When the Poison is the Cure

Fourth Sunday in Lent

13 March 2021

Numbers 21.4-9

Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22

     Ephesians 2.1-10

    John 3.14-21

When the poison is the cure                                                                 ©Suzanne Grimmett

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”[1]

So says Frederick Buechner, speaking words that suggest a life-giving way to orient ourselves as we make our way through Lent. “Listen to your life” can remind us to tune in to what is going on within and around us, pointing us to where there is life and health, but also to be awake to where there is something wrong, something that is leading us away from our deepest humanity.

Our listening needs to tune in to our symptoms. Often we have signs within our body, our behaviours and our moods that reveal a truth about our own being of which we may only be dimly aware or prefer not to face. These are symptoms- something appearing in our lives as a protest against what is not right. We may be not sleeping at night, having outbursts of anger, developing repeated unhelpful habits or slipping into addiction.  The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has noted the similarity of the earlier Latin word, sinthome, with the French way of saying Saint Homme– Holy Man. He drew this parallel to say that our symptoms can be like the holy man, the prophet in our lives, calling us to repentance, a future of freedom and the place of healing.  So often we don’t listen. So often we ignore our symptoms, these prophets of our own life, and condemn ourselves to more of the same old, same old. So often we don’t seem to recognise that something in our way of seeing and our way of being in the world is making us sick.

Our first reading today begins with a strange story of sickness. The complaining Israelites in the wilderness are afflicted by the presence of poisonous serpents and many are dying from the venom.  Moses is instructed by the Lord to create a bronze serpent, put it in a pole and lift it up that all who look upon it shall live. In a strange way, the source of the poison is becoming the cure: the very thing that is killing the Israelites will be the thing that will heal them. There are ancient mythological roots to this story- including a parallel with Asclepius, the ancient Greek god for healing, whose symbol was snakes around a pole- something recognisable internationally as a symbol of medicine. If we avoid reading this passage with a rigid literalism, we can begin to find some insight into our own poisons, and where to look for a cure.

Jesus speaking through John’s Gospel finds the power of this story to speak a message of life and healing saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” The broken body of Jesus brings into sharp focus the ignorant hatred, the injustice and the violence of the human condition. We can see clearly what is poisoning us and draining us of life. Jesus is crucified as one accursed: the one who can bring healing to the community because he steps into the role of the excluded, the scapegoat who parades in public the reality of where our fear and hatred can lead us.

Jesus, lifted up on the cross, embodies a brutal symptom of the sin and separation of the human heart and dysfunction in the human community. For the Israelites in the wilderness all that was needed for healing the poison was to look at the snake which symbolised their sickness. Often, I think, we would prefer to remain in the darkness of not seeing. As a society we are in the habit of hiding the violence we would prefer not to face and turning away from that which we fear. It is in the places shut away from our view that we find the marginalised, the outsiders, the disadvantaged, the suffering and the lost. Yet these also are the prophets we need to heed. The prophetic word of our prisons is that the majority of those behind bars are also those who have been dealt the toughest hand by life and whose lives are a powerful testimony to the injustice and the reality of poverty and abuse. The prophetic word of so many women, (as we have heard so clearly in the media in these last two weeks), and of First Nations people is that sexism and racism have become structurally embedded, retaining power in a hierarchy which prevents equal access to all and silences those who have been abused or violated. The prophetic word of many of our elderly is that our society commodifies people according to their economic capacities, valuing them on the basis of productivity and prefers to not be reminded of our own mortality. The prophetic word of those with a disability is that society has a very narrow view of abilities and what comprises a life fully lived, preferring to reduce human experience to a colourless and depleted vision of what is “able” or “normal”. The prophetic word of the lonely, or the addicted, is that our communal and familial structures isolate people from one another, rob people of connectedness and then judge those who “act out” in seeking to meet the deepest and most human desires of friendship, love and belonging. If we are prepared to listen to our prophets and to look upon these signs of our own separation from one another and the source of our being, we can walk in the way of repentance, bring the truth to the light and be part of healing our world.

We need to heed the prophetic word of the symptoms in our own life in the same way. I think we have forgotten that Jesus went everywhere preaching and healing, and the risen Christ is still active, binding up our wounds and driving out the darkness if we are able to open to trust and surrender to the Spirit of love. But we need to listen to our life, discerning where we are moving away from the light that not only reveals, but heals. Some of the spiritual practices we are exploring in our Lenten studies may help us with this work of discernment.

In today’s collect we recognize that it is in the light of Christ that we are able to see light: light from light. The good news is that we do not have to manufacture it on our own. We hear this confirmed in the letter to the Ephesians;

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  

God desires our good and, more than that, is active all the time, working for us in the loving flow of the Trinity to enable that good to be realized, regardless of what we have done or left undone. This is what scripture means by grace, and it can take us utterly by surprise, leading us into true repentance. Grace happens.

It happens when we get tired of our endless posturing, hypocrisies and self-justifications and stop and really see the habits of our own violence and listen to the prophetic word of our pain. It happens when we recognise that even our sin and guilt can become the source of healing. It happens when we look on the broken body of Christ, lifted up in shame and exclusion, and discover that what has been poisoning us has become our cure. It happens when in spite of every message we have heard to the contrary, we can embrace our own helplessness and accept that we are accepted. When grace happens we are grasped by the truth that our weakness is our strength, our brokenness our healing, our grief a space for dancing and our darkness the source of dazzling light.

So attend to your symptoms. Listen to your life. Touch, taste and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.


[1] Buechner, Frederick, (1991), Now and Then: A Memoir, HarperOne, New York, NY.

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