The Hair of the Dog
[Jesus said,] “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have 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.”
“Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the holy son of God. And this is the judgement: that the light has come into the world and people preferred the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. Those who do what is evil hate the light and do not come to the light for fear that their deeds might be exposed. But those who do what is true, come to the light so that it might be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Remember with me, first, that story we heard from Numbers about Moses and the serpents. Back in the day, when the Israelites were wandering around in the wilderness, and being pestered and punished and killed by snakes, God gave them the gift of this serpent on a pole. I always think of it as God’s “hair of the dog” sort of cure for what ailed them. (I hope you’ll forgive my irreverence, buy I’m guessing a room full of Lutherans knows the reference to that old wives’ tale about how “the hair of the dog that bit you” is rumored to help a person feel better after having had too much to drink.) By “hair of the dog” in this case, I’m talking about how the Israelites who were being punished by poisonous serpents were supposed to lay eyes on the very object of their affliction – this bronze statue of a serpent on a pole – or the hair of the proverbial serpent that bit them, if you will.
And this is what Jesus compares himself to in John’s Gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” he says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” “Just like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”
How, then, is Jesus like a snake on a pole, lifted up in the wilderness, to which the people of God might look and be healed? How, then, is Jesus – the Son of Man – like the “hair of the dog” for us, as people who believe in him and hope for forgiveness, and salvation, and grace in his name? What does it mean to look to the source of our suffering and expect to be healed, cured, forgiven, saved?
Isn’t that, a lot of the time, the very last thing we are inclined to do – look to the source or object of our struggle and sinfulness? Isn’t it hard and scary, sometimes, to look our fear and our shame and our greatest threat in the eye? Aren’t we pretty good at – if not inherently wired for – avoiding so many of the difficult, scary, broken parts of our lives, rather than face them or engage them and expect good things to come of it?
It all makes me think about Adam and Eve – the first in our faith’s story to deal with the likes of a serpent – and how their first inclination was to hide, to cover themselves, so that God couldn’t see them in the fullness of their shame for having disobeyed and committed that first sin of eating from the forbidden tree. They had been tricked by the serpent, and their first instinct was to blame, to hide, to go undercover, to hope they wouldn’t be seen. They’re first inclination was not to confess, not to confront, not to repent, not to face the music – or the snake – or the sin they had committed.
And I think we’re the same way, still. In the face of our sinfulness, our inclination is to hide. In the face of whatever it is we do wrong our initial response is so often, if not always, to run for cover; to duck the punishment; to deflect blame; to fear and avoid and dodge whatever judgment we deserve.
And it’s no wonder, really. Our world is an unforgiving, judgmental, punishment- seeking, vengeance-hungry, score-keeping kind of place to live in – and so are a lot of churches. Admitting failure is bad for approval ratings – just ask a politician. Acknowledging mistakes is bad for business – just ask Wall Street. Asking for forgiveness is seen as weakness – just take a look in the mirror.
But this is what Jesus asks us to do in this morning’s Gospel. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” … on a pole… on a tree… on a cross for all the world to see, so that we might look at him, so that we might look to him for deliverance from that which threatens us.
I have what I think is one of the coolest, strangest coffee table books, ever, called A Lifetime of Secrets. It’s the result of an art project of sorts, where a guy named Frank Warren invited people from around the world to send him anonymous, creatively decorated postcards, bearing secrets they had never before revealed. It’s full of anonymous confessions from people as young as eight and as old as eighty, and it’s fascinating.
It’s full of revelations as innocent as a kid being embarrassed by her dad’s nose-ring.
Or this kid who’s afraid to grow up.
As cool as someone who anonymously gives away $100 every month.
There are sad secrets like this one: “Grandma died in a nursing home with a stranger caring for her. We visited and had our photos next to her bed. I don’t think it was enough.”
And there are even darker secrets, too, about eating disorders and unhappy marriages; about infidelity and abuse of all kinds. There are confessions of crimes and addiction, repentance for disbelief in God, fear of death, failed suicide attempts. You name it and someone is keeping it a secret.
And there’s something about this book – and the idea of its creator – to invite people to share their secrets in a creative, artistic, tangible way; to invite people to spell out, in words, for the first time, their deepest, darkest sin or shame or fear or failing, that reminds me of this “hair of the dog” theology. See this exercise with the postcards and the secrets proved to be healing and cathartic, life-changing and life-giving for many of the people who were simply able to see and to say and to share their secrets – however large or small – for the first time, in a concrete way.
It makes me think about God’s invitation, in lifting up Jesus Christ on the cross – like Moses did with the bronze serpent in the wilderness – so that we might look upon all the sin and shame that hangs there with him, in death, and be relieved of whatever burden it holds over our lives in this world.
Because, as Jesus also says today, when we live in the guilt of our sins, the judgement we fear most is already upon us – never mind the after-life, we are condemned already by that of which we are ashamed. We are already suffering. We are already not fully alive as God intends for us to be, if we’re living in the darkness; if we’re hiding from the light; if we’re keeping secrets and harboring shame and suffering silently and full of fear – no matter how large or small.
But there is hope in the hair of the dog!
Because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And what’s even better to remember, if you ask me, is what Jesus says next, that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And, as many of you have heard me say before, I’m under the impression that if God sets out to save the world, then God’s going to save the world – secrets, shame, and sins be damned.
And that’s why we are invited to look at his sacrificial death, lifted up on the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world… so that we might stop hiding from the sins that hang there with him – all the things done and left undone – so that we might look full in the face of our greatest shame and our deepest fear and into the threat of our own brokenness – even into the face of death – and to see God’s salvation in spite of it all.
Because when we see it all crucified and killed and raised to new life, then it can’t bite or burden us any longer. And when we receive and accept this grace, we can live transformed lives in return.
So we are invited – today and every day – to come out of the darkness of our fears, to step into the light of God’s forgiveness, to acknowledge what God already knows about our secrets and our sins and to receive the love that’s ours for the taking in Jesus Christ, our Lord.