Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”

Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano

Numbers 21.4-9, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Billy Graham, the late great American evangelist, often said that if he could give someone just one passage of Scripture so they could understand the Christian gospel, John 3:1-16 is what he would choose. That passage has all the attractive themes a newcomer might appreciate: Jesus, answering the question of a religious seeker, Nicodemus; the language of being “born again” by the Spirit; and the ascent to that wonderful concluding verse. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” This is like simple, nourishing milk for newborns in faith. They can only handle so much.

But we’re not reading that precise passage today; no, we have John 3:14-21, a different selection, a harder passage.

Our Gospel reading today is difficult, not because it is harder to understand, but because it is more personally challenging. In fact, all the readings set for today are like this: they seem almost primed to offend us in every possible way. This is solid food for the mature, not milk. It is harder to swallow, tougher on the teeth. We’re not getting off easy today, but I promise you, our readings are all the richer for that.

Let’s prolong this sense of indignation a little. Shall I list the offensive bits first? There are at least seven ideas sure to offend most hearers.

First, there’s a miraculous bronze snake in our OT lessons. (I don’t know about you, but if this was my first Sunday in church, I’d be looking around … a little worried. I’d be thinking Maybe this church thing isn’t for me…ˆ)

Second, it appears that God punishes sin or even just whining (griping, murmuring), with death — by snakes. Isn’t this a little disproportionate?

Third, our reading from Ephesians says pretty bluntly, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” and it says we were “by nature children of wrath.” So not only does God punish sin, but we’re the sinners God will punish. Things are getting worse by the moment.

Fourth, it seems like failing to believe in God leads to death also. This is not comforting!

Fifth, the letter to the Ephesians says we’re powerless to improve our lot: salvation is not coming from us.

Sixth, it sounds like some of us are refusing the help God offers us; we “love darkness rather than light.”

Seventh, after hearing these things, most of us said “Thanks be to God,” or “Praise to you, O Christ.”

I’m making light of the situation, of course; some of the things I’ve said are caricatures of the actual readings. But we still have to deal with the question: Is any of this something to be thankful for? How is it God’s good news to be shared with the whole world?

Let’s start again with our Numbers reading. If you’re not familiar with this passage of Scripture, there are a few things you should keep in mind. In this story, it’s after the Exodus. God has delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; he’s brought water out of the rock, and given them manna to eat. He’s given them the 10 Commandments and the Law, and he’s instructed them on how to worship him. He’s promised to be their God; they’ve promised to be his people.

Pretty much throughout this whole process, they’ve complained and said things like, “God why did you bring us out to the desert, to die?” (Exodus 14:5, Numbers 14:2, 20:4) Or, after eating their 300th meal of heavenly manna, they say, “Would that we had died in Egypt, by the pots of meat!” (Exodus 16:3) “Remember all the fish we ate in Egypt, and the cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic” (Numbers 11:5). They are yearning for the land of slavery. And of course, at one point, God takes them up to the border of the Promised Land, and they refuse to enter because they’re too afraid (Numbers 14). So instead, they wander in the wilderness for 40 years. And they continue to grumble.

This story is one that so vividly and colourfully captures a quality of our kind: the idea that, even if we were presented with irrefutable evidence of God’s existence and his favour toward us, and his constant care to provide for us, we might still complain. It would not be enough; we are caught in our own frustrations, doubts, and slavery.

This is one aspect of what Scripture describes as Sin. Sin. That evil lying deep in our heart, clinging so closely, coursing through us like a venomous poison. When we hear the language of sin on the lips of religious people, I think our neck stiffens a bit, even if we are churchgoers, but we see sin all the time, don’t we?

When we see on the news imagery of a scuba driver swimming through all the plastic in the oceans, or other kinds of rampant pollution, is that not the result of Sin – unthinking, automatic, almost unavoidable?

As the war in Syria enters its seventh year, do we not see Sin – in its violence and depravity, in the heartlessness of Assad, in the paralysis of the nations, unable or unwilling to help?

Or remember when the Islamic State was at its prime, crucifying Christians in the desert and slaughtering them on the seashore, erecting slave markets, and committing the grossest, most heart-rending atrocities against women and minorities – did we not see Sin? We saw it on the news, and they posted YouTube videos of these atrocities, because members of IS were proud of them. They used them to recruit more followers.

Finally, when we hear about yet another once noble organisation or public figure sunk by a sex scandal or revelations of abuse or harassment, is that not sin – in all its banality, stupidity, cruelty, and universality? No sector of society has proved exempt from these things. Instead, revelation after revelation of abuse, or corruption, has brought faith in public institutions to historic lows.

It is very easy to externalize such examples. I am not a sinner; I don’t need help. We see the speck in our neighbour’s eye and miss the plank in our own. Here I think of the famous quote from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago,.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Solzhenitsyn, remember, was horrifically brutalised by the Nazi regime and by the Communists, and could have easily thought of himself only as a victim. But he recognised his own complicity in the evil of the world. And if we are honest, I think most of us can recognise our complicity too – all the little ways we act or fail to act for our own good and the good of those around us. This too is an aspect of Sin.

We need something or someone to deal with the deep down problem, not the surface. We need someone to heal us, to remove the poison of Sin that courses through our veins. We need a remedy to match our problem.

This is what Christ offers us in faith and baptism. This is why our readings today are good news: for we see that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

Consider the story from Numbers again. When the people grumble against God and Moses, as they have been grumbling for 40 years, the sending of snakes hardly seems an incidental detail. Why snakes? Within the context of the Bible it seems an echo of the story of Adam and Eve in Paradise, along with their fall and punishment for eating what they shouldn’t, after being prompted by the serpent. Remember one of the consequences of the Fall: God says to the serpent: “you shall strike his heel, he shall strike your head” (Gen. 3:15).

This short story in Numbers has a level of narrative sophistication, then; Israel, even while in close relationship with God, is still dealing with the curse of original sin: The snake was biting. They could not stop grumbling; they could not trust God; they certainly could not save themselves. They needed a solution that matched their situation. And so God commanded Moses to raise up a bronze snake, so that whoever looked upon it would live. The whole scene is something of a living parable for humanity.

But in one sense it is only that: for in this story, the bronze snake removes literal poison from their veins, but the rest of the Old Testament makes clear that the problem of the heart continues. Something more would be needed. The incomplete character of the story, and of the narrative arc of the Old Testament, points towards a figure not yet reached. Jesus.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life. For God so loved the world…” (John 3:14).

Jesus’ words are a clear reference to the Cross, when he was lifted up for all to see. On the Cross, the Son of Man drained the serpent’s venom. “He bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). He exhausted the power of Sin and Death by taking it upon itself. He became helpless as we are. “He who knew no sin, became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). When we look on him, we are like the Israelites’ looking on that serpent. We see the full weight of sin and shame, exhibited on in his cross and passion: in the strike of the lash, in the cruel crown of thorns, in the mark of the nails in his hands and feet, in the spear thrust in his side.

But there is a difference between the serpent and the Son. We look here on no lifeless thing, a bronze image, a creature, only a figure of the reality to come. On the Cross, we look on the Son of God, life, light, and love himself, who came from heaven of his own will in the likeness of sinful flesh, and somehow – died, not to purify us from some temporary venom, but to make us whole for all eternity.

And God the Father did not leave his Son dead on some hillside, or mouldering away in the tomb. He raised him up on the third day. “He who died for our sins was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25), for in this way the Son of God was vindicated and his sacrifice made effective for you and me. As one of our readings said, we

 … were dead in trespasses and sins … but God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he has loved us, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

We are made alive, born again, made new in Christ by grace—through faith—in baptism. God sent his Son into the world to save us, not condemn us. All we must do is look to him in our hearts, profess him with our lips, be washed in water and the Spirit.

Some here today undoubtedly stand on the cusp of belief. And to you the living Christ reaches out in the power of his Spirit, in the words of his gospel, and in the embrace of this community, the Church. Hear the voice of Jesus: “Come unto me and rest; lay down, thou weary one, lay down thy head upon my breast.” But I also want to emphasise that the initial spark of faith is only the beginning. God is not interested simply in freeing us from Sin, important as that is. He goes further: he refashions his people in his own image, preparing us for eternity. As the letter to the Ephesians says: “We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared for us to walk in.” In faith, we are led into a new way of being, characterised by God’s own life, light, and love; God works in us for our good and for the life of the world, for we have found in him our star, by which we are guided to our destination, and our sun, by which we see the whole world bathed in a new light.

So let us walk in the light and peace of Christ all the days of this life, “til traveling days are done,” until we are gathered into the next life, to delight in “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace” for ages to come.