Thursday, March 12, 2015

March 15, Lent 4, The Walk to the Cross: The Awful Trophy

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. That conversation comes early in the Gospel of John, at the beginning of Our Lord’s three-year campaign. And we can infer that the Lord Jesus can already see the cross in the distance, because already, this early, he talks about the serpent in the wilderness as a figure of himself. According to St. John, the Lord Jesus saw his whole campaign as a long walk to the cross, a three-year Lent.

I’d say that already before his baptism Our Lord had contemplated that story, before his coming out. And I wonder: in those eighteen years of his silence between his bar mitzvah (anachronism warning!) and his baptism, how did that awful story challenge him, and what guidance did it give him, and how did he come to regard that story as prophetic of himself?

When we read the story today, we are put off by the petty vengefulness of God to send those snakes. But when the story was first recorded it was assumed that any god had the right and the privilege to do such things whether humans liked it or not.

This is the kind of story that people raise in objection to the Bible and its God. They don’t want that kind of a god. If they want a god at all, they prefer the loving God of Jesus, the God who “so loved the world.” And yet the Lord Jesus himself was able to hold together his belief in the God of the serpents and a loving God the Father, and he speaks of the two things together in one speech.

Indeed, he sees his own future in that brazen serpent. Does he expect to be a trophy on a pole? The brazen serpent was a trophy, of an ancient sort. It was not a modern trophy, like the Stanley Cup. If hockey teams got ancient trophies, the winners would skate around the rink lifting up on their sticks the skates and sweaters and helmets of the losers, and, depending on the franchise, even the face-mask of the goalie with his head still in it.

You get it that the body of Jesus lifted up on a cross was a trophy for the Roman soldiers, when that body was identified as of the "King of the Jews". He’s not just been killed, like the thieves on either side of him, he’s been defeated. And does Jesus think that this is what God wants? What sort of a God is this that Jesus believes in?

On the face of it, your Lenten pilgrimage is about your repentance of your sins, but as I have said, your repentance is not really about your sins but about your discovery of God, this God whom Jesus believed in. This God is not the nice progressive God of Brownstone Brooklyn. This God is both more wonderful and more terrible than that.

So like when you read the news today, and you get indignant and upset, I would say that when God reads the news God doesn’t get just indignant and upset, God has “wrath”, as St. Paul says. Does God have the right to God’s wrath, even if we don’t like it that God should have sent the snakes? What is God’s wrath directed at, and at whom, and for what reason?

Isn’t more at stake for God than for us? How complex and inclusive is God’s love? When God so loves the world, how many species does God love, how many landscapes, how many glaciers does God love, and how many young black men and how many coral reefs, how many aboriginals and even young terrorists does God love, not to mention yourself, and your history, and your conscience, and your very body? Consider how much does God’s love include and to what extent, and then let’s talk about God’s wrath.

What Jesus did is remarkable. When he said to himself, I will be that brazen serpent, he faced the wrath of God and he took God to the cross with him. He said to himself, I will be the Son of Man, interceding in heaven for my people. But he also said to himself, I will be God, the God up in heaven who judges the world, but also the God up on a cross; I’m the God who requires it and the God who endures it, the God who lives and the God who is dead on the trophy of humanity. 

The Lord Jesus embraced that all, and gave himself to it. And why? He saw the deal that God had offered the Israelites in the desert, and made that same deal universal for humanity. The deal is expressed in all three of our lessons in their own ways: If you look upon him, if you believe in him, if you believe the deal that is being offered you in terms of him, and the relationship behind that offer, then you will be saved, you will not die, you will live. Not because of anything you can boast of, not because of your own victory, but because you have been defeated by his love.

Last week I reminded you that during Lent we pray the confession that “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. So your walk to the cross during Lent is when you rehearse the steps of that complex faith and reasoning which Our Lord worked out ahead of us, that bundled into the judgment of God is the sign of grace and the promise of love. 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 energy of that light is the energy of the love of God.

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? Okay. Do you want to add God to your life as it is? Okay. Do you want better health? Good. But if Jesus is the serpent, it’s beyond better health, it’s about healing from poison. To add God to your life means yielding your life, arresting it for God to start it up again. To add God to the world means accepting the judgment of God upon the world, which means your dying to the world and the dying of the world to you. Not that God condemns the world. 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 tell ourselves we are immune to.

What do you want from your Christian faith? If you want success, God offers you rescue.
If you want sympathy, God offers you challenges.
If you want respect, God offers you forgiveness.
If you want fairness, God offers you reconciliation.
If you want honor, God offers you mercy.
If you want spirituality, then Jesus points you to the serpent on the pole, so that you desire the God who is up there on it too.
If you want answers to the problem of God in the world, the answer that God gives you is love, a very deep and ancient and complex love.
Your pilgrimage of Lent is your exploration of this God, who is rich in mercy, who 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 © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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