We’re getting closer and closer to Holy Week; closer to Holy Thursday, closer to Good Friday, closer to the cross. You can feel it in the lessons we’re reading. There’s more than just a “Lent” feel to the lessons. There’s a sense of darkness; a sense of portent; a sense of discomfort. But there’s also a sense of overwhelming hope in the midst of the darkness. Or is that what a “Lent” feel is supposed to be?
Closer . . . to . . . the . . . cross.
How close to the cross do you—do we—want to be? The earliest followers of Jesus sure didn’t want to be very close. With the exception of just a few women—one of whom was his mother—and the one disciple, probably John—the followers of Jesus scattered and were nowhere to be seen. So, how close do any of us want to be? We’re actually kind of lucky. We know what’s coming—the disciples didn’t; we have a few weeks to decide—the disciples had only a few hours.
You know, we Christians—we’re a funny lot. We’re all about being saved and singing those hymns that talk about being saved. We love those beautiful worship services that just thrill our hearts with beautiful music and inspiring images. Those trumpet fanfares on Christmas Eve and Easter morning; the singing of the Allelujah Chorus; the glowing candles—they’re just so inspiring. Is it any wonder that the attendance in church increases on those two days?
But then we come to Lent and Lent leads to the Passion and to Holy Week and to Holy Thursday and to . . . Good Friday. When was the last time you saw a packed church on Good Friday? Attendance at worship just plummets. Why? I believe it’s because we’re afraid of the cross; we don’t want to be too close, because the cross is dark, and like most children we’re afraid of darkness. But that’s okay—it’s okay to be afraid of the cross; to be afraid of darkness . . . . as long as we don’t ignore the cross and the darkness.
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Think about today’s Old Testament and Gospel Lessons. It isn’t often that we get a direct reference to the OT lesson in the Gospel. But today we do. And it’s an incredible reference. You absolutely cannot miss the connection—the metaphor in the Old Testament lesson. My Old Testament professor—the Rev. Dr. Robert Robinson—always cautioned us to be careful when we read the Old Testament. “Be careful,” he said, “that you don’t read the Old Testament like a Christian” meaning that the Old Testament has to be read in light of the culture, history, and literary construct of the time in which it was written. You have to be careful not to read it simply as the prologue of a more important work, but rather as a body of work that has its own importance—its own message. It’s a book of history and of prophecy and of wisdom that tells of God’s Promise to God’s people. Of course, Dr. Robinson would then wink at us and say, “Of course as Christians, it’s almost impossible not to read the New Testament Gospel as a fulfillment of the Old Testament Promise.” And boy is that ever true of the Old Testament and Gospel Lessons today.
Think about the story in Numbers. The People are out there in the wilderness—basically they are like children wandering in darkness—and they’re afraid. The story says they’re “impatient” but the reality is that they are afraid—afraid of the unknown. So, they begin to speak out against—to criticize—God and Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread” (Numbers 21:5). Talk about whining!
God has delivered them out of slavery. God has saved them from sure death at the hands of the Egyptian army. God has provided food and water—maybe not a feast of great food and wine, but certainly better than the bitter water of slavery. They’re acting like children . . . do you remember having your kids in the back seat of the car on a long trip? “I’m hungry . . . I’m thirsty . . . are we there yet?” One starts poking the other and pretty soon you’ve got a civil war going on while you’re trying to take the family for a nice vacation. Finally God says, “Don’t make me pull this car over!” No, wait, that’s what I always said.
No, what God does is a bit more extreme. God sends these poisonous serpents to bite the people. And just like the kids in the back seat of the car, the People realize they’ve pushed Dad—God—too far. So, they begin to apologize and ask for forgiveness. And like any good Dad, God forgives. But look at how God does it. God has Moses raise up this bronze serpent on a pole so that whenever a person is bitten all they have to do is look at the serpent and they’ll live.
Now, consider the way today’s Gospel lesson begins, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” This is not one of those subtle metaphors that needs to be puzzled over. This metaphor just jumps out and grabs you. And yet there is some puzzling that needs to be done here. Why is John comparing Jesus to a serpent? Doesn’t that seem a bit strange?
What we have to do is look just a bit further into this lesson from John and we begin to get some hint as to what’s going on in this metaphor. Think about what I said earlier concerning wilderness and darkness. Here’s where John starts to make the connection. In the Old Testament we have the People wandering in the wilderness and the people demand, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”
But at this point in the story, the wilderness itself is a metaphor. At this point in their wanderings the “wilderness” is not just a physical location, it is also a spiritual location. God has only just begun revealing God’s self to them—The People are in the wilderness—in darkness—with regard to their knowledge of God. So, when God instructs Moses to raise up the serpent on the pole, so that the People might be healed, God is revealing another aspect of God’s self—God’s mercy. God is casting light into the darkness—the spiritual wilderness—of the People.
And so it is with the Lesson from John’s Gospel. In verse 19 and verse 21, John reveals, “that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil…. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God.”
The light that has come into the world is Jesus. He is the light that guides us out of our wilderness of darkness; the light that is our salvation. But how is that salvation achieved?
And again, I ask, “How close do we want to be to the cross?” Early believers didn’t want to be close—it was horrifying. The teacher they loved was hanging up there, bloody, dying in agony—an agony beyond anything we can possibly imagine. Death on a cross was possibly the most degrading, horrifying, ugly, most excruciatingly painful form of execution ever devised by humans. It defied all logic to believe that the Son of God could possibly die on a cross. In fact St. Paul is incredibly clear with regard to the meaning of death on a cross. In Galatians 3:13, he writes, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Now, if we take that small, section of a verse out of context we might completely miss the real point of Gospel—as many have done in the past. You see those words are only part of verse 13. The whole verse reads, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’,” And that’s the point! That’s actually the connection to the Old Testament.
We ask, “Why is John comparing Jesus to the serpent in the Old Testament lesson?”
Because just as those serpents were sent as a curse to the People there in the wilderness—in darkness—so too did Jesus become a curse. . . a curse for our benefit.
Just as that curse in the Old Testament—the serpent—was lifted up on that pole; so too was Jesus—our curse—lifted up on the cross.
Just as the People in the Old Testament lesson had to but look upon their curse lifted up on the pole in order to be healed; so too do we have to but look upon our curse—to believe—in order for us to be healed and to receive salvation.
How close do we want to be to the cross?
When I was about fifteen, I asked my dad why he didn’t go to Good Friday Service. He said to me, “I can’t, it’s just too depressing.” I wish I had him with me still so that I could help him understand the real meaning behind the cross. We Christians ARE a funny lot. We want to experience all the uplifting wonder and beauty and joy of Christmas and Easter. We want to be thrilled with the music—it just makes us feel so good to sing “Joy to the World” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” But I think we need to take a lesson from our African-American brothers and sisters who also are so incredibly moved by “Were you there . . .” and “Calvary—Every Time I Think about Jesus.”
You see, we can’t get from Christmas to Easter without going through Holy Week. And that means we have to go through the cross. We have to fully understand what John is saying to us in Chapter 3, verse 16:
“For God so loved the world,
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.”
For God so loved YOU that he gave his only son so that you who believe may not die but have eternal life.
That’s why we get close to the cross. We have to understand that what’s up there on the cross is our curse, our sin, our evil. Jesus takes on our curse, our sin, our evil and dies up there for us. And when we are baptized, when we are marked with the sign of the cross, we, too, die to that sin. We get close to that cross the moment we are baptized—we are marked with it for all eternity, for in being marked with it, we have all eternity. . . we have eternal life. But we cannot get there without the cross. All that wonder and beauty and joy of Christmas and Easter? It’s all meaningless unless we go through the cross. That’s what we need to reflect on this Lenten season. Just as the People in their wilderness of darkness looked on that serpent and were healed; we need to look on that cross and know that because of it we are saved.
Let us pray.
May the love of God,
which passes all understanding,
keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,
who is the light in our wilderness of darkness. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.