A Tale of Two Poles

Sermon delivered on Lent 4B, Sunday, March 15, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

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Lectionary texts: Numbers 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our readings this morning are full of contrasting themes of light and darkness. They remind us of the reality of the existence of human sin and evil, and God’s mysterious response to it all. In doing so, they remind us what the gospel is all about and how we should respond to both the light of Christ and the darkness that has been defeated by God in and through Jesus, and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our epistle lesson, the apostle Paul offers a blunt assessment of the human condition. He tells us that without Jesus we are dead people walking and children of God’s wrath because of our sins and our natural inclination to follow the ways of a world laboring under the control of Satan. The world Paul is talking about, of course, is the people and systems that are hostile to God’s good and original intentions for human beings to be his wise image-bearing creatures who reflect God’s glory out into the world and reflect the world’s praise and goodness back to its Creator. Like Adam and Eve, we are not much interested in being God’s wise stewards. We want instead to set ourselves up in God’s place so that we can run the show the way we want, taking matters into our own hands at every turn. The result is that God’s good world has gotten turned upside down and without God’s gracious intervention in our lives, the human condition is characterized by enmity, strife, quarreling, jealousy, fits of rage, dissensions, factions, sexual impurity and a whole host of other nasties (Galatians 5.19-21). As John reminds us in our gospel lesson, people love the darkness of their sin rather than the light of God’s healing love.

But John also tells us that God loves the world and because he does, God must inevitably judge it to rid it of all traces of evil. We see this entire dynamic played out in our OT lesson this morning. God had rescued his people Israel from their slavery in Egypt, bringing them through the Red Sea in a mighty act of deliverance. Now God’s people find themselves wandering in the desert and they start to grumble. This despite the fact that God had graciously provided for them and led them himself in the pillars of cloud and fire. In other words, there was little objective reason for God’s people to grumble or complain that God had abandoned them. But grumble they did. They became impatient with God’s travel plans and provisions for them. They couldn’t disabuse themselves of the notion that their timeline and travel route to the promised land were superior to God’s. They weren’t able to trust that God really did care for them, especially during this time of uncertainty in the wilderness. And so they quarreled with God through Moses. Some even wanted to return to their slavery in Egypt! Talk about short-sightedness! But of course we do the same when we become impatient with God when things aren’t happening fast enough to suit us or God apparently isn’t giving us the things we want. After all, we know better about our needs than God and expect him to cater to our every desire.

God’s response to his people’s grumbling was swift and terrible. He sent poisonous snakes among them and as a result, many died. As we hear this story, many of us our tempted to wonder if John wasn’t seriously delusional when he tells us that God loves the world. This is love? No thank you, God. I’ll pass. But this reaction fails to take into account the bigger picture and the reason why God called Israel into existence in the first place. It is precisely because God does love his good world gone bad that he called Israel to bring his healing love to the world. And of course the balm for all that ails us is to learn how to become faithful and obedient people who love God and trust his good will and judgment in our lives, and who act in accordance with God’s original plans for his image-bearing creatures that we just talked about. But you cannot teach others how to love and trust God and be obedient to his will if you are grumbling and acting like those God called you to help heal. And so when God’s people actively rebelled against God’s rule over them, they incurred God’s just wrath. Remember, if God really does love his world, he cannot countenance evil in it, especially from his own people.

But in addition to God’s wrath, God also showed his gracious love toward his people when they repented (at least temporarily) of their proud grumbling. When they acknowledged their sin to Moses, Moses prayed to God on behalf of his people, the same people who had been grumbling against Moses and his leadership, and God provided a means of protection from the serpents God had sent to afflict his people. God told Moses to make a serpent and put it on a pole so that whenever anyone was bitten, they could look upon the serpent and live. This is a deeply ambiguous command. Moses was to use the image of a serpent, that powerful biblical symbol of evil, as a means to rescue his people. We are not told how this worked, only that it did when God’s people showed enough faith and trust in God to obey his command.

If we understand this call to look in faith at this strange symbol that bears God’s love for his world and to trust his love and good will and purposes for us, even when we are in the midst of our darkest valley, we are ready to look at the cross of Jesus Christ because it is the ultimate symbol of God’s gracious love for us and his world. As our Lord told Nicodemus, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must Jesus be lifted up on the cross so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life, starting right now and extending into God’s new world.

Again, we note that Jesus did not offer an explanation of how this works or why. He simply tells us that it does. It is enough for us to know that once we were at death’s door through our own sin and disobedience but that in the cross of Jesus, God has provided us a remedy. And not just any remedy. The remedy, the only remedy. In other words, this passage is about a faith that grasps the God-given solution to the intractable problem of human sin and evil and so is healed by it. But unlike the Israelites who were only healed temporarily when they looked at that other pole, we who look upon the cross of Christ in faith are healed forever. This is why the cross stands as the eternal symbol of God’s great love for us.

And as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, God’s plan of rescue in and through the cross of Jesus is offered to us as a sheer act of grace by God the Father, precisely because God loves the world so much. When we put our whole hope and trust in Jesus, we get to share in both his life and death (cf. Romans 6.3-5). We are delivered from death by Christ’s death and made alive by virtue of our relationship with him. And we will be resurrected with him to share in his new life, thereby experiencing his love for in unimaginably new ways when God’s new world finally arrives in full.

This gracious love shown on the cross is a challenge to us all. It challenges our proud self-righteousness that deludes us into thinking we are worthy of God’s gracious offer of eternal life or that we don’t need to be rescued in the first place. And it challenges those of us who feel unlovable and who truly cannot believe God loves us that much to want to save us in the first place. But it is urgent that we come to grips with the cross because John confronts us here with making the ultimate choice: perish apart from God or receive the gift of eternal life offered to us in Jesus. There is no other way. And there is an urgency about making this choice because as John further reminds us, those who choose to look at the cross and walk away find themselves already condemned by their decision. When you reject the only God-given path that leads to life, faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection, what other result can there be?

That is why the season of Lent with its emphasis on confession and repentance of all that keeps us hostile toward and alienated from God is an especially appropriate time for us to focus on the cross. Doing so reminds us that God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to rescue us and restore us to a right relationship with him, even when we were his enemies! When we realize the great love and mercy God has for us and his desire for us to be healed, it can only melt our proud hard-heartedness and turn it into grateful humility for such a wondrous gift and love.

The cross also reminds us that God loves the entire world, not just those of us who belong to Jesus’ body, the Church. This means we are to imitate our Lord’s great love by embodying it to those around us, especially those who are hostile to the gospel. We do so because we have been rescued from our sin and death by the blood of Christ shed for us and desire to offer that same love to others with its power to heal. Of course, as John reminds us, many will reject that offer because they prefer to live in the darkness of their own sin. And if we truly love others as God loves us, we will find that rejection costly. But this is what it means for us to walk in the way of the cross as we follow the path our Lord Jesus took. Who or what situation in your life needs to be exposed to the costly love of God made known on the cross?

This desire to embody God’s great love in Jesus to others is precisely the reason why Paul stresses that Christ rescued us for good works. As the Israelites discovered when they wandered through the desert, it is hard for us to embody the love of Jesus, a self-giving love powerfully manifested on the cross, if we are acting just like those who need to be rescued. When others see us acting in ways that are contrary to God’s good will for us, they can never experience the reality of God’s love for them as it is typically made manifest—through God’s holy people. It is hard to show folks what it’s like to act as genuinely human beings and point them to the Great Physician to be healed when we are acting in sub-human or desperately sick ways, showing no signs of being willing to submit ourselves to the healing love of Jesus.

And so as we come to this midpoint in Lent, I encourage us all to stop and reflect on this tale of two poles. As Good Friday draws near, let us increasingly turn our gaze toward Calvary. Let us see our Lord dying there so that we might live and let this mysterious love of God thoroughly change us so that we not only rejoice in the incalculable gift we have been given, but also want to share it with others. We do both because we really do believe God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the world to save it and not condemn it, and we are thankful we have the gracious privilege of living out this Good News that is ours, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.