The Fourth Sunday in Lent (3/22/2009)

Lessons:    Numbers 21:4-9     Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22     Ephesians 2:1-10     St. John 3:14-21

Prayer of the Day:     Holy God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

St. John 3:14-21New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Two biblical texts. One, perhaps among the most well known of all texts: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." One of them, perhaps known by only the most serious of Bible students: this strange story about Moses and snakes and a bronze image lifted up on a stick. One referenced in one way or another at every major sporting event in the past three decades. One referenced in liturgical churches only once every three years, at the very most. Yet two biblical texts tied together this week by St. John's Gospel, in a way that moves us to look at the cross of Jesus Christ in a new light.

In the First Lesson, we get a snapshot of Israel's wandering in the desert, on their way from slavery to promise. Time and time again the same pattern is repeated: Israel becomes discouraged; they complain against Moses and against God; Moses brings their complaint to God; God extends a gesture of grace to Israel. But this time, the grace comes with a kick. The biting snakes (sent as punishment for Israel's faithlessness) continue to bite - grace is shown to those who look to the symbol of death lifted up in the midst of the community: they don't die. But Israel's faithlessness continues to cause them pain.

It is an old story. It is a strange story. It is a puzzling story. But it affirms truths we know today. First of all, there is a consequence to sin. When we turn away from God, we turn in directions that cause harm to ourselves and to others.  Sin can be forgiven, but it can't be undone. The harsh word, the unkind action... these leave an imprint, and even when forgiveness is genuine, there can be lingering pain. The snake continues to bite. It hurts, and we are reminded of our brokenness.

Then, there is this strange act of lifting up an image of death in the mist of the community. That seems like such an odd thing to do. Snakes are everywhere, biting and killing, and so God has Israel make an image of a snake, and lift it up where all can see it. It seems to remind them of their despair, not of their hope. But it is just that: God's presence in the midst of their despair is what gives them true hope. Strange as it may seem, it is a fitting image, and it becomes the source of life for many.

It is hard for us to glimpse, because our primary symbol has become so much a part of the landscape of our lives. But there is not much difference between lifting up the image of a snake (the instrument of punishment and death inflicted on ancient Israel) and lifting up the image of a cross (the horribly cruel instrument of Roman torture). Even now, had I lived among those first Christians, I probably would have argued that it was better to lift up an image of the empty tomb. After all, it is the empty tomb that most clearly expresses our joy and our hope for new life. Why not focus on that, instead of the dark and depressing picture of Jesus hanging and dying?

Alas, it was probably too hard for the early church to imagine how to put an empty hole on the top of a pole. But perhaps that was for the best: the image of the cross invites to contemplate the love of God that meets us in our most desperate times. It announces to us God's deep desire to be our hope and our strength when all else fails us. It is a sign of God's ultimate victory over the most powerful and inescapable force we know: death itself. And by entering into death for us (and with us), God gives us the gift of a far greater joy than we might have ever known. Lifted up in our midst is an image of death, transformed by God into a sign of new life. Let us draw near to it, that its grace might fill our lives.


David J. Risendal, Pastor  (March 17, 2009)

Exploring This Week's Gospel:

  1. How do you suppose the Israelites regarded the snake affixed to the top of the pole?
  2. How is the scandal of that image analogous to the scandal of the cross?
  3. What do you suppose it was like for someone who knew the power of the Roman Empire to honor the cross of Christ?

Connecting with This Week's Gospel:

  1. How has sin impacted my life?
  2. What pain have others experienced because of my sin? Or what pain have I felt because of the sins of others?
  3. How is the cross of Jesus Christ a symbol of hope for me? How does it help me to trust in God for my future?