“An Awful Good Symbol”

A sermon drawn from John 3:14-17 and Numbers 21:4-9

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September 14 – Wednesday – was the church holiday known as “Holy Cross” day. [Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-17] are readings for Holy Cross Day, and they focus our attention on the symbol of the cross, the reality of the cross, and make us think about what that cross, specifically, is doing in our story about the good news of Jesus Christ, and about the goodness of God that’s revealed to us in Jesus.

Saying that might seem very strange, because the cross doesn’t seem like very good news in itself. Thinking about the cross can make us tense, because it is not really a pleasant symbol. Not like a good shepherd or a rock of ages or a pool of water or bread and wine.

We have probably been around church, or the Discovery Channel, long enough to have heard some graphic descriptions of the specifics of death by crucifixion, as well as a number of discussions of the politics of crucifixion in the Roman Empire. There are lots of reasons to admire the Romans, but their legendary brutality, and their ruthlessness when it came to exerting and maintaining their hold on power, wouldn’t be among those. We know crucifixion fairly be described as a method of torture, public torture, that is meant to result in death, and that is meant to display Roman power at the same time.

In other words, the cross is, or rather was, a symbol of death, and of tortured death, and of death due to powerlessness – powerlessness to resist, powerlessness to do or be anything or anyone not allowed by the Romans. So whatever makes us want to celebrate the cross by setting aside a special day of the church year for that purpose, it wasn’t there before the the cross became part of the story of Jesus.

And even after it becomes part of the story of Jesus, we can have a lot of trouble wrapping our heads around how there is anything we’d want to call “good” about this specific part of the story. We know we call the day Jesus was crucified “Good Friday,” but that doesn’t always make sense to us.

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So it’s nice that Jesus helped us understand the crucifixion by linking it to this story about “the serpent in the wilderness” in Numbers, in his conversation with Nicodemus. Although, as far as that goes, the story in Numbers is a little weird and perplexing, too. Something about looking at the statue Moses has made of a snake protects the people from the real snakes that are biting them and killing them …

What exactly is going on here? It might help just to walk through the story, and see what we might learn from it …

Other people’s decisions – politics, we might even say – has made life difficult for the people. The Edomites won’t let the Israelites travel through their territory. For their own reasons, although probably related to the tense family history that links Edom and Israel, and their inability to resolve their differences, and to leave off resenting one another. That means the Israelites have to go the long way around to get to their destination. Through inhospitable territory. Not an ideal situation.

We wouldn’t want to say the serpents are the Edomites’ fault! But this background reminds us that other people’s decisions, and the state of our relationships, can have consequences for us even if we didn’t “choose” them [just as our decisions can have consequences for others].

In the course of taking the long way around, the people get … grouchy, impatient, literally “short” – understandable, in these less than ideal circumstances … but …

… in their impatience and grouchiness, they lose perspective – they lose sight of what is [still, actually] good about their situation, they forget about the [still, actually] positive features, and they become ungrateful, blaming God and Moses – I think this is dangerous territory for us, because it would be easy to get the idea that God’s people are never supposed to complain! That seems like a bad lesson to learn, especially because people do complain – lament – A LOT in the Bible, and DON’T get in trouble for it. The Psalms are full of laments and complaints and questions about where oh where is God. Jeremiah laments, even for things that God told him ahead of time were going to happen. So the complaining and lamenting itself doesn’t seem to be the problem. Even attributing bad circumstances to God doesn’t seem to be the problem. Because people attribute bad circumstances to God all the time, and don’t get in trouble for that, either. God comes right out and says (through Isaiah) “I make weal and create woe.” (Isaiah 45:7)

But there does seem to be a difference between the kind of complaining that brings people closer to God, and the kind of complaining that puts up a wall between people and God. And that second kind of complaining seems to be the kind the people are doing here in this story. They are turning their backs on God, in essence, in their “shortness.”

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God unleashes “fiery serpents” – clearly, it seems, because of this – and when we hear this, again, we are likely to think about it as a punishment.

No doubt it felt like a punishment to the people involved.

But I think this is might be a mistake. Especially because thinking that way would imply that God does things just to pay people back, simply to make them suffer – and that is really more like something we would do, something people like to do. People like to hurt others just because those others hurt us. People like to “get even.” We don’t think that’s how God operates, I don’t think.

What may be going on here, however, is that because God is having a hard time getting through to these people, God has created circumstances in which they will realize they really need God’s help. Because they can’t help themselves. And in those circumstances, in those dire circumstances, the people turn back to God.

It’s sad to think that people need things to take a bad turn before they will examine the wisdom, or rather the error, of their ways. But often true. Often, we humans only start thinking about changing things when they get really bad – bad enough for us to try something different.

And the people DO turn back towards God – they ask Moses to pray for them; and Moses does pray for them – which reminds us that prayer is important, and is one of the ways that people turn back towards God; and also that praying for people, praying for help from God, is one of the ways we can help people.

In particular, though, we might want to pay attention to the fact that Moses’ prayer is effective because Moses has an ongoing relationship with God. Moses actively listens to God, and so God can get through to Moses.

We might also want to pay attention to the outcome of this prayer. The people were hoping for the snakes to be taken away. I would have been hoping for that, too, if I had been one those people. That’s not what happens.

Whether it’s because the snakes have already been unleashed, so now they can’t be put back, or because there’s a good reason not to put them back … Maybe the people are going to need an ongoing reason to keep turning back to God … I do not know.

But there is a remedy.

It’s a remedy that calls for faith, for trust: Moses has to make a statue of a snake, and put it on a pole in the middle of the camp, and then when someone is bitten by a serpent, they can look at that serpent on the pole, and they will be OK. A representation of the problem that afflicts them becomes the solution to the problem.

Or rather: remembering God in the midst of affliction becomes a solution. Because turning towards that bronze serpent is, in effect, turning towards the solution God provided; which is in effect turning back towards God. Trusting that God is the one who rescues us. That God has provided a cure for what ails us.

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So this is the story that Jesus brings up when he tells Nicodemus, and us, that God so loves the world that he sent the only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. When he tells him that God is holding out life to the entire world, through the vehicle of faith, by means of the Son, Jesus, the anointed one of God.

That gives us the idea that Jesus on the cross, the figure of Jesus on the cross, is analogous to the figure of the serpent on the pole. The idea that Jesus becomes a representation of violence, of hatred, of sin, of victimization and powerlessness at the hands of a cruel, pitiless enemy, of death – of everything that is destroying and afflicting us. A representation of all the consequences of the malice and violence that afflicts human beings, all the trouble that spilled out of the human desire to rush into things, the human decision to skip steps and try to gain wisdom the “easy way” … not knowing that it was really a choice to gain wisdom the really, really hard, costly way.

We turn to look at Jesus in this way, that is, if we trust God. If we say: I believe that God has provided a remedy for the suffering people experience here in this world, for the death that people experience here in this world. And somehow, the cross is part of that remedy.

This makes the cross, really, a symbol of the way that God can overcome evil with good, and can manage to bring something that is good out of terrible evil. So it’s not that the cross itself is so good, apart from God. God is good, and can use even this scandal, this evil deed, and this evil system it is part of, and this way of life that is so bad for people, and can compel it to turn back towards what is good, and can use it to turn us back towards what is good. Can bring something good out of it.

That is a difficult trust, especially in the middle of terrible suffering. But we believe Jesus had that trust, and believe that’s the trust that Jesus taught us to have. And we believe that trust was vindicated in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

So now, in the context of Jesus’ story, instead of being a symbol of death, the cross becomes a symbol that points beyond itself and beyond death to life, to God’s invincible power to bring life out of death.

When we see it that way, we do have good reason to celebrate the cross, and what it symbolizes.

And even more reason to turn away from violence ourselves, and to work at turning our world away from that, and back towards God, and the direction of life and peace.

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Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Ed Baker, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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