Meet Jane Williams
At W4TL (Waiting For The Light) we have been reading a book by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. I thought it would be nice to hear something from his wife Jane, Anglican theologian and author. What follows is her reflection for the today's readings. Enjoy!
The imagination nourished by the Bible immediately springs into action at the mention of snakes.
In Numbers, they may be real rather than metaphorical, but that does not prevent them from carrying heavy symbolic baggage. The Israelites have been wandering around in the desert for quite a while. All kinds of exciting and terrifying things have happened to them, and given them proof, over and over again, that God goes with them to save them—in the first three verses of chapter 4 he has just helped them to victory over a formidable foe. But now the wanderers have hit a stagnant phase, where they just have to trudge along through the inhospitable terrain and they are, frankly, bored. They sound like spoiled children, cross and illogical: ‘We’re starving. There’s no food, except the food we hate.’
At this point, we are told, God sends poisonous snakes to bite them—something with which many parents of spoiled toddlers at teatime may feel a sneaking sympathy. But the people have not wasted their years in captivity and their dark evenings round the camp fire in the wilderness. They know the creation stories, and they instantly recognize these snakes. The people recognize that they have given in to temptation, just as Adam and Eve did, and they quickly run to Moses to confess. And God gives Moses the strange remedy of a bronze snake to cure the fatal bite of the tempter.
How intriguing, then, Jesus’s use of this bronze serpent is. John puts it in Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, who is ‘a teacher of Israel’ yet does ‘not understand these things’. Nicodemus should surely recognize Jesus as God’s cure for the venom of the devil, but apparently he doesn’t. Even the childish and grumbly children of Israel instantly spotted what God was up to, but not Nicodemus.
This whole conversation is about new life, being born again. The old life is the one that comes about through human sinfulness, and it leads inevitably to death. But the new life of the Spirit in Christ is the cure for everything associated with that ancient serpent in the garden, and it leads to life eternal. Jesus’s death will be the cure for death, just as Moses’s serpent was the cure for snake bites. Were there people in the company of the Israelites who were too stupid to run to the bronze serpent when they were bitten by a snake? Surely not. But there are those too blind to notice the healing sign lifted up in the cross.
Ephesians does not mention snakes, but it does further elucidate old lives and new. The old life led so inexorably to death that Ephesians just cuts out the middle bit, where you might temporarily believe yourself to be ‘alive’, and calls the whole thing ‘death’. In that non-life it is as though we are all born with the fatal snake bite, and that’s all there is to it. But God again provides the remedy, which is to cling to the cross of Christ and so to be raised from our death by Christ’s death and resurrection. There is no medicine that we can manufacture to cure the old life. This passage is utterly emphatic about that. It cannot say often enough that this is entirely the work of God, his gift to us. And what he does is to give us a new life instead of the old one. We are created again, in Christ, and this time we will be able to do ‘good works’ (Ephesians 2:10), with no serpent to tempt us otherwise and fill us full of venom and death again.
But the problem with all of this talk of ‘new life’, wonderful though it is, is to find out what it means day to day. At the moment of conversion, and at moments of crisis or special meeting with God, you can feel an absolute clarity and certainty that this is, indeed, a new life, and that the old life has lost its hold upon you for ever, through the work of Christ. But in ordinary life, the old habits and failures and doubts reassert themselves time and time again, as if mocking any hope of real renewal. What Ephesians seems to be saying is that your situation is, as a matter of fact, now completely different, thanks to God, whether you always feel it or not. Wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites are no longer slaves, but they still grumble. Their status has changed, but their nature has to learn to respond. So with us. God has brought us into freedom and life—that is simply the case. The rest of our lives are about learning to live in our lively freedom.
Williams, J. (2005). Lectionary Reflections: Year B (pp. 48–49). London: SPCK.