, causing them to die. So, again as usual, they came whining to Moses asking for deliverance. God’s answer to Moses’ prayer on what to do was to instruct him to take a pole with an image of a poisonous serpent on it, raise it up, and then whenever a serpent bit someone, if that person looked upon the image they would be saved.
This is a truly ancient story. Biblical scholars confidently claim that it reflects religious practices of a very ancient world, practices such as sympathetic magic or the serpent magic that was practiced in ancient Egypt during the time of the Exodus. To us, it simply appears as ancient superstition. No sane herpetologist would ever take the image of a bronze serpent with him into the wild instead of a snake bit kit, and neither would any of us.
But that may not be what this story is saying at all. For early Christian writers, stories like this had another meaning beyond the literal. For, they argued, whatever happens in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment and meaning in the New Testament. In the case of Moses and the bronze serpent he lifted up in the wilderness, they especially had very good reason to think this. Jesus himself says so. When instructing Nicodemus, he tells him: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In short, looking upon the serpent lifted up in the wilderness is a symbol that points to the salvation of believers who believe in the Son of Man lifted up on the cross. Thus, the church father of the fourth century, Ephrem the Syrian, argued: “Just as those who looked with bodily eyes at the thing which Moses fastened on the cross lived bodily, so too those who look with spiritual eyes at the body of the Messiah nailed and suspended on the cross and believe in him will live spiritually.”
Ephrem’s point has its strength in listening to what exactly Jesus tells Nicodemus. The Israelites had looked on Moses’ upraised serpent staff and saved their skins; Jesus says that when the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross, whoever believes in him will have eternal life. In its depths, looking for deliverance is a matter of believing. In looking to the hand of one’s master or mistress, we believe that he or she has a direction for us, that he or she can provide life. In looking on the Cross in the way that a believer looks is to find a polestar for life.
Which helps us to understand what the point is of what is perhaps the best-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Belief in the only begotten Son is a matter of looking on him, of using his cross – its love, its sacrifice – as our direction for life. That is what the Israelites were doing out in the desert. In looking on the serpent staff of Moses, I think they were more than just looking. I think that for once they were relying on the God who could save them.
To put it that way may makes us more comfortable in letting us think that there really is something of spiritual worth in this story. Good. Even so, the bizarre aspects aren’t to be dismissed. Those bizarre aspects point to something of the hard reality that is being addressed here. For, if the lifting of the bronze serpent in the wilderness points to a salvation that is ultimately found in the lifting up of Jesus’ broken body on the Cross, the Cross also points back to the real struggle of God’s people, and that struggle is in the hard stories of Old Testament history. The help and salvation that the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness of Sinai needed was commensurate with the dangers inherent in that wandering. They were in a desert. There was little or no food or water except what God provided miraculously. They were surrounded by serpents and wild beasts that saw them as food. There were enemies who had pursued them into that wilderness and enemies who would seek to destroy them as they marched toward the promised land. These were not people who needed help and faith as an accessory to a life lived largely without struggle, they didn’t need a slogan, such as John 3:16 has become, they didn’t need spirituality without religion or sacrifice. They needed help and real faith to live.
I don’t worry a lot about the fact that we have a hard time taking seriously the curative value of looking upon a bronze serpent to save us from serpents; but I do worry a lot about the fact that we no longer believe, as the Hebrews in the wilderness were forced to believe, that we are ever in much danger these days, that our lives and souls hang in the balance. To the degree that we do not believe that there is a real struggle in life in which our souls hang in the balance is also the degree to which we cannot understand what exactly it means to say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ...” That is the degree to which we do not understand what it means to give an only begotten Son for the salvation of a struggling, dangerous world.
We live in a fallen world, and the serpents still are very much with us. We don’t necessarily encounter them every day, nor do we usually experience them as a mass invasion, although social media may make it seem so. But we ought to be aware that they are there. They come in the illnesses and weaknesses that still beset human life, despite our best preventative health care and medicine, despite the music we sing and the slogans, religious and otherwise, that we quote to ward them off. The serpents encounter us in difficult people and in people who wish us no good. They come upon us in those whom we love who are in the sort of trouble that they reject help, for often the people who need help most are the ones least likely to seek it out or accept it. The serpents come, too, come in our moral decisions when doing the right thing is not only difficult but actually something that will set back and undo our most cherished projects. They come upon us as we are at the mercy of the powerful whose self-interest threatens us. Like the Hebrews wandering in the desert, we need something that will deliver us; we need something lifted up to look upon that we might be saved. We don’t need a slogan; we need a real savior for we are often in real trouble.
The Cross, Christ’s being lifted up, is that salvation. It is real salvation for real trouble, but it is also a real death, and a real death that comes at the end of the fangs of the serpents that beset us. Jesus was not simply a martyr for truth, as one philosopher put it, nor was his death an unfortunate mistake or tragedy that was quickly set right by the resurrection. God, in giving his only begotten Son, gave his Son to a world that is too often filled with serpents. He really gave him up, and he really died. Looking on him is what really saves us.
In Reformed churches, such as Presbyterian churches, when we display the Cross, we typically display it as empty. The reasoning for this is that Christ has died once and for all, and Christ is now risen. He is no longer on the Cross. Thinking that way is true and right. But we do need to be aware that the Cross was not always empty, and, in that sense, Catholic-style crucifixes in which the broken body of the man of sorrows hangs there lifted up for us to gaze upon are something for us to look at. They are reminders of how much has been done for us and they are reminders of our sufferings and the God who shares them with us. They do have something to teach us about what it means to say that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. And they do have something to teach us, therefore, about what it really means to say that “whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
As we go through the Christian life, surely we can have confidence that faith is the beginning of everlasting life. We can have confidence that there is a resurrection. But we also need to be aware that to get to resurrection we, as also the one in whom we believe, go through death and a world beset by serpents. Faith in Christ does not avoid them, it does not magically make them disappear, but it does believe and act as if their bite is not fatal. It allows us to encounter them, and to live through them and even despite them. For it is by looking on him that we are given in his love and sacrifice a way to go. In the Cross, he gives us a polestar to direct us in how to live and to love, and how to save our lives. It is by gazing upon him that we will be saved in the wilderness in which we are wandering.