Second Sunday of Lent, 12 March 2017, Weston Bampfylde
'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.’
Lance Corporal Michael 'Doc' McLoughlin is a medic with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He's an infantry soldier who carries a lot of medical equipment with him, in case his skills are needed. Michael spends most of his time out on patrol. It is his job to provide the immediate lifesaving first aid to soldiers if the worst should happen. That might be applying tourniquets and field dressings and administering fluids and pain relief until the Medical Emergency Response Team arrive to take the casualty away by helicopter. But back inside the patrol base, soldiers go to Michael for routine medical problems. He says: "The lads do come to me a lot and ask for basics such as sunscreen or ask me to look at their feet, just little things. I'm also there if people need to talk things through." 
Corporal McLoughlin is a healer in a difficult place. And on the uniform which he wears as he goes about his work is the insignia of The Royal Army Medical Corps - it is a serpent lifted up on a pole.
The serpent lifted up on a pole is known as The Rod of Asclepius. In ancient Greek mythology Asclepius, the son of Apollo, practiced medicine. And the symbol of the serpent refers to the fascinating medical fact that a drug is a poison that, taken in the right dosage, is also a remedy. Antidotes and vaccines are often made from the very thing that caused the poisoning or illness. Products made from the bodies of snakes were known to have medicinal properties in ancient times, and in ancient Greece, snake venom was 'prescribed' sometimes as a form of therapy. 
The snake and the pole are two things in tension - after all, people use poles to beat off or kill snakes who are threatening them. But in the ancient world they put the snake and the pole together and they became a sign of healing. From the ancient Greeks to the people of Moses. 
The book of Numbers describes the people of Israel following the Lord out of Egypt and into the wilderness, in search of a promised land, but struggling, suffering, and complaining about their situation along the way. So in Numbers 21 we read that the Lord, angered by the people's complaints, sent fiery serpents among them, 'and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.'And the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. 
Moses brought the people healing in a difficult place. The sign of God's healing and forgiveness was a serpent lifted up on a pole. People facing death, infected by a deadly poison, looked on the serpent and were restored to life - in the wilderness they experienced a sort of resurrection.
And so to Jesus, spending a very late night in conversation with a highly-placed religious leader, Nicodemus, a man impressed by the signs which Jesus was performing but struggling to get to the heart of Jesus' teachings. Jesus encourages Nicodemus to open himself to the possibility of the new loving liberating relationship which he can have with God. Nicodemus is slow to see the reality of the new life which Jesus is offering. So Jesus takes him back to Moses to try to explain.'[For] 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.’ - he said.
And we can imagine what Nicodemus would have understood by that. He would know the story of the serpent on the pole, of how Moses brought the people healing in a difficult place, when those who looked on the serpent on the pole were restored to life; how, in the wilderness, they experienced a sort of resurrection.
And now here Jesus was saying the same thing about himself: telling Nicodemus that he, Jesus was the new sign of healing in the difficult place where Israel was at that time - struggling under Roman occupation; that Jesus was God's new way of bringing healing and forgiveness to the people. Nicodemus heard Jesus offering people an experience of resurrection: of eternal life.'[For] 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.’
Eternal life. It doesn't just mean something which happens to you after you die. Life everlasting: it begins right now for those who believe. That’s what being ‘born again’ means. Born again, now, to enjoy a quality of life in this world before another world to come in the future. Jesus, the unending source of life itself, invited Nicodemus into this deep relationship with him - starting there and then. And by taking this passage of scripture into our hearts today, we can hear Jesus, the unending source of life itself, inviting us into a deep and everlasting relationship with him - starting here and now. 
Now commentators over the centuries have focussed on the association between the serpent on the pole and Jesus on the cross. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and the Son of Man was lifted up on the cross. And just as the snake and the pole are two things in tension - a symbol of conflict (the pole beating off the serpent) but at the same time a sign of healing, so Jesus and the cross can be seen in that way.
The One who loved the people so much was crucified by them; but by defeating death this One who had come healing and teaching peace was confirmed as the healer and restorer of a broken world.
When wounded soldiers see the sign of the pole and the serpent they know that healing is at hand. When believers in Christ see the sign of the cross and the Saviour they know that resurrection is at hand. Eternal life, life everlasting. Starting now.
But Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus grasp something we too need to deeply embrace - the truth that the cross is not the most important thing. That eternal life doesn't begin at death. It begins when you open your heart to the new loving liberating relationship which you can have with the resurrected God.
In John chapter three, Jesus tells us first and foremost that God loves the world. And this is very good news indeed. Jesus, the unending source of life itself, gives his whole life, his whole self to the world and invites us all into a deep relationship with him - starting here and now. Jesus is offering every person, and all creation, eternal life. It’s all about life, there’s no place for death. So let us be careful not to put the cross at the heart of our faith, but the Saviour.
Nicodemus would have known that by the time of King Hezekiah the people had turned the serpent on the pole into an idol, a sacrificial object to which they burned incense. The devout king Hezekiah called it, in contempt, 'Nehushtan', a brazen thing, a mere piece of brass; and, seeking to cause the people to return the Lord, Hezekiah had the idol destroyed. 
And this story of idolatry relates to the way that Christians over the years have made an idol of the cross, revering that object rather than the Saviour who was crucified on it. Contrary to our well-intentioned but misguided beliefs, the cross is not at the heart of Christianity - the Saviour is. The necessary sacrifice of blood and flesh belongs to other idolatries - such as in our day and age, the idolatry of nationalism - Jesus stands for only life, abundant life, eternal life.
This contradicts our creeds, which - check them out - jump from Jesus’ birth to Jesus’ death as if his life itself has no significance.  But the Saviour offered eternal life to Nicodemus there and then, well before the events which put him on the cross, and it’s living the life of Jesus and walking in the way of Jesus which will heal us, save us, in the here and now.
And so the story of the serpent and the pole offers an 'in' to all those who might be reeling from circumstances which have caused them to lose faith in their old ways of seeing things, seeing the limitations of the old religious ways which put bloody, fiery, sacrificial acts at their centre; bemused by the idea that if we make offerings on altars then God will favour us. This is good news to those who are sickened by the suggestion that God is an angry jealous deity who condemns us, and who search instead for a God who walks beside us, suffers with us, and offers healing, forgiveness, new beginnings, eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” Jesus said. 
Jesus invited Nicodemus to stop repeating the mistakes of the old religion and to turn to Jesus, to receive healing in a difficult place. Jesus offers eternal life right here, right now, to those who believe. There's hope for us all, in the way that Jesus retells the story of the serpent and the pole.
Amended from The serpent and the pole - and eternity for all, preached at Bratton Clovelly and Sourton, Devon, in 2011.
 See video Life as a combat medic on the British Army website. Quotes here were taken from an earlier version of this web page, now removed.
 Wikipedia: Rod of Asclepius.
 Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Notes on Lent 4B.
 Numbers 21.6-9 (English Standard Version)
 Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Notes on Lent 4B.
 Church of England Common Worship Creeds and authorized affirmations of faith.
 John 3.17.