Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lift High the Cross

“The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable manna.’” It may be from heaven, but every day it’s the same: Monday, manna. Tuesday, manna. Wednesday? More manna….

And it was “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people…”

This is the final murmuring story, the last of several in Israel’s long wilderness journey from Sinai to the fertile Plains of Moab. Every so often, the people would complain, Moses would rush to intercede for them, and God would choose not to punish them. Until this final incident, when, it appears, God had had it.

The Hebrew word that we find translated “poisonous serpents” is “seraphim.”

Wait. Aren’t the seraphim good guys? Don’t we sing about “seraphim and cherubim” as angelic beings?

I’m no Hebrew scholar, but I read that “seraphim” comes from a verb meaning “to burn”. On the one hand, that could mean burn like a sting, and on the other “burn away” as if to purify. Sure enough: these snakes are not altogether what they seem. They are agents of God’s punishment, and agents of God’s healing power.

What kind of healing is needed by murmuring disciples? How about a healing of attitude, freeing them to accept the cost of discipleship? The will to see themselves not as random victims of a capricious and meaningless life, but as disciples of the one God who is actively redeeming the whole of life?

Where else do we meet seraphim? The story of the calling of Isaiah to become a prophet. Stationed above Yahweh’s throne are seraphim, winged serpents with the fire of holiness, fire both life-threatening and life-purifying. And one of those seraphs flew to the young Isaiah, holding a live coal from the altar, and with it the seraph touched the mouth of the young prophet and said, “Now! Now you are free to serve the one true God.”

Scholars think these seraphim are a holdover from ancient Egypt. Sure enough, the Hebrew immigrants have brought some old-time religion along with them. Maybe you’ll remember the image of a pharaoh wearing a headdress with a gold cobra rising above his forehead, ready to spit venom onto his enemies.

Man, this could go down well in Sunday School!

The point of the story is that we explore the healing power of God at work simultaneously in what threatens us most. Keep that thought.

Now we step into John’s Gospel, where we hear Jesus saying, “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.”

This time, it’s some Greek we need. The verb we hear translated “lift up” also means “exalt”. Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted up on the cross in humiliating public execution; and at the very same moment, then and there he will be exalted as his servanthood kind of love fits the tumblers of the universe like a longlost key slipped into a lock, springing open the victory of true power casting down the mighty, lifting up the lowly and nonviolent.

The healing power of God is simultaneously at work in what threatens us most.

Jesus being lifted up makes eternal life possible for all who believe in him. Eternal life, John the Gospel writer’s favorite expression for the change of life accomplished by faith in Jesus Christ. Life no longer defined by blood, or the will of the flesh, or by human will, but life defined by God. Life in the unending presence of God, beginning now. Life as a child of God.

If I believe, my present life is changed by the gift of eternal life. If I do not believe, something perishes. I still exist (without believing), but Christ does not dwell in me, lost to me is the deepest opportunity of the present moment to leverage change, that mystical growth opened to me in baptism—that I grow into the full stature of Christ—remains hidden behind the door I will not open.

That closed door sums up the experience of Nicodemus, a distinguished elder of Israel who came secretly by night to hear Jesus teach. His story is told in the verses just before ours in John today, so it gives the context for the Gospel we hear.

Nicodemus comes so close to belief. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” He says right things, almost a creedal statement of belief, and he could be an emissary from a block of ecclesiastical types almost ready to march to the beat of Jesus’s drum, for he says “we”… “we know…”

But Jesus answers him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The mystified Nicodemus seems defeated. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can this be?”

Jesus, we know, is speaking about spiritual birth. Nicodemus shows his old religious training by hearing Jesus in a black-or-white sort of way, confusing the metaphor, resisting the mysticism. He has come under the secrecy of night. He doesn’t yet know how to come to the light. He doesn’t yet understand that the healing power of God is simultaneously at work in what threatens him.

Nicodemus’s story helps us approach the harsh message in our Gospel today: “Those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

Jesus’s closest disciples couldn’t believe, at first. Peter, for instance, hid in the far edges of the crowd that Good Friday, distancing himself from the danger on Golgotha, even denying that he knew the man Jesus.

Slowly, one by one, the disciples returned to that upper room where, one day not far off, the Spirit of God would blow in upon them and they would, by the fire of holiness burning on their brows, become apostles.

Their faith is heard in today’s passage from Ephesians, where we meet the certainty of the early Christians that God was lifting them up as an ensign to the world. “God has made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and 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… For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

A way of life lifted up to draw all people to him. A way of life threatening to the order and disorder of this world, a way of life simultaneously used by God to offer this world healing—this world, so loved by God as to give us Jesus.

Jesus, who asks us, just as he asked Nicodemus, to let go of what we know, to let go of the familiar and ingrained, in order to be reborn through what he himself has to offer, right now, freeing us to serve the one true God.

Jesus, who will not let us domesticate the radical newness of his Word, will not let his Good News be diminished by our murmurings in the face of what threatens us… but will use that very means to heal us.