Christmas is the season of singing. The angels sang at our Lord's birth. Mary sang when the Lord was in her womb. The church cannot stop singing of the joy of the Incarnation. Here is another hymn to add to the long list of poetry focused on Emmanuel.
All it took was a quick tap on the wire cage. Though the back of my cousin's hand touched that mesh for but an instant, an instant was all the rattlesnake required. He exploded from his coil, struck, inserted the fangs, injected the venom—all in a split second. As my cousin stared dumbfounded at his hand, two telltale red marks, like glowing crimson eyes, gloated on his teenage skin. Rapidly, the poison did what poison does; it spread. Over the next few hours, his hand and his arm expanded like a balloon. Finally, in a last ditch effort to prevent his skin from bursting, the doctors eased some of the pressure by cutting into his skin. He lived, but those knife lines on his hand, years later, remained as scars to remind him that the mouths of snakes have a storied history of wreaking havoc amidst humanity. Of course, tapping the cage was foolhardy. But my cousin didn’t roll out of bed that morning with the intent to do something that would send poison coursing through his veins. Not every disastrous decision is premeditated. But consequences couldn't care less about whether you planned your action or not. They simply follow. And like snakes, opportunities for evil are fat with poison, coiled, and ready to strike.
We’ve all tapped our hands against snake cages of one variety or another.
You really didn't want that last beer but, hey, your buddy was buying and what harm could one more drink do anyway. And you knew you shouldn’t drive but it was late and you needed to get home. And you didn't see the stop sign. And you didn't see the mom with her two-year-old son in the back seat. But now, every day, every night, replayed over and over in your mind, you see the flashing lights and hear the screams.
The bills kept piling up, your husband got laid off last month, and the kids kept getting sick, kept needing more visits to the doctor. And when you got to your second job that evening, there was some loose cash just lying there on the edge of the desk. And you didn’t take much, just enough to help at home. And you planned to repay it when you got back on your feet. And you didn’t see the other employee watching you from across the store as you slipped it into your pocket.
You didn’t run out of the room, Joseph-like, when things got out of hand and the woman came onto you. You didn’t think about the fact that one little lie would require ten more lies which would demand a hundred more lies—all to cover for the first one. You didn’t plan to try drugs at the party.
You didn’t wake up any of these morning and think to yourself, “Today, I’ll tap my hand against a snake cage. I’ll drink too much and take a life, steal and wind up in jail, have an affair, lie, do drugs. I’ll give that snake, coiled and ready, the opportunity he needs to strike at my heart, inject his poison, and send my life downward toward death.” But planned or not, premeditated or not, it happened. And now you find yourself full of a venom and in dire need of an antidote.
I’ve been there, more than once, and felt the venom choking out the life within me. I made the same excuses you’ve probably made yourself. Initially you blame it on others. You blame it on circumstances supposedly outside your control. Maybe you even blame God. But eventually you face the fact that there’s no one to blame but the person who tapped the snake cage. Premeditated or not, you and only you invited this venom into your body, this evil percolating in your soul, and now you don’t know where to turn.
Let me tell you about someone who suffered from a snakebite as well. Only he didn’t tap the cage. With full premeditation, knowing exactly what was about to happen, he slid off his shoe, shoved his foot in the face of an uncaged snake, and let that serpent strike his heel. Not only that, he held it there and let the snake strike again and again and yet again, until every drop of venom passed from that serpent into his heel, into his body. It worked its way upward, through his calf to his thigh to his abdomen to his chest and finally to his head. His whole body pulsed with poison. Indeed, he became so fat with venom it seemed he would burst. And just at the last moment, before death finally came, he raised his foot as high as the heavens, and slammed down his heel upon the head of the snake. He crushed that serpentine skull beneath his stricken heel. And, his mission accomplished, he collapsed in death. The snake slayer died, and the snake and all its poison died with him.
Long ago, when evil first made its appearance in this world, God promised this snake slayer. He promised Eve that one of her seed would crush the head of the serpent, even as the serpent would strike his heel (Genesis 3:15). And the Lord stood behind that promise. When Christ Jesus came, he shoved his foot in the face of the coiled devil. As the nails pierced his hand and feet, the fangs of your sin, your death, your evil pierced his heel. Every drop of venom that could harm you passed from you to him. What’s more, he put his mouth upon all those spots where the snake has struck you and sucked out every bit of the poison from your body. He made your sins his own. Your lies and your lust, your murder and your theft, everything. And when he cried out, “It is finished,” evil was finished, too. Your sin was finished. In death he crushed the head of evil, he smashed your sins into oblivion. They are no more.
It is to him we turn for the cure. He is the antidote. In Christ Jesus you will find no accuser, only a forgiver. In this snake slayer, you will find the one who gives you only life. He who sucked away all your poison will pour into you the blessed liquid of peace and absolution. He is lifted up on the cross to lift you up to himself. You die there with him and rise with him to newness of life. You are a new person in him who makes all things new.
For God loved the world, he loved you, in this way: He sent his Son to slay the serpent, to suck away all the venom from your veins, and to fill your veins with his pure and holy blood, that you may not perish but have everlasting life.
I wasn’t wearing fig leaves for underwear, but I’d just as well have been. That day I felt more like Adam than I ever had before, or since. The forbidden fruit, far from digesting, sat like a rock on the bottom of my gut. The man who stood before me was my boss. I was in his office to come clean, to tell him what I’d done. I’d lied to him before, lied to his face. And I was afraid. O dear God, was I afraid. I was afraid of him. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of the truth. I tell you, I was afraid of damn near everything. Most of all, I was afraid of how he would react. I soon found out. I told him what I’d done. How I’d lied. How I’d broken the commandment. How I’d listened to the serpent, plucked the fruit, and loved the taste of it so much that I’d gorged myself. I had prepared himself for his anger. I knew it was coming. And I deserved every bit of it. If he had wagged his finger in my face, shoved me out the door, and told me to get the hell out of there and never come back, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I think I would have been a little relieved. At least then, I would have convinced myself that I’d paid for a tiny bit of my sin by suffering such rejection.
His reaction was totally wrong. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When I’d finished confessing, he didn’t start yelling. Out of his mouth came words like forgiveness, grace, Christ, clean slate. He was saying all the wrong things. This isn’t how bosses are supposed to speak. They’re supposed to hammer out words like deserve, punishment, consequences, disappointment. He didn’t. He shocked me by being gracious to me. He spoke as a father would to his son. And this son, who heard those paternal words of grace and absolution, would, to this day, relive that moment time and again as one of the most defining moments of his life. That day, instead of getting what I deserved, I received nothing but love.
I may have walked into that office wearing fig leaves, but I walked out clothed in the skin of the Lamb of God.
The story of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to go, either. It’s all wrong. When God enters the garden that infamous day, he’s supposed to march in with an iron hand and a tongue pulled back, ready to lash. After all, he had given his children everything; they wanted for nothing. Yet these stupid, selfish people do what stupid, selfish people always do: they go and ruin it all. What they needed was punishment—swift, complete, merciless justice. They had it coming. That’s the way things were supposed to go.
But they don’t. In God’s first question to fallen humanity, he asks, “Where are you?” And in that question—merely one word in Hebrew—is packed a whole theology of who God is.
Where are you? God wasn’t seeking information; he knew where they were. He was fully aware of what they’d done. He was also fully aware of the fallout from this fall. Yet he asks, “Where are you?” Just as he will later ask murdering Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” or hating Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” or persecuting Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” In these questions is the answer. The answer is a confession, a repentance, an embrace of the forgiveness offered and bestowed by the God who seeks and saves the lost.
The story of Genesis 3 doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to, the way I expect it to, because God works contrary to my expectations. I expect wrath and he pours out mercy. I expect judgment and he speaks absolution. I expect the end and he gives me a new beginning.
The Lord does indeed go on to tell Adam and Eve that things will not be in this world as they were before. There will be pain in childbirth. There will be thorns and thistles and sweat on the brow. When I left my boss’s office that day, there were still pains in my life; I still bear the scars of the thorns and thistles. But I bear something better, too, as did our first parents. I bear a promise from the God who is love, that in love he has provided a Seed who crushed the head of the lying viper, a Seed who sucked up into his heel the death that I deserved, that he might pour into me the life that I don’t deserve.
That promise makes all the difference. It is the promise that God in Christ does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his evil way and live. It is the promise that God does not deal with us according to our sins, but is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
I hope one day that God asks me, “Chad, where are you?” I know what I’ll tell him, “Father, I am right here, in your Son, Jesus Christ. That’s where I am.”