Forth Sunday in Lent, Year B, 2015 – Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
“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,” (John 3:14-15).
This morning I want us to behold Christ lifted up on the cross, where His love is poured out, that we might see there two things. First, we see the shape of salvation—God’s judgement, victory, and a call to discipleship. Second, we see the corresponding shape of the Christian life—our repentance, faith, and (re)commitment to Gods way.
In Numbers, the Lord used Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt in order to bring them to the promised land. But first they had to go through the wilderness and as they went they became discouraged and impatient. The people cried out against God and against Moses saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” The souls of the Israelites, God’s covenant people, have been poisoned by the deceiver so that they fail to trust God’s goodness and his provision and plan for them. Already they have gone astray, adulterously desiring to return to Egypt, the land of their enslavement. And so God sends serpents among them. They are bit and many die—a judgement that reveals and symbolizes their own sin. In our own journey through the wilderness, are we so different? Tired; impatient; discouraged; lacking trust; thinking we’d be better off if we went back to where we came from.
When the Israelites look at the bronze serpent hoisted up on the pole, they see the sufferings of their journey and also the judgement of God upon them. And we, when we see the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, we see God’s judgement upon the sin of the world which Jesus takes unto himself: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,” (2 Corinthians 5:21). For we too “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which [we] once lived…and we were by nature children of wrath,” (Ephesians 2:1, 3). Or to use the language of John’s Gospel, the light came into the world, “and people loved darkness rather than light.” On the cross, we see the result of the evil in which we are stuck. And yet, “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.” God’s judgement of the world, like His judgement of Israel in the wilderness, does not take place because He rejects the world but because He loves it. And His love isn’t merely a disposition but an act—God gave.
Upon judgement Israel is moved to confession: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” And God heard them crying out in their trouble and relented, and healed them, showing that God’s healing occurs in conjunction with the people’s confession and repentance of their sinful ways . When we see the Son of Man lifted up, and witness there the judgement of God upon our sinfulness, what is our response? Is it pity? Indignation? Piety? Denial, perhaps? May the shape of God’s judgement elicit from us confession, which may look simply like a willingness to stand in the bright light of Christ, allowing him to search our hearts, and acknowledging what he finds there.
Yes, Christ will be lifted up on the cross as a judgement upon the sin of the world, and in-so-doing he will be victorious over the powers of sin and death. In his death Christ tramples down death. As the culmination of his obedience to the difficult yet life-giving way which the Father had set out for him, the cross is the victory which heals humanity’s poisoned nature. “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” It is worth pointing out that the Hebrew word here translated “pole” appears elsewhere as “banner”—that is, something which rallies the troops, which when hoisted up gathers around it an army. When Israel is in exile in Babylon, the Lord says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Declare among the nations and proclaim, set up a banner and proclaim, conceal it not, and say: “Babylon is taken,” (50:2). Victory. When Moses hoists that snake up on a pole, it is no less a proclamation of victory over the sting of the serpent. How much more loudly then does the shout of victory ring out over all creation when the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross? Sin’s death knell, to be sure. As the Apostle Paul writes elsewhere, the foolishness of God—Christ lifted on the cross—over-comes the wisdom of the world, and as such Christ is the true power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).
In this mornings reading from Ephesians, Paul paints the contours of the victory of God in captivating terms. While we were dead through our trespasses God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive together with Christ, raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavenly places. In doing so Paul emphasizes the reality of our union with Christ.
For those who are in Christ, what is true of him is true of us. For we are his workmanship.
A Jewish writer around the time of Jesus commented on this passage about the bronze snake saying, “For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all. And by this also you convinced our enemies that it is you who deliver from every evil,” (Wisdom of Solomon 16:7-8). Like Israel in the wilderness, we have but to gaze upon Jesus there lifted up, the Saviour of all, to be healed. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” (Eph 2:8-9). That is, God’s victory, his saving grace, evokes from us faith, itself a gift. Faith is that gaze which beholds Christ on the cross and sees there the very life of God. As far as salvation goes, this is really all we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do—look and trust: “to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him.” And just here we witness the defeat of sin and death, and thus our own liberation from captivity, and this opens up a new freedom for life with God.
In the wilderness when Israel repented and trusted in God for their healing, they renewed their commitment to God’s difficult yet healing way. Like the serpent on the pole, Christ on the cross is a reminder of Jesus’s call to all who would follow him to take up their own crosses in the way of discipleship, as Fr. Ajit preached a few weeks ago.
In other words, there is a shape to the life of those who would go the way of God with and in Christ—a shape that is not determined by you or I, but by God. Thus, it is a life given and received.
As Christians our stories are caught up into the story God is telling and has told, the story which culminates in Christ Jesus. You might say that in Christ, we are re-socialized into a pattern shaped and illuminated by the gospel. Once, we followed the “course of this world,” a way which leads only to death. But God, in Christ, opened up a new way for us to walk in.
This is not our own doing lest we should boast. Through Christ’s obedience to the way of the Father, in himself he creates a new humanity purified from sin. And it is this new humanity, created by Christ, that is given to us in Christ. We receive this great work by opening our lives up to God so that Christ himself may dwell in us through the power of the Holy Spirit, uniting us with Christ that we might be his Body. And we are his Body that we might act. As Paul writes in Ephesians we have been, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” This is the road we are given to travel. Will we now, as we journey with Jesus through Lent, recommit ourselves to walking in this way? And when we are discouraged by our weakness, and we will be discouraged by our weakness, let us not turn aside but ask God for the strength to follow Christ who is our hope and our salvation. “For it is not because of the excellence of our lives that we have been called but because of the love of our Saviour,” (Theodoret).
Today, are you feeling weak? Tired? Discouraged? Impatient? Behold the Son of Man lifted up that you may live. “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,” (John 3:14-15). And upon the cross let us see the shape of salvation, and the shape of our own life as we are called to follow the one there crucified. May God’s revelation of and judgement of sin elicit our confession; may His victory over sin and death embolden our faith; and may His call to discipleship birth a renewed commitment to walk the way with God. And so as we journey let us together devote ourselves to God in Christ, let us daily welcome him into our lives by the Holy Spirit, let us search for him in the scriptures, and let us discern and receive him in the bread and the wine. God is at work in you, in us! Let us look to him and live in the light.
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God,” (Eph 3:16-19). Amen. David L. Stubbs, Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 166.
 N.T Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters.