Sunday, August 23, 2020

A viper in the hand is worth two in the fire

Sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity

There are a few churches in the United States where snake-handling has been part of worship services. The idea is that it is a test of one's faith in Christ.

These folk see the viper attach itself to St Paul's hand only for him to cast it into the fire with no ill-effect.

There is a big difference between the two situations which might not be appreciated. St Paul's attachment to the viper is caused by the viper. Any attachment of the viper to the hand of a snake-handling Christian is caused by the snake-handling Christian!

The fact is we are told specifically not to put the Lord our God to the test. Now under what circumstances have we heard those words before?


We see Our Lord standing at the very top of the temple and hear those words:

"If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone."

Who says these words but the Devil, the very serpent who tempted Adam and Eve and caused them to fall from Grace? This is the snake that has fastened itself to the hand of all mankind with the intent of poisoning us to death. 

St Paul stands for all humanity in being bitten by the viper upon his hand. The barbarians say that St Paul must be a criminal to have been bitten. They have it the wrong way round. We humans have been bitten and thus we are poisoned by sin which infects us. We may not be born sinners, but we are born poisoned by sin which will manifest itself in our sinful activity in our lives.

Why does the viper not poison St Paul? 


St Paul will be the first to admit that he is a sinner and we have seen his sins and how serious they are. But surely we do love him dearly for his repentance and his desire to promote the Faith he once persecuted. 

The fact is that St Paul's sin has been forgiven by God. It is God who has drawn the venom out of St Paul's blood by His own blood shed for us upon the Cross and of which we partake from the chalice. God's blood contains the antidote to the viper's venom. Yes, St Paul still bears the wound of his sin, just as he bears the wound of the viper's bite, but he lives by the grace of God.

The same is true for us: we sin; we repent; God forgives; we are saved.

So why then do Christians think it's a good idea to handle snakes.


We have to beware of putting God to the test. This is like putting ourselves in danger deliberately so that God will save us. This shows a contempt for God. It is an attempt to force His hand for the benefit of our egos: it denies His Majesty by attempting to force Him into service.

Yes, Our Lord is the Servant-King but we are each to seek to be servants of one another. To force someone to serve us is an act of contempt, and this is the very venom that the Devil tries to inject into us. If we put ourselves in danger to show off our faith then there will be consequences that follow.


St Paul shakes the snake off into the fire. It's interesting to note that the snake tries to escape the fire in the first place. This is the fire that has been assigned to the Devil from the moment he rebelled against God and poisoned his creation.

The Devil's attempt to poison Man results in Man shaking him off back into the fire. Just as the viper perishes in the flames, so does Satan perish in Hell.

We have the opportunity to follow St Paul here to confess, repent and be saved. We can be freed from our sins in the same way and we can shake off the Devil into the fire. This can only happen through Christ and living in His ways.


Many people don't realise that they have a viper attached to their hands. Will they see it if we shake our vipers from our hands?

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