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Brassed Off

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. 2 Kings 18.1-5.

Hezekiah was clearly a good king and one whose heart was set on God. Here, his devotion to God is shown chiefly in the removal of the shrines from the “high places” and his destruction of the pillars and poles representing the goddess Asherah and other pagan deities that had been introduced into Israel by King Ahab and his foreign wife Jezebel. But Hezekiah did something else that caught my attention this morning. He smashed up the bronze serpent that Moses had made.

At one point during the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Israelite camp was invaded by snakes whose bite was lethal. Many Israelites died, and Moses sought help from the Lord. “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Numbers 21.8-9).

From that point on there is no further mention in Scripture of the bronze serpent that Moses made until, seven hundred years later, we find it here, in this morning’s reading — now an object of veneration among the Israelites. Where was it … In the temple? Or did it have its own shrine somewhere? Who put it there … Solomon? And what form did the Israelites’ veneration of it take? We have no answers to any of those questions; but what we do know is that Hezekiah brought the veneration to an absolute end. Why? Because the veneration of the brass was tantamount to worship and God had said: “You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34.14).

Ironically, the Israelites had a name for the bronze serpent. They called it Nehushtan which, in Hebrew, simply means “the brass”; and there is plenty of “brass” in churches throughout Christendom today. We have ladies in the church to which I belong to who “do the brass” and keep it bright and shining. Not that there is any brass that is venerated in our church, but I do know of churches where there is — in the form of crucifixes that people genuflect before and even kiss. The same goes in some places for plaster effigies of saints and Mary. Indeed I was once on a spiritual retreat where the leader invited us all to join him in the Chapel to “venerate the host” … to worship (and I cannot see veneration as being anything else) the consecrated wafers reserved from the previous Sunday’s communion service!

What would Hezekiah have done? I hardly dare to think … But before I get too judgmental I need to ask myself this morning whether, at times, I am not guilty of veneration too. What is it that, in worship, captures my eyes and my heart before they settle on God himself? The band? The singer? The preacher?

I imagine the Israelites who venerated the Nehushtan would have argued that whereas it was right for Hezekiah to cut down the Asherah because that was pagan, the bronze serpent was a different matter. It was a symbol of salvation. It related to the true God. And the same arguments go today for crucifixes and the like. They too can be venerated (it is said) because they too are symbols of salvation. In truth, the bronze serpent and a crucifix are one and the same thing. Jesus actually identifies himself on the cross with the brass serpent on the pole: “And 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). But if the veneration of the one is wrong, so is the other.

No, the old hymn has it right … “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth —” (including brass serpents or plaster saints or music groups or crucifixes or consecrated wafers) “— will seem strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” It is a strange calling — to turn our eyes on someone we cannot see; but that is the very essence of our faith. Pagans need images, totems, holy objects. We worship the invisible with nothing in between. As Peter put it: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1.8).

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5 comments on “Brassed Off

  1. Mike says:

    I am writing regarding the following comments in your devotion today:

    ‘Indeed I was once on a spiritual retreat where the leader invited us all to join him in the Chapel to “venerate the host” … to worship (and I cannot see veneration as being anything else) the consecrated wafers reserved from the previous Sunday’s communion service!’

    Was this a Roman Catholic retreat? I am Roman Catholic, and we believe that the consecrated host is actually Jesus Christ – body, blood, soul and divinity.

    This practice is called “Eucharistic Adoration.” You can read more about the history of Eucharistic adoration at:

    http://www.therealpresence.org/eucharst/pea/history.htm

    Whenever I have any doubts about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I just slowly re-read chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel…

    Thank you for your daily devotions. I really enjoy reading them each day.

    Like

  2. What a beautiful and well thought out post.

    Thanks for posting,
    Ben

    Like

  3. Neil says:

    Hi Mike

    The retreat I was on was not a Roman Catholic one but was a Cursillo weekend led by a very High Church member of my own church which is the Church of England. I do, of course, respect your Roman Catholic perspective on the consecrated host but I doubt that I will ever be persuaded of the validity of it.

    And I don’t think John 8 offers any support to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Augustine of Hippo explains Jesus’ language in John 8 as “a figure, bidding us communicate in our Lord’s passion, and secretly and profitably treasure in our memories the fact that for our sake he was crucified and pierced” (On Christian Doctrine 3.16). Elsewhere he famously expressed this truth in the epigram “Crede, et manducasti” – “Believe, and thou hast eaten” (Homilies on John 26.1).

    Article 28 of the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England has this to say about the Lord’s Supper …

    “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

    “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

    “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.

    “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”

    That is where I stand in these matters, and I believe that is the only stance that the Scriptures really support. Thank you, however, for the grace with which you write … and I am delighted to hear that you enjoy reading my blog.

    Neil

    Like

  4. Neil says:

    Thanks, Ben … Glad you appreciated it. Neil

    Like

  5. Mike says:

    Thank you for your response, Neil. Just as a short follow-up…

    I was referring to John Chapter 6, particularly verses 48-58, where Jesus says:

    “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”

    Later in verse 60 it says that His disciples said: “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” And in verse 61 many of them “grumbled.” Verse 66 says that because of this teaching “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.”

    I just do not believe He was parsing words or speaking figuratively about this.

    Like

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