Lifted Up

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 9, 2024

There are times when just about all of us feel sacrilegious—maybe even a bit blasphemous. I’m referring to those times when we’re reading in our Bibles, and we find ourselves wondering how this or that story made it into the holy scriptures. We might even wish that certain stories were not in there, we find them so confusing or even unpleasant.

Most of these stories involve bloodshed or the wrath of God. And here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It’s from Numbers 21:4-9, and it happens during Israel’s wilderness wanderings between the Exodus and their entrance into the Promised Land:

Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!”

So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.”

So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!

There are Bible passages that we might turn to for comfort or encouragement. And there are Bible passages that we happen upon that give us unexpected hope. Such passages are found in both Testaments. But this isn’t one of them. This is a passage that we—and I say “we” because I hope I’m not the only one—that we might read as we’re intentionally reading the Bible in a year, or reading the entire Book of Numbers, and say to ourselves, “What did I just read?” or “Who is this God they’re talking about in this story?” or even “Gee, I wish this story weren’t in the Bible because God doesn’t really make sense to me here.”

Luckily, stories like this are obscure. They’re mentioned once in the scriptures and never again. In this way, we can safely assume that they’re an exception to the rule, and so we turn to other parts of the Bible—passages that we like, passages that tell us about our faith and God’s love.

One such passage, of course, is John 3. If we know only one verse of scripture by heart, it’s probably John 3:16 (the verse I’ll preach on in a couple of weeks). That verse is so well known and so beloved that people often spread the good news at ball games simply by holding up big signs with that on it and no more: “John 3:16.” When they’re caught on camera with their sign, they’re confident that that’s enough to help encourage people to turn to God.

But there’s more to John 3 than that. There’s the part about being born again. And there’s the part that describes the work of the Holy Spirit. If John 3:1-17 was all we had to work with, it would be enough to start a religion that would look a lot like Christianity.

But guess what. Before we can get to our absolute favorite part of this passage, something unexpected happens—something that, quite frankly, is unwelcome. The passage I read earlier from Numbers 21—the one that we couldn’t quite understand, and which seems to describe an Old Testament God that Christians can be excused for not believing in—this passage is resurrected by Jesus himself in John 3:14-15—

As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.

Not too long ago, I read a book by a Christian philosopher named Thomas Moore (not to be confused with the 16th-century Roman Catholic Saint) called The Soul’s Religion (Harper, 2002). In it he said he was fond of the early Christian saying by Tertullian, ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ Moore said, “I’ve always found inspiration in that statement, but at this point I would probably re-word it. ’I believe in and trust absurdity.’ Any religious statement that doesn’t twist your mind into a knot is probably too rational and off-the-mark.”

And if this is true of religious statements, then it’s probably true of scripture passages, too. So maybe I shouldn’t wonder that this strange story from Israel’s forty years in the wilderness is given new life in the Gospel According to John when Jesus himself not only quotes it, but compares himself to the serpent lifted up on a pole. On first hearing, it’s the height of absurdity. And on second hearing, it’s no less absurd, but now we realize that we have to somehow twist our minds into a knot until we can make some sense of it.

So going back to the serpents in the wilderness, we have an ungrateful Israel accusing God of not caring and calling the very bread of heaven substandard fare. And so when their camp is invaded by venomous snakes, they interpret it as a consequence of their complete lack of gratitude. Feeling chastised, Moses puts a brazen symbol of their wrongdoing on a pole, and in facing up to it, they find healing.

When you put it like that, is it any wonder that Jesus brings this story up and compares himself to the serpent lifted up on a pole? And this lifting up is a big deal to Jesus. When we think of something being lifted up, we picture honor and glory. So in John 12 when Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself,” our first thought might be that he is to be exalted—such as on a throne. And yet, John tells us that this was Jesus’ way of describing his upcoming death. He was to be lifted up in the same way the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up on a pole.

This describes not only what was to happen, but what it would mean for us. Just as Israel all those centuries back were to raise their eyes and face the worst that could happen, so would anyone who was overwhelmed with their own guilt look to the One lifted up and find healing In the Crucified Christ. If the serpent represented the sting of death and the consequences of evil, then the Son of God would embrace it for the world.

In Jesus, God embraced us—even us at our most miserable—and took our worst fears upon himself so that we might know freedom and life. When we find ourselves lost in the wilderness of pain or guilt, may it be the Crucified Christ that we look to for healing.
—©2024 Sam L. Greening, Jr.