Striking the head of the serpent. A talk for remembrance Sunday

Genesis 3:8-15

It is one of the most ancient stories in the world.


God creates a good world. He creates men and women, and they live in harmony with each other and with creation.
But evil, represented by the serpent, tempts Adam and Eve. He lies to them. He tells them that they can become like God if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And so they eat.


And our first reading speaks of the consequences

They do not become like God.
Indeed in their hubris, in their attempt to become like God, reality hits them and they realise that they are a million miles away from being like God, that before God they are naked, and they are ashamed and try to hide from God.

And when God questions them, they begin to play the blame game.
Adam blames Eve: she made me do it.
Eve blames the serpent: it made me do it.
And there are consequences: harmony is broken, and Paradise is lost.

Well, maybe it is just an ancient story


But I think few would dispute the devastating consequences of evil and lies: not just out there, but in here (in our heart)

We live in a world in which the lies abound: the lie that we can become like God - that there are no boundaries, that truth can be whatever you want it to be, that we can do what we want and be who we want and have what we want.
James writes, “You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.” (James 4:2)

We live in a world in which people – because of the lies - are attacked, beaten up, stripped naked, and left half dead by the side of the road.
And even if we haven’t done the beating up, when we come across them, we listen to other lies: “They are not your problem. Society is to blame. Politicians are to blame. They are to blame”.

The victim becomes a freak show. A bit like when you are driving on one side of the road and slow down to have a good like at the accident that happened on the other side.
And then, when we’ve seen enough, we continue to drive by on the other side.

O venomous serpent. We have listened to your lies. You have set on fire our desire for power. You have sown the seeds of suspicion. You have divided us, and pitted us against each other. You have blinded us to the needs of others. Your venom has worked its way to our heart and turned them into stone.

But there is hope.

Genesis 3 speaks of a serpent, but it also speaks of one who will strike the head of the serpent.

Forgive me for quoting some lines from a 17th Century English classic

John Milton writes in his epic poem, Paradise Lost

“But Joshua, whom the Gentiles Jesus call,
His name and office bearing, who shall quell
The adversary-Serpent, and bring back
Through the world’s wilderness long-wandered Man
Safe to eternal Paradise of rest”

We may be familiar with images of St George slaying the dragon, but Jesus is the one who is the true serpent crusher.
He defeats the serpent not with power but with love and truth

He, as St Augustine in the C4th interprets the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), is the one who crosses the road to save the person in need. He offers emergency first aid, puts him on his donkey, takes him to an inn and he nurses us back to life (because we are the person naked beside the road). It cost him much. Not just two denarii, but his life on the cross.

And we strike the head of the serpent when we open our eyes and see the victims and choose to cross over the street, not to avoid them, but to save them - even if it means sacrificing our time, our money, our security, maybe even our life.

That can happen on the international scene when leaders choose to cross the street and intervene, not just out of self-interest (I doubt we will ever take that out of the equation) but also because non-intervention becomes morally indefensible.
It was right for nations to intervene 80 years ago as Poland was vivisected, and the clammy claw of tyranny gripped Europe. But it was staggeringly costly: there was a world war and between 56 and 85 million lives were lost as a result – approximately 3% of the then global population.
Or I think of something completely different. In 2015 a political leader saw the suffering of Syrian refugees and opened the borders of their lands to a million displaced people. I’m aware others also opened their borders.
Of course, motives will always be questioned, and there may have been few other options, but it took one or two people to make a courageous and costly decision.

And we, in our own ways, strike the head of the serpent when we speak the truth and challenge the lies, especially when the people we are speaking to, prefer to play – in the words of the former US ambassador here - ‘duck and cover’.
That is what many of you have to do. In the words that I’ve heard Sir Laurie say on more than one occasion, you are called to speak the truth to power – and that can be personally costly when you need to say things that those with power do not wish to hear.

We strike the head of the serpent when we are prepared to admit our own complicity with evil and lies, taking responsibility for what we have done, and for who we are, and for the pride that leads to cold heartedness and shame, and not blaming it on someone or something else. That is what we call repentance. A beginning of a turning back to God.

We strike the head of the serpent when we see the person in need - whoever they are - as our neighbour and we sacrifice ourselves for their sake. That is what it means to love our neighbour. We love them as ourselves, as if they were one of our own.

Maybe this is all fantasy. The idea that love, sacrificial love has saved and can save the world. The idea of a paradise lost, of a serpent and a serpent crusher, of a dream that we can live in harmony and that there can be a new and even more glorious future paradise in which we will genuinely and authentically become like God.

But I see enough evidence that this is more than fantasy as I look back to the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And I see enough evidence here in this international community, with all our glorious differences, not gathering to get one over the other, or blame the other, but coming together, recognising our common humanity, our common responsibility and – in the presence of God - to remember. That is what gives me hope.

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