The enduring image for me of our 2015 VBS will be several of our members holding Jessica Long’s corn snake. That snake was at least 8 feet long! Well, okay, he just looked that long. I suppose he was only a couple of feet or so. But that’s long enough to be sure. And he was alive…his little tongue kept flicking out. And he was a snake…a real…live…snake. Did I mention that I am not a great fan of snakes?
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that in the Garden of Eden, Satan appeared in the form of a snake. From the very beginning of time, there was something about these creepy little critters. ‘Crafty’ (Genesis 3:1) is a pretty good description of them. God used snakes to punish Israel in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6) where many were bitten and died. He threatened to do it again in Jeremiah 8:17. Today we occasionally read about a snake handling preacher in West Virginia or Kentucky who is killed after being bitten by a snake in a worship service. That’s enough evidence for me. I choose to give snakes a very wide berth.
However, I think that the Bible makes it clear that if we follow Jesus, we will encounter some snakes along the way. Exhibit ‘A’ of this is the Apostle Paul. In Acts 28, Luke and Paul are on a ship that is transporting them, under guard, to stand trial in Rome. While they are at sea, a great storm of hurricane force overtakes them and all appears to be lost. Yet God intervenes and, though the ship is lost, all of the crew and prisoners make it safely to the island of Malta. It is there that Paul encounters a snake: After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god. (Acts 28:1-6, ESV). I’m not sure about the swelling up part, but I suspect I might well have fallen down dead!
Paul’s situation reminds us of some of the ‘snakes’ we will face as we follow Jesus. For example, one such ‘snake’ is discouragement. Paul had just survived 2 weeks of constant hurricane force winds that blew his ship all over the place, he had just survived the guards wanting to kill him and his fellow prisoners, he had just survived the ship wreck and now, just when things are starting to look up, POW, a deadly viper comes out of the fire and bites him on the hand.
Sometimes life can feel like it is one disaster after another. About the time we recover from one problem, another rises up and shows its forked tongue and sharp fangs. We can begin to understand the pain that David expressed in Psalm 13:1, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Given all the Paul had been through, do you think he ever cried out to God like David? After all, as he stood there on Malta with a snake hanging on his hand, he was trying to do the right thing…it wasn’t like he was doing something evil. The islanders had built a fire to keep them warm. Paul could have just sat there and enjoyed it but instead he gathered up wood for the fire. Unfortunately that viper was in the pile of wood he picked up and when it felt the heat of the fire it came out and struck. Paul must have thought, “Are you kidding me? What now?”
In many ways that was exactly what Paul’s life was like after he obeyed the gospel. He faced one trial after another and as we will see this Sunday, Paul bore the wounds of the world. Yet, those wounds provided more than scars on Paul’s flesh; they were also a window that showed the world the great treasure of the gospel of Jesus! As we will see, each of us, though weak vessels that we are can, by faith and by the power of God, allow our wounds to do the same.
One of the last things in life I want to experience is a snake bite. However, if it ever happens, I pray that like Paul, I can use the scars to bring people to Christ. After all, isn’t that what our purpose in life is all about?