Poison is the word of the day, of the moment. Over the last week there has been much speculation on the poisoning of a former Russian military officer living in England. The speculation surrounds why he was poisoned, what he was poisoned with and where exactly he was poisoned. The authorities seem to have been quickly able to establish he was poisoned, but who did it and why they did it seems unclear. In my humble opinion it seems a bit hasty at this time to say who it was when the investigation is far from complete, as some observers and commentators are doing, perhaps for their own reasons. .
You might know that poisoning has a long history. Kings and people in positions of power feared it, the assassin’s knife, the unlooked for stab in the back. They even had people taste their food before they ate it. judging it was alright if they got poisoned rather than themselves, not a job with a lot of prospects you would say, a bit like Russian Roulette ever time you sat down to eat.
The theme of poison crops up in the Gospel reading today, but not in the form of something sprinkled over food or deadly gas that would knock you over in a minute, but in the age old form of the serpent’s poisonous bite.
Jesus goes back to the Old Testament to tell this story. When the people of Israel were set free they found themselves wandering around in the desert and soon ran out of food and water. God sent them a form of bread, sent quails to give them meet and Moses strikes the rock and water comes out – but still they are unhappy with the food. In his anger God sends serpents to poison the complainers, but changes his mind and gets Moses to lift up his stick with an emblem of a snake and they are cured of the poison.
But then Jesus flips the story. Its not Moses’s fiery staff with the serpent that saves but it the one who will be raised up that will give life, the son of man, that will save us from burning poison running through our veins.
I am no expert in poisons although it can be quick but generally I believe it is a lingering death. In history, powerful people who died unexpectedly in this way were generally thought to have been poisoned, although it wasn’t always the case, it was often just speculation.
It is clear that in the Gospel it is not merely speaking of a sinister poison by the assassin’s hand or by a deadly snake but it’s the poison that is sin. The only cure for that is the son of man who is lifted up on the cross.
It’s clear to us also that there are many more poisons than deadly potions, or gasses, or toxins or the bite of a snake, that can strike you down. There is the evil and the malevolent word, that is veiled as an innocent comment and is designed to do harm which is also a poison. There is the harsh judgment that is passed to another without knowing all the facts, that goes out there and destroys reputations and relationships which is a poison too. There are jealousies that enter as a poison into the heart: jealousies at what other people have, what other people are doing., what they have that we don’t have. There is selfishness that poisons our actions and makes us think only of ourselves and nothing of the repercussions of our actions. There is the modern poison of the internet where people feel they can say anything, express any opinion, say the most insulting, cruel and defamatory things that also poison and can do great damage.
Like any poison the poison of sin flows in our veins, making us ill and even potentially can drain our life away and the life of others. The Gospel simply puts to us who can save us from this poison – only the son of man who is lifted up on the cross. Just as Moses lifted u the serpent in the desert so will the son of man be lifted up to give life.
In the world of poisons the doctor looks for the antidote or the cure. The cunning darks arts of the poisoner tries to outwit the one who is looking for the antidote or the cure. They disguise the poison as something else, its slow course mimics other illnesses, you don’t even know you have been poisoned.
Sin looks like this it is a poison that flows in our veins. We don’t even know it is there. We are not even sure what we are suffering from. It has a corrupting and debilitating effect in life, but sometimes we don’t know what it is, where it has come from or who has put it there.
During Lent we return again the one who cures us, the one who forgives us, the one who gives us light and life. The black arts of the poisoner cannot outwit the one who always wishes to give life, who has the cure, who has the antidote that will neutralise the poison of sin.