Sermon: Lifted Up
In the ancient world, snakes were variously feared and admired. In the Garden of Eden it’s a snake that lures Adam and Eve into breaking their relationship with God. And yet Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus was referring, of course, to the incident related to us in our First Lesson for today. God made use of the snake to shape the Chosen People according to the contours of faith.
First, God used the snake to punish the people for complaining for the way that God cared for them in the wilderness. God had sent manna to feed them when no other food was available. The manna was nourishing, the people survived and thrived … but they began to tire of it, because it was the same old thing day after day. They complained.
So God sent poisonous snakes that bit some of the people, making them very ill. Some people died. It didn’t take long for the people to figure out why they were suffering this calamity: they had sinned against God. They sent representatives to Moses to confess their collective sin. They asked him to ask God to remove the punishment of poisonous snakes.
So Moses prayed to God, and God instructed him to fashion a poisonous serpent out of bronze and set it upon a pole. People were supposed to gaze upon it whenever they suffered snakebite, and then they would be healed.
God sends punishment, and then God sends relief from that punishment … but the remedy looks very much like the punishment. Both involve snakes.
It seems senseless. How will gazing upon an image of a snake cure the venom of the snake?! The point, of course, is that it’s all from the hand of God. God wants us to live by faith – faith that is understood first and foremost as interpersonal trust – even when things seem harsh and senseless.
Just like that other thing that’s going on here. God had just given Israel the Ten Commandments, and had warned them that God was a jealous God who required obedience, and would punish if people failed to keep the Law. And yet God instructs Moses to make a graven image of a serpent and mount it on a pole – as if the Ancient Near East didn’t have enough idols on poles already – breaking the Second Commandment of God’s own Law!
Well, it looks like God is demonstrating that the One who gave the Law can break it, and moreover can instruct the people to follow suit. Once again, the point is this: God is the one who is behind it all. God will accomplish what God needs to accomplish in order to train and sanctify the Chosen People. What God wanted them to learn was that they had to rely upon God according to God’s promises for everything, even life itself.
That’s at the heart of Jesus’ words in our gospel lesson for today. He’s speaking to Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews who had come to Jesus at night in order to check him out – to try to understand his teaching, and determine whether he was The One for whom everyone was waiting.
Jesus had already confounded him by telling him that he had to be born again. Nicodemus protested. How could a person re-enter the mother’s womb so as to be born again? Jesus doesn’t let up. He tells Nicodemus about the wind blowing wherever it blows, quite apart from the control or even the knowledge of human beings. So it is, he says, of everyone who is born of the Spirit.
And then Jesus says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
We can imagine Nicodemus protesting this point, too. How can the lifting up of Jesus upon an instrument of death bring life to people? It’s so similar to the business with the snakes. It doesn’t make sense. It seems to get in the way of faith rather than lift it up.
But the cross is inevitable. The cross comes about as the consequence of God’s persistent initiative to forgive, embodied in the person of Jesus. Right from the start of the gospel story God makes it clear that Jesus is sent to forgive sin – to incarnate divine grace and set him loose to circulate among the people. It’s precisely this that angers religious leaders and political leaders alike.
And, we confess, that apart from the Spirit, it would anger us, too. Apart from God’s Spirit, we would not want that kind of God, either. We want a God who will abide by the Holy Law that God gave! We want to God to abide by the rules, conform to our sense of rationality, and just be nice and maintain some distance!
That’s why Jesus must be lifted up. That’s why the cross is both inevitable and necessary. It signifies the death-dealing truth about us, and the life-giving truth about God.
This is what Paul is saying in the Second Lesson: “God made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Lifted up. When God led the children of Israel to wander in the wilderness, so that they might learn to trust God above all else, God instructed Moses to lift up a bronze snake on a pole, so that the people might learn about trust. It offends our contemporary North American sensibilities, but it was necessary in that time and place, for the sake of faith.
For the sake of faith in all times and places, God lifted up the Only Beloved Son, Jesus, upon a cross. That, too, offends our sensibilities … but that’s only because such love is foreign to our nature.
For in all this divine, grace-filled initiative, God intends to lift up you and me! In Christ God forgives sin, freeing us to take up life as God gives it, and thus produce the life that God desires. That is why the church exists. We are here together in order to minister to one another according to God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.
God lifts us up. I see tombs opening, casket-lids unlatching. Through faith, the dead emerge from their shadow-worlds and come alive in Jesus in order to produce the fruit that God desires: love, compassion, and mutual encouragement. Grace is on the loose. We are alive in Christ!
Go from this time and place filled with joy and peace. The world is waiting for us.