Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Cross on the Horizon

Laura Herman
St. Andrew’s United Church
Arcola, SK
March 26, 2006

Here we are on a Lenten journey, a journey to the cross.

You might not like to think of it that way. You might prefer to think of it as a journey to Easter. After all, Easter comes after Lent. Why not just say it’s a journey to Easter?

The short answer is that we can’t have Easter without the cross.

Now for the long answer.

When we say that Lent is a journey to the cross, we have to face the fact that this is no easy journey. This is a journey to a place we’d rather not have to go. When that cross looms up in our Scriptures, we may start to shrink back and grumble, “God, why did you bring us here? Why lead us out to this place where someone has to die?”

We may also start to have some doubts about this God. Is this a loving God? If this is a loving God, then why this dark and lonely place of death? Have we been tricked?

If we start to doubt and question God this way, we’re certainly not the first people to do so. When the Israelites followed God’s chosen leader, Moses, out of Egypt, they found themselves wandering in a desert, eating bad food. They wandered cheerfully enough for the first little while, but it wasn’t long before they started having doubts. Pretty soon they had decided that the whole journey was a plot to kill them.

They were wrong. The desert was just a desert, and the bad food was just bad food.

When poisonous snakes came among them, the Israelites were convinced that it was a punishment for their complaints about the desert and the food.

They were wrong again. Those snakes were just snakes. Moses lifted up a bronze image of one of those snakes on a pole, and suddenly, instead of being the poison, the snake was the cure. We still see that image of a snake on a pole today, in symbols of the medical profession.

The core of modern medicine is science, and science is about knowing. Perhaps the greatest achievement of modern medicine has been the knowledge of disease-causing organisms. With that knowledge, people everywhere have been able to replace fearful chanting and sacrifice with thorough cooking and soap. Once people knew what was causing their illness, they could do what was necessary to live.

How did the snake become the cure for the Israelites? It was held up on a pole where everyone could look at it and see that it was just a snake. It was not a punishment from God, any more than the desert was a plot by God to kill them. The desert was just a desert, and the snake was just a snake. Once they understood that, they could see that God did not intend for them to die. God intended for them to live.

That knowledge was powerful. There are certain cultures where you can put a hex on someone, and it will kill them, just by making them believe that they are going to die. The Israelites, complaining in the desert, believed that they were going to die. But if they were going to survive the desert, the food, and the snakes, the Israelites had to believe that they were going to live. They had to believe that they were meant to live.

When I read the text from Numbers this week, I took it at face value. The Lord sent the snakes; that’s what the text said. I didn’t question that. It’s not that I believe that every snake that crosses my path these days is an omen, or that every bad thing that happens to me is a punishment. I just didn’t think about it.

Then I read a commentary that suggested that the Israelites had to look at what was biting them in order to be saved. That loosened up my mind to get something more from this text than just what it says on the surface.

But what really got me thinking was when I looked at the Gospel passage from John. It contains the most famous verse from the entire New Testament: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Everybody knows it. Most know it by heart without even trying. But who knew that this passage was connected to the Numbers story about the poisonous snakes in the desert? There it is, in the two verses immediately before: “And 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.” (John 3:14-15). I was mulling this over, trying to understand the connection, when it hit me. Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn it, any more than those snakes came into the desert to kill Israelites. The Israelites were already doomed by their belief that they were going to die. The snakes could finish them off, for sure. But when a snake was lifted on a pole for them to look at, that snake became the cure, opening the eyes of the Israelites to a new belief, so that they could be saved.

When God’s son came into the world, he did not come the way old beliefs suggested he might come. He did not come as a warrior king, slaying his enemies. He did not come as a mighty judge, condemning all those who had complained or spoken against God. He came as a human being, filled with God’s love for all humankind. Through all the ages of the world there had been confusion about God’s intentions towards humankind. The message of love was there, all along, but often overlooked by humans struggling to understand their world and their God working in the world.

When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, the message could no longer be missed. Misunderstood, yes, but not missed. God loved the world.

God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus to heal, to forgive, and to show mercy, no matter what the consequences might be. God sent Jesus to live God’s love, even when it stirred up violence against him, and to go on living that love all the way to the cross. Through our own human violence, God showed that God does not intend violence towards us. The cross lifts up, for all to see, the consequences of our violence, and the consequences of God’s steadfast love.

Last week’s lesson from Corinthians spoke of God’s foolishness. God’s foolishness is this steadfast love, a love that plunges into the heart of the world and refuses to protect itself with power. When we claim the name of Christians, it is a bold and scandalous claim we make, by calling a man who was crucified, the Christ. We believe that God chose and anointed for us, not a warrior king, not a mighty judge, but a man who went to the cross rather than call down power to save himself by destroying others. When we look at this Jesus, lifted on the cross, we see both our salvation and our judgement.

Our salvation: the knowledge that God loves us – that God intends us to live.

Our judgement: the knowledge that God rejects our violence. God’s answer to violence is not more violence, but peace in the face of violence. God intends us to live, but this means to live as Jesus lived, in the way of peace.

Even if that way leads us to a cross.

Miraculously, just as the terrifying serpent of the desert has become the symbol of medicine and healing, so the terrible instrument of crucifixion has become the symbol of salvation and steadfast love. Yet this meaning is really not so new. A cross is a very old symbol, much older than the crucifixion of Jesus. Its older meaning is very simple, and very powerful: spirit (the vertical) plunged into matter (the horizontal).

Today we look ahead through our Lenten journey. We see the cross on the horizon, lifted against the sky. It is what it is: an instrument of crucifixion. It is also much more: it is a reminder, always, that God’s spirit is here with us in this material world, not to kill or condemn us, but to stand among us and embrace us all with a boundless, foolish love.

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