| Numbers 21:4-9
|Sun, March 30, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|What a wondrous and troubling text.
Jesus speaks such beautiful, strange poetry.
He speaks words both familiar and peculiar:
“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.”
This is the secret code held up on signs in stadiums: “JN 3:16".
God loved, God gave,
may not perish, may have life.
It is the heart and soul of the good news,
the life blood of faith.
All around this central, solar text
orbit an array of extraordinary words:
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up”;
“those who believe in him are not condemned
but those who do not believe are condemned already”;
“People loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were evil”.
A snake lifted up. A man lifted up.
God’s love. Life eternal. Life full. Lasting life.
Condemnation not as God’s desire or will or purpose.
Damnation as choice, as activity, as deeds.
Darkness. Light. Evil acts. Deeds done in God.
Jesus’ voice is confounding.
We expect a simple word of love.
We wish that the world were so black and white,
so neatly divided along a border line of good and evil.
But evil invariably disguises itself as light,whitewashing the truth,
fooling us into believing that our ways,
our intentions and actions are pure and good and filled with light.
Just then any people of light are revealed
as captives of the dark forces that they - that we - decry.
This is the story of families and nations,
of churches and of psyches.
We long for love that leads to life.
We wish for judgement that does not condemn.
We seek the light, yet grope in the dark.
Even as God acts to love the world,
to love the church,
to love us we run from the light of God’s ways
for us and for the world.
We struggle to trust our life to a God
whose love results in such huge divine cost.
Consider the great grief of a mourning parent?
It is this massive grief that at the heart of the gospel.
The cost of God’s deep passion for the world
is God’s own great grief and loss.
God so loved the world -
not the church, not the faithful, not the good
but the world.
God so loved the world that God gave.
God the giver.
God the vulnerable lover who gives in hope.
At the heart of the matter
is the God who gives freely, expectantly, longingly
to a world that is poisoned by trouble,
aching in deep need, perishing at every turn.
It is a world run amuck, a world shadowed by terror,
where light rarely shines,
and when it does shine causes many to hide for fear.
The world of this text is not
the illusory world of ad copy.
The world of this text
is a world of conflict, fear, insecurity and revenge.
It is a place of danger in which the future is filled
not with promise but with impending chaos.
It is the world known by too many nations,
too many children, too many here now,
even in the midst of such apparent tranquility.
Into this world comes one who is “lifted up”.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”.
The serpent in the wilderness.
Memories of a time
when we were lost in the wilderness,
so close and yet so far from the Promised Land.
Turned back from Edom,
not allowed to enter by that way,
forced to turn and to move in the wrong direction,
away from the promise.
Travelling now on the long, long way around.
Our arrival in the land of the promise,
the place of God’s kingdom come, much delayed.
A time of grumbling and groaning at our plight.
A time soon filled with serpents of judgement,
poisonous snakes sent by God to bring an end
to a people who give up on the way to the promise.
A time when the people grasp the purpose of judgement
and change their ways.
They see that God does not intend death.
They trust that God seeks life.
They confess that it is their running away that
is leading to a dead end.
They repent, they turn and call out for mercy -
kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy”.
And there is mercy. Not an end to the snakes.
Not an end to the poisons of the wilderness.
But now an antidote, now a healing sign,
now evidence of God’s intentions for life.
A serpent lifted up on a pole, a sight for sore eyes,
the healing power of God for life.
“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.”
The Son of Many lifted up.
It is only the third chapter of John’s gospel.
Still eighteen more to read.
Yet, already here, Jesus speaks of the last chapters. Lifted up.
Lifted up on Good Friday on the pole,
the tree, the instrument of human torture and evil
that masquerades as justice. Jesus is lifted up,
overcome by the powers and principalities
that twist the story,
making the Prince of Peace out to be sinister.
Is this crucified one sign of health and healing
for all who are overcome by judgement,
who perish in the trouble we cannot escape?
Yes. It is the sign of the God who will give everything,
risk everything, bear everything to love the earth,
to love its peoples, to loves its cultures and religions,
to love its good and evil-doers into life eternal, real life.
To look at this One
who is lifted up into the trouble that we know,
who is overcome by the powers
that we cannot overcome
is to glimpse the first sign of light in the darkness.
God takes the plight of the world seriously.
God does not abandon us to the forces
that twist creation into a place of condemnation.
God’s own Chosen One is also condemned
by these destructive forces
that intend to control the life of nations
and the inner life of persons of every walk of life.
When the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross in defeat
those with eyes to see glimpse that the powers are,
even now, losing their grasp.
At the moment of the ending of his life,
YHWH begins the work of breathing new life
into the Crucified.
Three days later eternal life breaks out
from the forces that crucify.
Then the one who was “lifted up” on the Cross
is “lifted up” again, out of a blocked tomb.
He was lifted up to die,
then lifted up in newness of life.
This Risen One is lifted up in new life.
Now he encounters those who are perishing
with eternal life, life as God intends,
life that makes new on the other side of dying to
the darkness and the powers.
This is the One who meets us here, at the font,
and who calls us to turn away from the forces
that warp our vision and cause us to live in fear.
He calls us to follow him into death and resurrection.
This is the One who invites us to the table,
who feeds us with his risen life and vitality and energy
To look upon the One who is “lifted up”
is to look the Risen One who meets us here and now.
To trust that he is present in this time and space
is to discover life.
It is to find deep hope,
new energy flowing in our veins.
When we lose faith that he is “lifted up” in newness
then we quickly perish in anxiety
and in grasping and in desperation.
Then we scrabble around in the darkness
of the troubles that confront the earth,
frantically seeking health.
This is the judgement that occurs,
not a judgement at the hands of a despotic God. No.
This division between those who turn to life
and those who get lost in death,
is our mixed response of a to God’s costly love.
To be honest,
even as we turn to receive eternal life, real life,
whole life from the One who is “lifted up”
we also continue to look back to old ways.
We live between the light and the dark
in ways that are not simply black and white.
The story of good and evil is too twisted
to be easily untangled.
But it is not simply all gray either.
There is, finally, a deep conflict
between God’s intent for life
and the hidden powers that seek the death
of the planet and the nations and
our neighbours and ourselves.
We cannot escape this deep conflict,
not even by living in ‘so-called’ neutral territory.
None of us lives purely in the light.
None of our darkness, no matter how despairing,
is beyond the One who is “lifted up”
through the deepest darkness
into Easter’s dawning day.
We live at the hinge
between the ending and the beginning,
between Good Friday and Easter Sunday,
between being lifted up in death and lifted up into life.
At this crucial place where despair intends to triumph
those who look at the One who is “lifted up”
are given the precious gift of life eternal.
In the midst of shrouded, shadowed days
the world longs to glimpse a people
who are alive to God.
May our lifelong journey of turning
to the One who is “lifted up”
make us a sign of the eternal life
that is God’s love for the world.