This second Sunday of Advent, one of the readings was Isaiah 11.1-10 (and the one from which I preached):
11 “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” (NIV 2011, emphasis added)
In the reign of King Jesus, the promised “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse” and the “root of Jesse”, there would be a full undoing of the present order of existence: injustice and violence as normal parts of life.
The Spirit endowed King would cause even the animal kingdom to align with his reign of life and righteousness over the whole earth. The serpents become not even an enemy whose head would be crushed (see Gen. 3.15) and who would bruise the heel of the ‘seed’ of woman. Instead, the serpent and child live as friends. Seeming eternal enemies playing together. What a strange world indeed! The very image of the toddler with serpent strikes fear into my heart!
And the fear I felt sent my thoughts rushing to Mark 16.18* which reports the words of Jesus concerning those whom he was sending out into the world as witnesses of the good news of his reign: “they will pick of up snakes with their hands” without being harmed.
The Messianic Age imagined by the prophet Isaiah appears to be taken up by Mark as the reality of the apostolic witnesses! The King enthroned signaled the end of injustice and violence (even that which was considered “normal” to the order of life as experienced)…the end of the dangers of this age. It was the dawning of a new day…indeed a new creation order! The end was not yet, but was already witnessed in the undoing of injustice and violence at the hands of the apostles, in the undoing of the animosity of serpent and ‘seed’.
King Jesus ascended. His reign commenced. His servants gathered to his banner. He would come again and all of creation would be set to rights. Until that day, the citizens of his kingdom would go out and “pick up snakes with their hands”** as testimony to his soon coming.
* Despite the later addition of the long ending of Mark this text still offers an intriguing literary and theological intersection with the Isaiah 11 passage.
** I am not here advocating for “snake-handling” as certain within the Pentecostal traditions. In other words, DON’T PICK UP SNAKES! Those who have made this a practice are regularly harmed (and many have died, including the founder of this movement: George Hensley) by doing such. Their experiences actually reveal that the kingdom is not witnessed among them, but offers a deeper understanding of the remaking of creation. I am advocating for the working in light of the reigning King as those who live between worlds and testify to a new heavens and new earth even as we bear the cruciform marks of our Lord Jesus in this world of sin and sorrow.
I visited Tennessee this week to meet with my PhD supervisor (who is based in Cleveland even though my school is Bangor University, Wales). I had decided this visit that since I was “in the neighborhood” of the origins of the “serpent handler” churches, I’d like to visit the original site: Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (you know its fun when a church name is that long).
As it happens, I also do a lecture on the origin and theology of snake handling for an undergraduate course I teach every Spring–Pentecostal Heritage. In part, I do this lecture as my final lecture of the semester in order to assure students will show up on the last day of class. I also do it because…well…its just plain fascinating to me and thus a fun way to end the course. A Brief History of the Founder
The “founder” of snake handling churches, George Hensley, had been a moonshiner who came to the Lord at special meetings held by Homer Tomlinson just north of Cleveland, TN. Hensley took to preaching himself around Owl Hollow (eventually joining the Church of God Cleveland TN for a time) and was doing so on Mark 16:17-20, but some of his former moonshining buddies thought to scare off the meeting by tossing a box of poisonous snakes into their midst. While the congregation fled in terror, Hensley snatched up the snakes “like a boy would gather stovewood in his arms to carry into the house” (Tomlinson p. 41). This was apparently the beginning of Hensley handling serpents, but appears to have created quite a sensation throughout the region gaining the attention of A. J. Tomlinson. Of note is an invitation in 1914 by A. J. Tomlinson to Hensley to the General Assembly of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) in order to demonstrate the handling of serpents. Hensley apparently had a difficult time in life as he was married four times and went back and forth preaching and handling snakes to making moonshine even spending time jailed for both practices (Olsen p.24). A not-so-surprising end, he died on July 24, 1955 as the result of a snake bite for which he denied medical care and was declared to have committed “suicide”.
I set up my visit to see the site of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (Hensley’s church which was torn down decades ago). Church of God historian Dr. David Roebuck kindly arranged the trip north a half hour to Owl Hollow and Dolly Pond. As it turned out he had asked Bishop Wade Phillips to guide us. Bishop Phillips had just published the first volume of a series on the history of the Church of God and I was familiar with his work. This was a pleasant surprise tour guide.
We arrived at the site (where now a Church of God of Prophecy stands nearby) and saw something laying on what appeared to be the foundation of the Dolly Pond church we were looking for. It was a sloughed snake skin. A delightful find indeed. Especially as it was not a live snake. 🙂
Naturally we posed with the serpent remains.
While wandering around the site, Phillips mentioned that he had been told (some 20 years prior by a nearby neighbor) that there was a small gathering of graves up on a hill near where the church had stood. We climbed the hill in search of the graves of potential members of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following and were again delighted by our find. We found a grave of one “Minnie L. Harden” (maiden name of Parker) buried near her parents Ben and Maggie Parker.
As it turned out Minnie had been pictured in Phillips’ book Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923, where she has a rattlesnake draped across her forehead with the sign “The Dolley [sic] Pond Church of God With Signs Following” just over her shoulder.
While I know this is not a typical trip (for anyone), it was a fun historical adventure reminding me of locating historical figures and movements in their times and contexts. It also reminds me that even when I vehemently oppose a practice I can still appreciate the sense of experiencing the stories of others and how they may have handled issues of faith and practice. Works Cited
Olsen, Ted. “They Shall Take Up Serpents,” Christian History 17.2 (May 1998): p.24.
Phillips, Wade H. Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923. Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2014.
Tomlinson, Homer A. “It Came to Pass in Those Days”: The Shout of a King. Queens Village, N.Y.: Church of God, U.S.A. Headquarters, 1968.