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When Good Snakes Become Bad Snakes


At the risk of ruining your political correctness, I wonder if you are prejudiced. Are you prejudiced against snakes? If a group of snakes moved in next door and inhabited your back yard, do you think it would lower your property values? Suppose your daughter brought a snake home for dinner. Would your family be comfortable with that? Chances are you are prejudiced against snakes.

What you fail to realize is that there are bad snakes, but there are good snakes, and the bad snakes give the good snakes a bad name. According to the encyclopedia, there are between 2,500 and 3,000 different varieties of snakes crawling around the planet, and most of them are good snakes. They eat rodents and get rid of mice and rats. But for some reason, whenever you think of snakes, you always think of bad snakes—like copperheads, rattlers, vipers, cobras, or pythons. And those bad snakes give the good snakes a bad name. And I think we ought to do something about that.

Still, it is true that there are snakes you ought to be prejudiced against, and the worst kind of snake is a good snake that's become a bad snake. They are actually deadly snakes. We've had to deal with good snakes that have become bad snakes for centuries. In fact, almost 3,000 years ago a young king by the name of Hezekiah had to deal with a good snake turned bad.

Why and how to destroy a bad snake

When Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah, he was 25 years of age. He was a buster; he wasn't a boomer. Like a lot of busters, he was fed up with the setup. He wanted to do something unique and different because the setup in Judah at that time was disastrous. Economically, the nation was in a depression. Because of a failed political philosophy, Syria had to be paid off, and the coffers of the nation had been emptied. They had a papier-mâché army. They couldn't even defend the cities. And, spiritually and morally, the nation was a cesspool.

When this 25-year-old buster became the king, he decided he would make a difference. You have to give him credit because his daddy didn't give him any help. His father, a man by the name of Ahaz, had been both inept and evil. As a king, that is a terrible combination. Apparently, the power brokers of Judah saw to it that there would be a co-regency. They kept Ahaz on as a kind of king emeritus. And they brought in this young man of 25. Without any models to go on, he decided he would make a difference, and, under his leadership, God brought a revival to Judah.

Whenever you come across a revival, whether in the Bible or outside the Bible, there are three things that are always there. These are non-negotiables. First, there is a removal of sin. Second, there is a return to God's Word and to God. Third, there is a renewal of worship. Whatever else you have, you have to have that if you're going to have a revival. And that's what King Hezekiah did.

I'm not even sure he knew all that he was doing, but the ancient historians tell us in 2 Kings 18, "In the third year of Josiah, son of Eli, king of Israel, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was 25 years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem 29 years. ... He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his forefather David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones, cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time, the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan).

"Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commandments the Lord had given through Moses." Hezekiah got rid of sin. Sin had actually become part of the religion, so he destroyed the high places. That was a kind of convenient religion—they had it all over the land. Anytime you wanted to worship, they had an altar someplace. He destroyed these. He also destroyed the sacred pillars. That was a way of promoting prosperity religion in the ancient world. When folks wanted to have a business venture, they went to the sacred pillar, and they consulted some god in hopes that he'd turn a profit for them. Hezekiah tore it down. He also destroyed the Asherah poles. These were poles erected to the goddesses of the Canaanites. Within that kind of religion, there were all kinds of sexual immorality. It wasn't the first time, and it wasn't the last time, people thought with their glands and thought they were worshiping God. And Hezekiah destroyed it, broke it down, attacked sin at the center.

How a good snake becomes a bad snake

That's where the snake comes in. Because the text says he destroyed the snake at the temple. This was a good snake, not a bad snake. This was not an Egyptian snake that somebody put into a suitcase and carried out of Egypt. This is a good snake. This is a godly snake. In fact, it was one of God's snakes. I mean, talk about good, it was good! And it was old. You just can't beat good old snakes. This good old snake went back 700 years. In fact, you read about it in Numbers, chapter 21.

The Israelites had come out of Egypt—at least their bodies had come out; their minds and hearts were still back in Egypt. They came out, and from the day they hit the wilderness, they complained. They griped about Moses: they didn't like his leadership for bringing them to where they were. They complained about the wilderness: they didn't like the ambiance. They griped about the food: they wanted to go back to the low-fat, low-cholesterol diet of Egypt, where they had leeks and onions; all they had in the wilderness was this manna. How often can you serve manna? How many different ways can you cook it? I mean, they wouldn't get off it. They were like kids on a trip. They wanted to stop at every McDonald's that went by. And they kept at it and kept at it, and God got sick of it.

So he sent the snakes into the camp—poisonous snakes. When those snakes bit the people, it was like fire going through their bodies, and the bites for some were fatal. The Israelites got the message. They turned to Moses and asked him to go to God: "Do something!" And God said to Moses, "Put up a tall pole, and on top of the pole, put a bronze snake. Any of the people that look at that bronze snake will live."

You have to admit, that's a strange way to get rid of snake bite. The snakes that had caused death were going to be counteracted by a bronze snake that would bring life. The snakes that were the emblems of a curse were thwarted by a bronze snake that became the emblem of God's blessing. The snakes that were hated were countermanded by that bronze snake that was the blessing of God. It was a good snake—a real good snake.

After the people had gotten back on their feet again, they broke camp and said, "You better save the snake. Take it down." So they took it down, wrapped it in Styrofoam, and they lugged it with them for almost 40 years in the wilderness. Then, after this group who lugged it began to die off, they passed it on to their children. The kids took it, and they got it into the Promised Land. And all the time Joshua was fighting, somebody was guarding that snake. They went through a terrible time with the judges, but somebody someplace had the snake. In fact, 500 years later when Solomon built his temple, the curator of the temple found the snake and put that bronze snake up in the temple grounds. That snake that had been the object of God's redemption now became a kind of object lesson. I'm sure when they first put it up, it was a way of reminding the people of what God had done. You can imagine a father and son go to the temple:

"Hey Dad, look, look, they got a snake, Dad!"
"Yes, son."
"That's a snake; that's a big snake."
"Son, it's a big snake."
"How come they've got a snake here, Dad?"
"Let me tell you. Before your grandfather and his grandfather and his grandfather, way back then, people were in the wilderness—" and the father tells the story. It was an object lesson of what God had done in the past.

Then something happened. The people began to light incense to that snake. The snake that had become an object in the hands of God to redeem the people, an object lesson of what God had done in the past, now became an object of worship. Hezekiah, 25-year-old buster, busted the snake. Tore it down, broke it into pieces.

Bad snakes through the ages

Times have changed; people haven't changed. You know as well as I do, Hezekiah didn't do that to the applause of the crowd. Oh no, there were folks who cried when they saw that snake broken. I imagine there was a committee in charge of preserving good old snakes, who got together and formed a petition: "Let's get rid of King Hezekiah!" You know as well as I do, there are folks who would rather have keep the snake and get rid of the king than to keep the king and get rid of the snake. There was a lot of complaining and a lot of crying. But God was going to do something new. And when good old snakes become bad snakes, the only thing you can do is to tear them down, break them into pieces, and destroy them. Good old snakes turn into bad snakes, and they keep slithering into the people of God.

When Jesus came, there was a group of people called the Pharisees. If you have grown up in church, you automatically respond to Pharisees by coloring them gray. But there was a time when they were good old snakes. As far as we can tell, they started back during the time of Ezra. They were lay people. What they wanted to do was to bring righteousness to the nation. They wanted to apply God's Word to the activities of the people. That's a good thing to do. Can't fault that. In fact, they were so eager about applications that they not only took the law but they tried to apply the law to every single situation in life, even things like eating. You can't blame them for that. Paul, in another connection later on, said, "Whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." The Pharisees said, "Yeah, we're into that." One of the things they got big on was washing before you ate. We're not talking hygiene here; we're talking about purifying yourself. You had to wash your hands and the like. When Jesus came and he and his disciples didn't do that, the Pharisees couldn't handle it. They attacked him. The good snake had become a bad snake. That snake became more important to them than God. And ultimately, for things like that, they put Jesus on a cross.

Folks who are into old snakes—good snakes that have become bad snakes because they've become more important than God—don't care what God's doing. Man, you can cultivate snakes! The early church faced it. No sooner did our Lord ascend than Christians began to worship, and they worshiped as was their custom, on a Saturday, the end of the Sabbath. Then some Christians came along and said, "You know, the Sabbath is all right, but Jesus rose on the first day of the week. Wouldn't it be more appropriate if we worshiped on Sunday evening?" The folks who kept the Sabbath—that's a good snake—became very upset with this changing of the day. You don't have to read hard in the New Testament to see in a passage like Romans 14 that the church in Rome almost came apart because someone said, "You have to worship on the first day," and another said, "No, you have to worship on the seventh day." Nothing wrong with worshiping. Nothing wrong with worshiping on any given day of the week.

But Paul said, "Look, one person is persuaded about this day, another is persuaded about that day. Let them be persuaded in their own minds." Don't make a snake as important as God. But there were folks doing it. They call them Judaizers. They are snake handlers. They just couldn't allow the Christians to change. The judgment of God came upon those people. In the next century, the church decided to meet not on Sunday evening but early on Sunday morning. They had an order of worship. The first thing they had was the reading of the Scriptures. Then they sang, in fact, they chanted Psalms, and they would chant fragments of the New Testaments letters they thought were hymns. And they had prayers, and then they had Communion.

Somebody came along one day and said, "I've got a new song. It doesn't quite chant the way we've been doing it; it's Greek meter."

"No, God doesn't sing Greek meter." "Oh, yes he does!"

And they struggled. Here was the church, hardly born, and some folks said, "That's a good old snake; we don't want to get rid of it." But God was doing something new. And when God does something new, there are new forms. Nothing wrong with good old snakes, until they become bad snakes. Then what you do is you break them; you destroy them.

In fact, at the end of the fourth century, there were folks who said, "Greek meter is all right, but let's do music to Roman marching songs. That's the stuff people whistle. Everybody likes that." Others said, "Oh, no! You can't do that. God's into Greek meter, but he doesn't like Roman marching songs." Believe it or not, this little group of Christians who had so much going for them fought each other. The good snake becomes a bad snake, and it takes the place of God. What you have to do is destroy it.

Flip the calendar, and it becomes the eighteenth century. In the early part of the 1700s, there were two men, John and Charles Wesley, through whom God was going to do something. There was a great revival. There was a destroying of sin, and there was a renewal of God's Word and a renewal of love for God. There was enthusiasm in the preaching—that was new. John and Charles Wesley and his followers met out in the fields as they worked with the miners—not because they liked the open air but because people in the churches were worshiping snakes, and people didn't want enthusiastic preaching in their church. God was out there in the fields, and the snakes were in the church. Good snakes had become bad snakes. And many of the churches in England missed the moving of God.

In our country, from 1732 to 1744, Jonathan Edwards and his British sidekick, George Whitefield, had a great moving of God—powerful preaching, dealing with sin, drawing near to God. You think all those churches in New England said, "How wonderful! God's doing something great!"? No, they had the new lights and the old lights. New lights were the folks who were caught up with this revival spirit. The old lights were in the church; they didn't like the enthusiasm. They said that enthusiasm isn't of God: "You've got to do things decently and in order!" People with old bad snakes always have a Bible verse to hang around each other. As a result, God moved; there was a great awakening, but there were all kinds of churches in New England that didn't wake up. If you were to go back to New England, there were all kinds of churches deader on the inside than the burial grounds on the outside.

If God's going to do something, he's going to do something new, and he's going to pick up a new form. If you decide not to go with God and want to hang on to the old snake, then you are left with the old snake. But when that snake becomes as important to you as God, the only thing that you can do is destroy it.

At the end of that century, there was a man named Robert Raikes. He looked at the urchins in the big city of London—kids that didn't have an education, kids who didn't know anything about God. He said, "We're going to have classes in church to educate them, to bring them to Jesus—a Sunday school movement." There were churches in New York and in England that opposed it. They said, "It would desecrate the Sabbath to have that kind of child in our church, a child who doesn't know how to behave." Talk about old, dead snakes—bad snakes.

Is it a good thing to keep Sunday the Sabbath? Sure. We're not a better people for giving Sunday to the National Football League. Nothing wrong with a Sunday Sabbath. In fact, something good about it. But when that day becomes so important that it stands in the way of the work of God, a good snake has become a bad snake. What you have to do is crush it, destroy it, break it! When God does something new, he chooses new forms.

Beware of bad snakes today

I believe that there is in our land today a beginning of a moving of God. I believe if that move comes, it's going to come through this group called Generation X, "the busters." I think it's going to be very different than anything we've ever known in the past. What is striking to me is that many of those young people with all of their raucous music are asking our questions. It's the music of despair, the music of suicide. Kurt Cobain, who took his own life, sang about it, and youngsters listened. They sing about their parents who split up and broke us up. All kinds of folks out there are asking our questions. But when they turn to the churches, they don't think we've got the answers.

Just before he died in 1961, Carl Jung said that the decisive question for man is whether he is related to something infinite or not—that is the telling question of his life. And when young men and young women, older men and older women in our society have these questions, people caught in the barbed wire of life and feel the pain and the hurt—when they turn to the church, they see us caught up with old bad snakes. So they turn away in disgust.

The story is told about a pastor who was into telling stories to the children. He'd bring all the children up, and they'd sit on the floor, and he'd tell them a story. One day he said, "Boys and girls, I want to tell you a story about someone who likes to live in the woods, but sometimes we can see him in our yards. Anybody have any idea who I am talking about?"

No takers. He said, "I want to tell you about a creature that lives in the woods and sometimes in our yards, has a big bushy tail, likes to eat nuts. Anybody have any idea what I'm talking about?"

No takers. He said, "I'm talking about a creature that lives in the woods, sometimes in our yards, big bushy tail, eats nuts, likes to climb trees, jumps from tree to tree—now, does anybody know what I'm talking about?"

One kid raised his hand to take him out of his misery. The pastor said, "Do you know what I'm thinking about?"

The kid said, "Yeah. I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me."

Can I borrow that punchline for the men and women in our society who are on the outside looking in, with their hurts and fears and broken hearts and broken homes and broken dreams and broken lives. They turn to the church; somehow they say, "I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sounds like you're talking about an old, dead snake to me."

Theological seminaries have to be faithful to the past and committed to the future. They have to take off of the altar of the past the fire and throw the ashes away. God help us if we get those two mixed up.

Conclusion If you have a favorite old, dead, bad snake, and you're willing to split a church over it, for God's sake, kill it! For the church's sake, kill it! For the sake of the society and the world, kill it! For your own sake, kill it, and let God do something fresh and new and vital in our day.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Why and how to destroy a bad snake

II. How a good snake becomes a bad snake

III. Bad snakes through the ages

IV. Beware of bad snakes today