March 14th, 2021: Sam Bush, “A Pandemic of Shame”

Numbers 21: 4-9

A common theme of this past year is that Covid hasn’t changed everything so much as exposed what was already there. This is true both nationally in terms of our country’s history and infrastructure, but also in terms of the underlying tensions in our families and marriages as well as the pervasive sense of loneliness in our culture. So much of what has been hidden has risen to the surface. In the realm of health and wellness, Covid has ripped the cover off how we interpret sickness: as a sign of disgrace. In recent decades, there has been low-level guilt attached to getting sick in the sense that someone is going to have to pick up the slack – your spouse will have to take care of the kids; your coworker will have to cover for you. To be an American is to be a hard worker which explains why we are infamous for not taking sick days. If getting sick has always come with a little bit of judgment, Covid has upped the ante tenfold. 

A couple of months ago, The Atlantic published an article by Saahil Desai entitled “What If You Don’t Just Tell Anyone? Why Some People Pretend They Never Had Covid.” He reasons that most of the people who won’t say they tested positive are well-intentioned – if their parents are already high-strung, they don’t want to make matters worse. But he then gives a much more profound reason. “Secrecy,” he writes, “can be motivated by one of the deepest-rooted myths around: that health is a sign of virtue, and infection a sign of sin. A particularly cruel dynamic of the coronavirus is that although everyone runs the risk of contracting it, those unlucky enough to fall ill can still feel the wrath of shame from those lucky enough not to. He then quotes Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist, who says, “It’s not surprising that people are scared of judgment when we’ve been telling them for months on end that if they take any risks, they are selfish, reckless, and irresponsible. So of course when people test positive, their first reaction is What did I do wrong?”

The fact of the matter is that people are going to get sick during a pandemic. But now, instead of simply having to deal with our sickness as something that happens, we attribute sickness to someone else or to ourselves. We link it back to that time we took our mask off when we shouldn’t have. Thanks to the CDC we now have a brand new set of guidelines prescribing us how to live and if you violate those guidelines it feels like you’re violating not just a health code, but a moral code. 

Now, I’m not knocking the CDC here – they’re doing their job – but what has been revealed this year is that we are hardwired for judgment. We have a natural tendency to blame. I just talked about it in Covid terms, but it can easily be expanded to outside Covid. When marriages fail, we immediately assume that it’s someone’s fault. When a younger brother doesn’t live up to his potential, we consider him responsible for where he got himself in life. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons is a picture of a family of three trudging through the jungle and the dad (who is scratching his chin) says “OK, I admit it, we’re lost. But the important thing is to remain focused on whose fault it is.” Condemnation is how we play the game. And it doesn’t make anything better except for the fact that it makes us feel better. So when we look out at the world and see the mess that people have caused, our response is to judge. The problem with our tendency to judge is that we often judge in the blind. 

The reading from Numbers gives us a great look into our tendency to accuse and God’s response. The passage opens with the Israelites griping. It says they “spoke against God and against Moses.” They’re in the middle of the desert. They don’t have food or water. They’re feeling completely hopeless and abandoned by God. They say, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” They are understandably accusing God for being aloof amidst their suffering.

And what does God do? The passage says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit people, so that many Israelites died.” Admittedly, it’s not the most compassionate response. There’s no explanation as to why He does this (and I’m not going to try to explain that today) but nobody can claim that He’s aloof anymore. He has something to do with their suffering. He’s not absolved from it. He’s not just letting things take their course, He is actively involved in what is going on. This might make us question the nature of God, but it certainly strengthens the idea that God is God. It is a reminder that the seat of judgment has an occupancy limit of one and it is reserved for God alone. And from that seat, all of us are guilty. We are all sick whether it be an addiction, a general tendency to be self-motivated or Covid itself. 

What happens next? It says, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ In other words, they are helplessly sick and the matter is urgent. There are powers greater than any individual at hand so they ask Moses to pray on their behalf. And then what happens? It says, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole.” 

Now, if you had been bitten by a snake and you were infected and in an extreme amount of pain, what’s the last thing you would want to see? It’s probably a snake. Sending a symbol of a snake to these people would be like sending a photo of a cheeseburger to someone suffering from food poisoning. It’s the ultimate case of adding insult to injury. At first glance, it feels like God is making a mockery of Israel’s suffering. Remember, Israel does not have a high opinion of snakes. Snakes are cursed beings. After deceiving Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis, God said to the snake, “Cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures.”

But, after that, the strangest thing happens. Instead of being a symbol of mockery, the snake is the symbol of life. God says, “Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” God sends them a snake, not as a symbol of judgement, but as the cure to their infection. The very symbol of death brought them back to life. Does that sound familiar, perhaps in the Christian tradition? The Cross was, in fact, the symbol of death and yet, for us, it is the symbol of everlasting life. It’s right out of the famous gospel reading we heard today:

Jesus said, “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. For 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. 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.”

Unlike us, Jesus Christ came not to condemn, but to save. And he did it in the way we would have least expected. What looked like total mockery was the birthplace of our salvation. On the Cross, the perfect Son of God, not only contracted the infection of our sin. He took on the curse that came with it. He became the serpent. He became the thing we hate. He’s the one who looks like he didn’t follow any of the guidelines. And he took our judgement and our guilt and our shame and he bore our suffering. Through the momentous event of his death on the Cross, you have been delivered from sin and death. In that way, the Cross was the ultimate super spreader event when Jesus got infected and the world became healthy. 

I have one illustration before I close. There’s a 16th century work of art called the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. It was commissioned by a French monastery that specialized in hospital work, particularly those dying with skin diseases. At the center of the work is the Crucifixion. It’s extremely dark and dramatic. The arms of the cross are bowed to indicate that Jesus is taking on the sins of the world. But the most striking feature is that Jesus has a skin disease. And his loincloth is the same as the wrappings worn by the hospital’s patients. To the passerby, the painting is offensive and deeply disturbing. But patients of this hospital were brought before the piece in order to meditate on it as they died. And what they saw was not an explanation as to why they were suffering, nor was it an accusation directed at them; but a Savior who not only knew their plight but took it on himself.

What does this mean for you? It means as sick as you may be, you are not cursed because Jesus took the curse. As much as you may be suffering, God is not aloof or removed from what you are going through right now. He is at work and He knows what it is to suffer. As Martin Luther once wrote, “Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering does not know God at all.” So while everyone else may blame you for whatever sickness you have, God does not apply guilt. Instead he applies the healing balm of Christ’s death and resurrection so that by his wounds we are healed.