Our ordinary daily lives are filled with perfectly innocent-looking poisons.
We use household chemicals without thinking twice, but many of them are toxic. But at least they have a warning label.
The list of poisonous plants is relatively long if we consider only household and ornamental plants, to say nothing of the varieties growing wild in field and forest.
Fortunately, many of these poisons pose no threat unless you eat or drink them, and we are very unlikely to guzzle a pint of Clorox or toss a hemlock salad.
But some poison can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Some substances can be silently poisoning us before we realize it, slowly acting on us in a series of small doses. Think of carbon monoxide poisoning or lead poisoning.
Jesus tells us that we have been poisoned. We have perhaps unwittingly already given ourselves a fatal dose, and our only hope is to take the antidote.
This is what Jesus means when he says this peculiar thing to Nicodemus: “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.” (John 3:14)
Idolatry is the poison. Jesus is the antidote. I’m going to explain this is in just a moment. But in order to understand this image of Jesus’ saving work we have to look at the Old Testament story to which he alludes to make his point.
There are several stories about how much the Israelites grumbled during their desert wandering. But the Book of Numbers records the one that Jesus cites. He draws on this story precisely because it illustrates our predicament and what he has come to do about it.
The key phrase is this: “We detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5) In other words, the Israelites reject the manna that God miraculously provides. This is not merely an understandable desire for variety in their diet. Manna is the very food of God. Manna is what God himself gives us.
We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We don’t mean merely give us what we need to eat. Living on God’s daily bread means trusting completely in God for our very life. Not just our biological survival. But most especially for the significance of our life. Living on our daily bread is saying that life without God is not worth living because he is the point of our life.
When the Israelites rejected the manna, they were rejecting God as their highest good. They were not asking for a menu substitution. They were making a worship substitution. They were committing idolatry.
To really understand idolatry, we have to consider for just a moment how we are made. The point of our very existence is to give our heart to something completely. So, the chief spiritual challenge is to discern what we should give our hearts to.
Idolatry is deeper than what most of us think about when we consider sin. It is not simply a matter of breaking a moral law. Idolatry is giving our hearts completely to something less than God. Whenever we fail or refuse to give our hearts to God, we invariably give our hearts to something else.
The Summary of the Law tells that our hearts are safe only in God’s hands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
To give our hearts completely to anything less than God himself is idolatry.
Here’s what you have to see about idolatry. We cannot just reject God and then give our hearts to nothing. We will give our hearts to something. It may be a worthy cause or good stuff or even our own survival, comfort, or success. But we will give ourselves to something.
Anything short of God becomes an idol when we devote ourselves to it. And idols are poisonous.
That is the lesson that God teaches the Israelites with snakes. He sends venomous snakes into their midst and people die from their bites. The Israelites have not stumbled upon a viper’s nest. Instead, God made their own toxic devotions visible to them in a way that was easy for them to understand.
Even though they were poisoning themselves, God did not leave them to die. He instructed Moses to give them an antidote in the form of a bronze serpent at the top of a staff. Moses would lift up the staff high above the heads of the people so that it would be visible to everyone.
God’s instructions were simple. When a snake struck them, the Israelites were to look at the bronze serpent. The hunk of bronze itself had no magical powers. It served as a reminder to them to give their hearts to God instead of some toxic substitute.
Since the beginning of Lent, we have been considering the toxic effect of idols in our lives. We have talked about idols like career and success and material comforts and social status.
Today I want to highlight two idols that are more subtle but maybe even more caustic. These idols are not things or achievements or even persons, but our commitment (even our enslavement) to our own deep impulses for our motivations.
My intention is not to dwell on them so much as to name them, to bring them into view, before turning to the antidote.
Some people are driven by the need to find approval. They seek applause in all they do.
Now we all need affirmation, and rewards help reinforce positive performance. But some people have made getting approval their idol. They will do whatever it takes to get approval and feel miserable when the approval disappears.
Paradoxically, they usually become resentful of the people from whom they seek approval, not recognizing that they are enslaved by their own yearning, not by any other person.
Control becomes an idol for some people.
There is nothing wrong with control in and of itself. I really do want my steering wheel to turn my car in the desired direction and for the light switch to turn the electric current on and off.
But we can so devote ourselves to staying in control of our lives (or the lives of the people around us) that control becomes the idol we serve.
Just think of the times you have damaged an important relationship or ruined what should have been a festive occasion by insisting that things go your way.
So how do we rid ourselves of these toxins? I suspect most of us have learned that we cannot simply say know to an idol. The more we resist an idol, the more power we end up giving it.
For instance, the more resist looing at something, the more powerful our urge to look becomes. You have to look at something else instead. Simply not looking will eventually fail.
Jesus says that he is the antidote. He is analogous to the bronze snake that Moses would lift high above the heads of everyone so that everyone could see it.
Jesus would be lifted up high upon the Cross. Everyone can see him. And what we see is the perfect love of God for each and every one of us.
The cure for idolatry is not to simply say no to those things less than God. We must turn our hearts toward God and give them completely to him. But we cannot do that on our own. Something more powerful than these idols must draw our hearts away from those idols.
And that is just what happens on the Cross. God loves us. When we make the Cross our focus day in and day out, we see again and again that God loves us.
In prayer, in scripture study, in worship, in evangelism, and in works of mercy, we can make the Cross our focal point every day. And over time a remarkable thing happens.
Because we see how much God loves us, we begin to love God back. The logic of grace is remarkably simple. God loves us, so we love him.
Jesus is the antidote for our idolatry, because he is the perfect love of God that returns our hearts to God himself.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on March 18, 2012.