Lent 4b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.
Today we reach the midpoint of our Lenten journey. It marks a turning point and a resting place. I’m sure we’ve all seen the signs on the turnpikes or superhighways alerting us to the service area coming up, or those spots that are set aside for the long-distance truckers to pull off the road when they find themselves getting drowsy. We are also familiar with the sign announcing a scenic view — a spot off the road set aside for people to pull over and appreciate the countryside, the lake, or the mountain view. All of these special spots are indicated by a sign of some kind.
One of the signs that marks this Sunday as special is the color code — we switch from purple to rose for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. We might think of it as the color of a rosy sunset, before we plunge into the deeper evening darkness of the last half of the Lenten season leading up to the terrible events we commemorate on Good Friday, when the sky grows dark and the Son of God breathes his last.
But what points us towards Good Friday is the very sign we are reminded of today: and that is the cross itself. Jesus tells the crowds that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too the Son of Man will be lifted up. To fill in the background we are treated today to the passage from the Book of Numbers. This passage that gives us the backstory about this serpent that Moses lifts up. The wandering Israelites become inpatient, and complain about the quality of the food that God has provided (notice how foolishly ungrateful and inconsistent they are when they say there is no food — and we hate this food!). God punishes them by sending poisonous serpents to bite them, and when Moses intercedes, God instructs him to make a bronze replica of a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. And when anyone who has been bitten by one of the real serpents looks at this bronze replica they will be healed and live.
Jesus applies this incident to himself — he promises that the Son of Man will be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him will be saved and have eternal life. He is referring, of course, to the cross upon which he will offer the supreme sacrifice of himself for the sake of the whole world. Why? Because, as probably the most quoted verse of Scripture puts it, “because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” This is what Jesus came for, this is what Jesus was born for, and this is why he will die — not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The world has rejected God’s gifts and been stung by the poisonous serpent of ingratitude, and it is only by looking upon the Son of God, given for us as the greatest gift, that we can be healed. And the sign that marks this gift, this saving gift for the good of the whole world, is the cross.
+ + +
Sometimes a sign indicates ownership or possession. Along many a country road you will see signs on the trees saying, “no trespassing.” And you might well wonder, what are they so worried about out here in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes the sign of ownership or possession is symbolic and consists in planting a flag — why, there’s even a flag up on the moon; and I can guarantee you there will probably be no more trespassers there than there are in most of those remote country woods.
The sign of the cross fulfills a similar function — especially when we use it in baptism. Every time I baptize a child, I also mark their forehead with holy oil, making the sign of the cross and saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” I like to think that when I make that same sign of the cross on people’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday that I am dusting for God’s fingerprint — the cross is already there and those ashes only make it show up so that it can be seen: truly a sign that tells you something about the one who bears it. It tells us who we belong to — the one who bought us with his own precious blood; the one who gave us life by his death, who healed us by his wounds.
+ + +
As the old hymn says, “The cross he bore is life and health” — to us — “though shame and death to him.” We were worse than just snake-bitten — and I can tell you from personal experience, a lot worse than cat-bitten! — we were, as Paul told the Ephesians, dead through our trespasses. We had not just pouted and frowned and complained about the food. We were Gentile sinners — by nature children of wrath, as Saint Paul puts it. We were not just occasional lawbreakers but renegades and outlaws, without any hope of salvation or even all that much interest in it.
Yet God, “who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” And this is all by grace, all by a free gift from God to us; not because of anything we did or anything we deserved, but just because God loved us, so loved us that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And God set up the sign for all who choose to turn towards it to see and behold — — that Good Friday two millennia ago when the Son of Man was lifted from the earth, so that any and all people could behold him in his sorrow and his glory.
Signs do many things. I’m old enough to remember the signs for the fallout shelters when everyone was worried an atomic war might break out any day. There are signs that tell you to stop and there are signs that tell you to yield. There are signs that tell you where to get a good deal on a used car, and there are signs that warn you not to drink the water in the pond because it is deadly poison. A sign can save your life.
The cross is such a sign. It is a shelter from the stormy blast, whether that blast is an atomic bomb or a frigid wind. It is a sign that tells you to stop — to stop your foolishness and look and listen and see and hear that the train is bearing down on you and will wreck you if you don’t get off the tracks. It is a sign that tells you to yield to the one to whom all obedience is due. It is a sign that points you to the best deal you will ever get in your life — salvation for free, without a price to be paid by you because someone else has paid it for you, with his own shame and death.
It is the cross, upon which the Son of Man was lifted up. May we who bear his name as Christians never fear to bear that cross, and trust in it, as the emblem and sign of our redemption and salvation. Lift high the Cross, my friends, lift it high, every day of your life, every way that you can — for in doing so you may call others to this banner, where they too may find shelter, peace, and life.+