The Snakes of Advent?

Snakes are not something I normally associate with Advent but maybe I should rethink that. Two of the most common Biblical texts read during the season of Advent mention snakes.

First, there is Isaiah 11:8–9: “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. [9] They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Then there is Matthew 3:7: “But when he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'”

A cobra is a poisonous snake found in Asia and Africa and is known for its hood, a flap of skin that it can be spread when it is threatened or angry.

The adder is common in Europe and parts of Asia. It is known for its zig zag pattern on its back and its ability to give birth to live young.

Vipers include rattlesnakes that are found here in the US. Their fangs are able to fold back into their mouths when not in use.

In the reading from Isaiah snakes are depicted in a positive light. They are so tame that little children can play with them. “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11:8)

In the Gospel reading vipers are described in a negative light. John the Baptist calls some of the people who came to him a brood of vipers.

It makes sense that snakes would be mentioned during the season of Advent. We are preparing for the birth of the Savior who came into the world to because a snake convinced Adam and Eve to sin. Genesis 3 tells us that Satan entered a serpent and convinced Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. Eve gave some of the fruit to her husband, Adam, plunging them both, and all of humankind, into rebellion and sin.

In response God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Edan and cursed the serpent to move on his belly and eat dust for the rest of his life. God posted an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance to the garden so that Adam and Eve could not reenter the garden.

But God also promised Adam and Eve that he would send a Savior. The seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head; the first promise of a Savior. By coming into the world as a descendant of Eve, giving his life for us on the cross, and rising again from the dead, Jesus overcame the damage done by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:1-24)

There is an Advent hymn in which we sing about Jesus’ victory using images from Isaiah:

What hope! An Eden prophesied; where tame live with the wild; the lamb and lion side by side, led by a little child.

Come, Jesus, come, Messiah Lord, lost paradise restore; lead past the angel’s flaming sword – come, open heaven’s door.

Because Jesus came into the world to save us, we can now be led past the angel’s flaming sword into paradise. (Lutheran Service Book, hymn 342, verses 1 and 4)

This is how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:20–23:

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [21] For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. [22] For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. [23] But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”

According to Isaiah, snakes are not the only animals that will be tamed in the new kingdom:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. [7] The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isaiah 11:6-7)

Yes, every form of hostility will be eliminated by Jesus’ coming into the world to save us.

Although Satan has been completely conquered by Jesus, he is still allowed actively to torment and tempt us. I had the chance recently to visit a pet store that sells snakes. The clerk in the store allowed some in our group – not me – to hold some of the snakes. Someone in our group pointed to one snake and said, “Can I hold that one?”

The clerk said, “No, because today is that snake’s eating day.” As he proceeded to explain, when snakes eat, they become very lethargic and so are able to be handled. But when snakes get hungry, they get aggressive, and it is dangerous to hold them.

I can assure you that Satan never gets lethargic. He is always hungry, always ready to devour anyone who would hold on to the hope and forgiveness we have in Jesus.

Satan used a snake to deceive Adam and Eve and plunge the world into sin. He has been crawling on his belly and eating dust ever since. The whole reason why Jesus came into the world was to overcome the work of the devil and restore us to peace and harmony with God and with each other.

 

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