Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
Our gospel lesson is the second part of the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus points to the sign of the brazen serpent. He says that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that everyone bitten by a burning snake could be saved from death to life, so the Son of Man will be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. What did that mean for Jesus? What did Jesus see in that sign which pointed to himself?
When we claim that Jesus is divine, we often underplay his true humanity. We forget how much he had to learn himself. We assume that his knowledge of himself and of his mission just came down to him straight from heaven as a perfect package, or that what he said was automatic, without his having studied hard beforehand.
I see it differently. I believe that Jesus had to gain his knowledge of himself and of his mission by studying the scriptures, and by studying them for years. This does not deny his special inspiration by the Holy Spirit, nor does it deny the special incarnation of his birth, nor even his perfection. But his perfection was neither static nor inviolable. It was a perfection of obedience, and obedience for any Jew was founded on a life in the scriptures, the study of the Torah and the prophets. Jesus had to read the signs reported in the Bible to get the direction for his life, and for the purpose of his life, and to see his way towards God’s redemption of the world through him.
We’ve been looking at these signs. We started with the sign of the rainbow, the bow that was set within the clouds, with the arrow pointed up into heaven and aiming at the heart of God. That sign was public in the heavens, while the second sign was on our bodies on our private parts, the sign of circumcision. It was a kind of brand, a sign of bondage and ownership, that we belong to God. It was a sign of a promise, that God commits to us and God binds Godself to us. There is a little bit of blood shed, to signify the judgment and the cost, the cost to us and the cost to God.
Jesus read these signs, and they directed him to where God was going. During those silent years of his life, between the ages of twelve and twenty-nine, when he was a single man, living at home, working as a carpenter, reading his Bible every night by candlelight, he read those signs as signals from his Heavenly Father, pointing him to his real job. How long did he contemplate that sign of the serpent, where it might be directing him, imagining himself in terms of it?
It was a trophy, that serpent on a pole. Like after a battle, when the victors raise in triumph the standards of the losers. Like when the German barbarians under Arminius carried back into the forests the fallen eagles of the vanquished Roman legions. The brazen serpent was a trophy on a pole, it was defeated, it was dead, the power to which it pointed was the power of God to bring life out of death.
The trophy was like a sacrament. It was a physical sign that pointed to the promise of God. This is how it worked: to look upon the trophy was to put your hope within the promise; to look upon the trophy was to believe in the deal God that had offered them. That meant accepting the validity of the judgment that God had made against them, but it also meant trusting that behind the judgment was the saving grace of God. They were being saved by grace through their faith.
So Jesus will have studied that story in his silent years of contemplation. He will have read about the constant unbelief of his own people, and of their habitual impatience with their God, and of their repeated antagonism to the prophets God had given them. Jesus will have come to see that he would not be exempt from this. He had to anticipate the rejection of his own people.
There were other passages which had pointed him to his identity as the Son of Man, by which the prophets meant the representative of his people, a mediator, like Moses, born to lead his people and to advocate for them, to be raised up to God to mediate for them. But this story signaled to him that he would be both Moses and the serpent. He would be lifted up, but as defeated. His mediation would be through his defeat.
But the Messiah was supposed to be victorious, as victorious as David. The King of the Jews should be lifted up before the people on the shouts of their acclaim. But this sign pointed to a different royal road. Not lifted to the heights of coronation but plumbing the depths of human degradation in true self-sacrifice. He would subject himself to the keenest tests of human character, he would pass the full ordeal of human life within the world — all the poisons, all the snakes, all the rejection, and never compromise his light to the power of the dark, and never surrender his love.
Could this really be the plan of God? He had to have his doubts. It had taken complex reasoning to arrive at this strange paradox, and he must have doubted his reasoning. “Is this where the signs are really pointing me? I have no proof.” But it’s not the way of God to give us proof. The way of God is always with a risk. It’s only signs God gives us: stop signs, yield signs, signals telling us to turn, signals telling us to go. I guess when he was thirty he saw some signal telling him to go, to go the way that no one yet had ever gone before. To save the world by his defeat, to be lifted up by the Roman legion as a trophy of the Jews, the King of the Jews, ha ha. Even his own people mocked him for his failure that was obvious. It’s right for us to grieve for him, and for the evident loneliness of his silent years. It took a lot of faith. Jesus had to be a believer no less than us, and he too had to be saved by grace through faith.
What do you want from your Christian faith? Do you want to add God to the world as it is, to make the world better? You should. Do you want to add God to your life as it is? You should. Do you want better health? You should. But if Jesus is the brazen serpent, it’s beyond better health, it’s about healing from poison. To add God to your life means yielding your life, arresting it so that God might start it up again. To add God to the world means accepting the judgment of God upon the world, which means our dying to the world and the dying of the world to us. Not that God condemns the world itself. No, God loves the world. God condemns the poison in the world which is the power of the world, to which we’ve built up tolerance and think we are immune to.
What do you want from your Christian faith? You might want success, but God offers you rescue. You want respect, but God offers forgiveness. You want fairness in the world, but God offers reconciliation. You want honor, but God offers you forgiveness. You want spirituality, and Jesus points you to the serpent on the pole, to the end that you imagine Jesus up there too.
In our prayer of confession during Lent we repeat those words that we are “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us.” It takes some complex reasoning to repeat those words with honesty and understanding, and it takes faith to repeat those words with hope and joy. That’s my point today, as for every Sunday during Lent: to rehearse that complex reasoning which Our Lord worked out ahead of us, that bundled into the judgment of God is the promise of grace and the signs of the love of God. We rehearse the complex paradox that there is greater freedom in dying to the world than in being loyal to the world.
God does not take away the snakes. God does not take away the darkness. But the light shines in the darkness. You can see the signs of light, the glimmers in the gloom, the green shoots in the shadows. The energy of that light is the energy of the love of God. God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him, and seated us with him, to show us the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.