For all of its beauty and joy, this world is founded on pain and loss. Darwin is not a challenge to Christian belief because he shows how species arise over time (rather than being created at one fixed point) but because he makes it impossible to imagine a time before death and pain entered the world. They have been the constant companions of creation, in all their nastiest forms. Even creationists cannot believe that Adam brought death into the world.
Whatever the theological problems this raises, the solution does not include running away. The Israelites in the desert tried that, and died. The cure they were offered was staring at the very thing they feared. They were to stare hard at the serpent death which terrified them so, according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman in Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye: Staring Death & Life in the Face.
For Christians this becomes even more poignant. For us it is Christ who becomes the serpent on a pole. Looking at him, we see what horrifies us; agonising suffering and bloody death. It is easy, with practise, to become complacent about it, seeing new life springing from this agony. We do not serve our God well by doing so.
The serpent in the wilderness was offered to allow the people of God to face their terrors. They looked into the pit of the image of death. Christ offers us the image of our worst imaginings, and of all the suffering of nature. Every meadow pipit pushed out by the baby cuckoo, every caterpillar split open by the parasitic wasp who has eaten though it, each is summoned up in the image of the creator of them dragging out a slow death from suffocation. Lifted up so, he draws all to him.
Somewhere in this, I feel, lies something of a solution. It is far from an intellectually satisfying solution. Yet it is played out again and again. Suffering can demean and destroy, and yet on occasion individuals can transcend themselves through it. These last months have seen the suffering of the Cameron family and of Jade Goody. The circumstances are totally different, yet, yet… The extraordinarily moving exchange in the Commons between two bereaved fathers, both knowing the constant anxiety of having a child with a life-limiting disease was a moment of reality in the too-often artificial rhetoric of that cold institution. Jade Goody’s decision not to hide her slow descent to death has opened up conversations about facing death over the whole country.
I am not speaking of the general need to address urgent problems, true as it is that we must. There are many issues on which we are out of time, and running faster will not serve us. Unpleasant truths about the thoughts of those who are our co-religionists. Painful realisations about the financial state of many of our congregations. Nasty facts about the age structure of those congregations, and just why they are so structured. Not to mention the now fast-ticking bomb of ecological disaster.
All this is true and urgent, but it is only a weak reflection of the story of the bronze serpent and the man on the cross. That promise is about facing the terror of pain and death in the word, and being blessed in the facing of it. That story underlies all the other terrors we need to deal with, and if we do not face it, we cannot face them. We need to turn and face that serpent because only by looking steadily on its face can we hope to gain healing for our other ills.