Something interesting happens in 2 Kings 18. King Hezekiah of Judah, who has undertaken reforms to return the people wholly to the worship of the Lord, destroys the bronze snake that Moses had preserved for the coming generations.
The bronze snake, you'll recall, was the Lord's saving grace amidst an infestation of the real thing. Poisonous snakes slithered through the Israelite camp, biting the sinful and condemning them to death for their latest grievous act against God. In His mercy, God offered through Moses the bronze snake, so that everyone who was bitten and looked upon the snake (lifted up on a pole, no less, as the Savior later would be) would be spared.
Moses had preserved this bronze snake to help tell the story of God, to help the people remember something so amazing as grace when the desert, and the snakes, were far-distant memories.
So why would Hezekiah "crush" this testimony to God's saving grace?
...because up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. They called it Nehushtan. (v. 4)
And here's a hint: Nehushtan is not, so far as I know, the Hebrew word for grace.
The people had given this snake a name. They had elevated its status basically from symbol to savior, as if it was the snake that had given them life. They were burning incense to it, right near the place where they were burning incense to God. It seemed like one of the holy things, but they'd so escalated it above its story that they'd made it an unholy thing. Rather than being a reminder of God, it had become almost a replacement for Him. Rather than letting the snake draw them into worship, they'd been drawn into worship of the snake.
It had become a cheap substitute for real grace. Something far short of amazing.
It's easy to read about this little scene, which is what? Half a sentence in a chronicle of kingship? and to laugh a little. Who would ever worship a bronze snake? Who would ever so confuse the story?
Not so fast.
What if it wasn't a snake we were talking about? What if it were something we could all relate a little more easily to? What if...we were talking about the Cross?
See, I think we do this as Christians today. We have a thing for the Cross. We talk a great deal about the Cross. We represent a lot of who we are by the Cross, the symbol of God's most amazing grace.
The Cross is pretty cool when you think about it. The Cross is the pole on which God again raised grace, so that everyone bitten by the snake could be saved. And we've all been bitten. Welcome to the Fall. The question we have to ask ourselves, however, is whether we're spending too much time looking at the pole and not enough time thinking about grace.
In other words, when you think about the Cross, how often do you remember that there was a Savior on it?
That's what I'm saying. We tell the story of the Cross like it's its own thing. Like it's its own entity. We've given it a name - Cross. Calvary. Golgotha. As though these are the best descriptors of it. But so far as I know, not one of these is the word for grace. The word for grace is Jesus, and in case you've forgotten, He was the one hanging on that pole.
It's so easy for us to get to these things that are so close, yet so far. It's easy for us to focus so much on the things that are supposed to draw us to God that we forget to be drawn toward God. It's easy for us to look at the snake and remember the mercy without ever taking our eyes off the bronze. It's easy for us to look at the Cross and remember the grace without ever meeting the eyes of the Savior. And when we do, we are oh so painfully close but so tragically far off.
We have to be mindful of this, so very mindful of this. Because for all their glitz and glamour, for all their drama and intrigue, for the incredible story that the snake, that the Cross, that all of these cheap substitutes are, they're nowhere near as amazing as grace.