Each of our readings today gives us insight into a central point of our faith, namely, that God is God over death and life.
In our first reading we have a somewhat familiar reading, one that gets referenced by Jesus in John chapter 3, as he speaks with Nicodemus. It’s a story from the time of the Exodus wanderings, though it’s found in Numbers, not in Exodus. The people are in the wilderness, and they’re trying to get to the land of promise. Only, they’ve been denied passage through an area belonging to another nation, and, not unexpectedly, they start to gripe against Moses and against God. We miss Egypt! Did you lead us out of Egypt to die out here? We have nothing to eat, and we have no water! And that manna stuff you’ve been feeding us with every morning, and those quail we’ve been eating every evening, we’re tired of it! We detest this miserable food!
And it’s at this point that the writer of Numbers says: Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes that bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
Now, we can debate whether or not God is the kind of God who would actually send snakes as punishment, or if the snakes were just there in the wilderness, where snakes live, doing what poisonous snakes do, and the writer attributed the presence of the snakes to God’s wrath. But regardless, they’re there. And many of the people get snake bit. And they start to die off. And attributing the presence of the snakes to God’s wrath, the people figure the way out of this mess is through confession and forgiveness. And so they confess, and they ask Moses to intercede for them to God.
And it’s at this point that God does something really weird – God breaks one of those 10 commandments that we read last week.
As I’m sure you remember, one of the commandments says: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
And yet, in this story, God tells Moses to do just that, to make a graven image, and anyone who looks at it will live. I mean, come on! Wouldn’t it be helpful if God were a little more consistent?
But there’s something far deeper, and more important going on here than a simple understanding of whether or not we should make images of things. The deeper point here is that the God, who is God over death and life, takes a sign of death and turns it around. God takes the poisonous snake, a symbol of death, and turns it into a sign of life. The instrument of death becomes an instrument of life…
So it is with the cross.
In his nighttime encounter with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, Jesus says: 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.
Like the snake, Jesus must be lifted up, and all who look at him shall live. Looking, in this case, as in the case of those who “look at” the snake and live, is an act of faith. Looking demonstrates trust in God’s power to heal, to deliver, to turn things around, to make what was deadly a source of life.
The people in Jesus’ day, and certainly the people some 60-70 years later, at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, understood the horrors of being lifted up. In the year 70, when Rome had finally had enough of dealing with the Israelis, they sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, and in putting to death those who had revolted against them, the Romans ran out of crosses, and took to nailing people to the walls of the city. This had to still be fresh in the minds of the people a couple decades later, as John records Jesus talking about being “lifted up.” They knew what a cross was. They knew what crucifixion meant. They knew the horror of one being lifted up. They knew it in their bones. It was visceral. It had to burn in their psyche, like a poisonous serpent bite would burn on your skin.
A cross was an instrument of death. I think we miss some of that visceral connection. We don’t see people hanging on crosses, dying slow torturous deaths. For most of us, a cross is a thing of beauty, a piece of decorative jewelry, or an artistic adornment to a room. And even the more simple, basic depictions, are just crosses – one beam across another. For one reason or another, and often, I fear, for the worst reason possible – namely, because we don’t want to be too Catholic – we only have crosses, not crucifixes in our churches. And I think that’s a problem. I think we miss something. I think our crosses are too sanitized. Too clean. Too safe.
Looking at a crucifix, looking at the form of a corpse hanging dead on that Roman torture device, we can’t escape the stark reality of what salvation cost Jesus, and we can’t escape the stark reality of what our sin has wrought. Gazing in wonder and horror at the form of our Savior’s corpse, we can’t escape the power of God’s great love for the cosmos…
John writes, and Jesus speaks: God so loved the world. In Greek, it’s the word cosmos – the whole world, good and evil, faithful and faithless, human and beast, earth, land, sea and sky and everything and everyone that dwells therein – God so loved it all, that God sent the Son, not to condemn the world, but that the whole thing – the whole world, good and evil, faithful and faithless, human and beast, earth, land, sea and sky and everything and everyone that dwells therein – might be saved through him.
God so loved the world that he gave! It’s pure gift from God’s good hand! And in the letter to the Ephesians, this thought becomes more laser-focused on we who are saved by grace through faith.
We were dead in sins and trespasses. Not just sleeping. Not just resting. Not just failing to pay attention. Not just choosing not to take care of ourselves, though we were able to. None of the above. We were dead! And dead is dead! And dead people can’t do anything for themselves! And it’s to people who are completely powerless to help themselves, or to in any way, shape or form contribute to their own salvation – to people who are dead in sins and trespasses – that the first two words of Ephesians chapter 2, verse 4, are addressed: “But God”.
These two little words make all the difference! These two little words change everything!
We were dead. Done for. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, a love great enough that God would send the Son to save the cosmos by being lifted up on the cross, a love great enough to turn that instrument of temporal suffering and death into an instrument of eternal life, that God, who loves us that much, made us alive together with Christ Jesus, God’s Son, our Lord. And it had nothing to do with us – with our goodness, or with our doing the right things, or with our believing the right things – it had only to do with God.
For by grace, you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, or your own deserving, because you were dead at the time. But God, rich in mercy and full of love, made a way where there was no way! God, rich in mercy and full of love, turned our death into life! God, rich in mercy and full of love, gave us the greatest gift of all!…
And that ought to be enough. But God doesn’t even stop there, because, remember, God loves the whole world, right? So then, in the great love with which God loves and saves us, God also continues to work in and through us. God continues God’s creative activity in us, making us what we are and what we will be. For we are what God has made us. Literally, in the Greek language here, it says we are God’s masterpiece – God’s poema, God’s masterwork, God’s finest poetry, God’s love song to the world, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has already prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
And as we walk in that way of life that God has prepared beforehand for us, as we do the good works that God has already prepared beforehand for us to do, God’s love song to the world continues to ring out. In our living, in our loving, in our service for the sake of the Gospel and the good of all the world, the song of God’s saving love – God’s poema – continues to be heard, and in the hearing, lives are changed and saved in the name of Jesus.
Joining in the choir that sings this song are Charlotte, Jeremiah, Matt, Greyson and Alaina, who will be enrolled as candidates for baptism after we sing our hymn of the day. We give thanks to God for adding their voices to this chorus of God’s saving love in Christ. Amen.