Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Eyes Have It

Once, on a lazy Saturday afternoon when I was young, I read about how our eyes find it hard to remain focused on anything for long. Our attention naturally flits from one object to another.

This so natural to us, in fact, that if we try to intently gaze on one thing for say, more than sixty seconds, we find it nearly impossible. And, the article said, if we were ever successful in doing so, what we saw would slowly become engulfed by a whiteness that moved from the periphery of our gaze to our focal point.

With too much time on my hands, I tried to do what the article suggested. I picked an object to stare at, stared, and waiting for the image-eating whiteness. After several failed attempts, I saw the whiteness it mentioned. But I found myself incapable of remaining focused on one object. Maybe I have Vision Attention Deficit Disorder. Anybody else?

I thought of that Saturday afternoon from long ago again last night as I read a devotional piece by Martin Luther. Citing Galatians 2:20 and Galatians 3:27 from the Bible's New Testament, he asserts that "faith is an unswerving gaze that looks on Christ alone."

Then, he writes, referencing an Old Testament incident that Jesus himself references in his conversation with Nicodemus, which was read in most Christian churches around the world this past weekend:
"This [unswerving gaze of faith] is beautifully illustrated by the story of the bronze snake which points to Christ (John 3:14). Moses commanded the Israelites, who had been bitten in the desert by poisonous snakes, to look at the bronze snake [which the Israelites had molded and put on a stake, at God's direction] with an unswerving gaze. Those who did so were healed, simply by steadily gazing at the snake alone. In contrast, others who didn't obey Moses looked at their wounds instead of the snake and died."
By way of background, you should know that during their wilderness wanderings, God's people, the Hebrews or Israelites, underwent a series of tests of faith. In that forty-year trip to the promised land, a journey that should have taken eleven days, they flunked every single test. They were constantly diverting their gaze from God and, instead, focusing on their troubles and challenges. They whined that things weren't easy or when things didn't go their way. Their focus on God was so fleeting that they seemed in constant danger of forgetting all that God had already done for them. (I can identify with this brood.)

In Numbers 21:4-9, you can read about the Israelites whining once more, this time that they were tired of the food that God was miraculously providing to them. God got fed up and set a bunch of poisonous snakes on them. Israelites were dropping like flies.

The Israelites went to Moses and said, "We've been in the wrong. Pray for us, Moses, so that these serpents will leave us alone."

This is when God gave Moses strange instructions. Strange, but when you think about them, sensible. We're told:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [Numbers 21:8-9]
The bronze serpent represented both God's law and God's grace for the Israelites. As they gazed on it, they were reminded of their sin and its consequences. But God was also placing on that bronze representation the weight of their rebellion against God.

By acknowledging their sin and believing in God's promise of restoration, those who focused on this instrument of God were healed. Those who focused on their wounds died.

Push ahead from those Old Testament events to the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus some 1500 years later. Jesus compared Himself to the bronze serpent:
"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 3:14-15]
Whenever I read that passage, I think of what the New Testament writer Paul said of the sinless Jesus, God in human flesh:
For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:21]
Eugene Peterson renders that passage a bit more clearly for our modern eyes:
God put the wrong on him [Christ] who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God. [The Message]
We all know about serpents. It was a serpent that tempted Adam and Eve to rebel against God's will and through them, plunged the whole human race into a condition we call sin, an inborn, genetic separation from and inclination to go against God. Jesus bore our sin. Looking at Him on the cross reminds us both of the gravity of our sin--after all, it brought about the death of a sinless Savior--but also of the depth of God's healing love. More than a reminder, Jesus' death on the cross is the means by which He gives life. The penalty is paid for our sin through Jesus. And with the penalty paid, all with faith in Him live forever with God! (See here and here.)

God's call to the world is to turn a trusting gaze on Jesus Christ. We will be healed of sin, the thing that separates us from God and have the gift that only God can give, life.

Luther concludes (read these words slowly several times):
...if you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing but grasp Christ in faith and say, "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me. In his wounds and death, I see my sin. In his resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil. I see righteousness and eternal life as well. I want to see and hear nothing except him." This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe.
Keeping our focus on God to sustain us through this life and fill us with hope for the one to come isn't any more natural to us than staring on an object for more than a few seconds. Thank God that when we fail to keep our faith focus, falling into sin or hopelessness, we can turn back to Christ.

This is something I need to remember. You too?

[By the way, the American Medical Association's logos, in all of its permutations through the years, is based on Numbers 21 and John 3. Below are some of the logo's various incarnations.]

1 comment:

Harvey Schmidlapp said...

Great post. One small nit-pick. The medical symbol, the Rod of Asclepius should always have only one snake, although it is often drawn incorrectly with two. The Caduceus (with two snakes) is the rod of Hermes, the messenger god of Ancient Greece.