Lent 4, 15 March 2015
John 3:14-21 INI
If you’ve been overseas, you know that warning signs are often pictures and not words. They do this because there are just so many languages. Well, awhile back they wanted to find a good picture to express danger. What picture is there that tells everyone, in all languages and cultures, that danger lies ahead? You know what picture they chose? A snake.
There’s something wired into us that makes most of us afraid of snakes. In many parts of the world, most of them are poisonous. This is why we can understand why a plague of snakes is such a frightening disaster. In the book of Numbers the snakes represent the danger the people fall into when they rebel against God’s leadership.
But it’s harder to see why God chose a snake on a pole to be a sign of safety and healing. After all, that snake was a reminder of the wrong they’d done and the pain that came of it. Why would looking at it give safety? Well, have you had a time when you faced a wrong you did and it turned out well? When you faced what you feared, and got healed? The road to sanity begins with truth. The road to forgiveness begins with confession. The road to healing begins with cleaning out the wound.
If we’re lucky we learn that young. When I was a kid we were pretty poor. We only got one new pair of pants a year. The new ones were the good pants you wore on the days you wanted to feel good. You took good care of them. The other pants were double and triple patched hand-me-downs from my brothers who’d torn them up before they got to me.
We boys were tough on clothes. Our school had a strict, no tackle
football rule which, of course, we broke all the time. One frosty day the ground was frozen and while tackling a kid, my knee hit the ground hard. It hit right on a ridge of frozen mud and I felt the pain shoot right up my leg and into my back. I knew I was hurt; and when I looked down I could see a rip in the knee of the new pants. This was double trouble.
All afternoon I avoided the teacher so I wouldn’t get in trouble for the football thing, but mom had sharper eyes: “Why are you limping? Come over here.” She saw the rip. And she pulled up the pants leg and saw the blood all over my knee and all the swelling. She got me to the doctor so my knee could be treated properly. And the only thing that upset her is that I had been injured and had tried to hide it from her.
So in order to find healing, we may also have to confront that which reveals our faults. But we must be careful here. See, we all know people who constantly seem to make us look bad by comparison with them. They may be great people. Their homes are always clean. Their children excel in five activities. They make their own ketchup. They are master gardeners. Their hair is always perfect even when they’ve had the flu for five days. They can repair anything, and seem to know just a bit more than you about any subject under the sun.
Their excellence is always shining out there for all to see. But it shines in such a way as to say, This is what you wish you were, what you feel you should be, but cannot be. You will never measure up. It is hard to be around people like that. It doesn’t help to know that their standards are correct. It doesn’t even help much if we suspect that they probably aren’t making us feel bad on purpose. They are still a sort of walking rebuke to the rest of us even though at another level we may admire them.
This is the light we hide from. To change the image a little bit, these are the serpents that bite us. These are the fiery snakes that bite and burn us to remind us of our failings. But there is another object we may look at: it is the serpent on the pole, the snake that will not bite us, and the New Testament version of the snake on the pole, the Son of God on the cross.
He hangs there not to show what we should be but are not: he shows us what we can be, and will become, because of him. He hangs there to show us who we become as we are drawn to the light of Christ. And so that he does not frighten us, he hangs there looking remarkably like us in our worst times. He hangs there weak and defenseless, as we often feel; guilty, as we often feel; mocked and humiliated as we often feel; beaten up, as we often feel; abandoned by God, as we often feel. He’s the snake who reminds us of our wrongs, but the snake that won’t bite us.
And he has taken the worst of our nature upon himself in order to overcome it in his own body, so that he may then share with us the best in his divine nature. He visibly becomes what we are afraid to admit we are, so that together with him, we may become as he is today.
It’s gardening time. Now, I’m lazy and buy my starts from the nursery. More devoted gardeners start their own seeds. To do this they often use grow lights. A grow light has power to stimulate strong, healthy growth in sprouts it shines on. The light of Christ to which we are drawn does the same, as we absorb our Lord’s life shining on us and are remade in his image. For we are his workmanship, created for good works.
The good works for which we are created grow out of God’s love for the world. The goal of our lives is to love the world in the way God loves the world: to seek its thriving, to defend it from harm, to unfold its
potential. Through us God’s love is to touch the world. This is the challenge and the dignity we live with in the life God creates in us.