“Uplifting”

  1. Num.21/Jn.3

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many statues of the cruel dictator, Josef Stalin, were torn down. When Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, a giant image of him in the center of Baghdad was destroyed.

Countries run by powerful leaders often have such statues erected in public spaces. They are intended to make it very clear who is in charge. Their symbolic power is so great that when the government changes, the new leaders rush to tear down the monuments.

We can understand, then, something of the attraction that images had for primitive peoples. The Book of Numbers tells a story of the Hebrews when they were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

In this text, the Hebrews are complaining—as they often did—about the harsh conditions of life in the desert. But, according to the Bible, their complaints get them nowhere. On this occasion, the people of Israel’s lack of trust in their God leads them to be punished by attacks from poisonous snakes.

The Hebrews then confess that they have been ungrateful. They ask God to get rid of the snakes. So the Lord instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and put it up on a high pole that everyone can see. From then on, Israelites who were bitten by snakes could look up at the bronze serpent, and the image would miraculously heal them.

As we know, Jesus was a teacher or “rabbi.” He was a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. So he was familiar with this story of Moses and the bronze serpent.

In today’s Gospel, Christ refers to the incident, using it to predict the circumstances of his own death. He tells his disciples that, “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.”

Of course, the comparison wasn’t perfect. For one thing, Jesus was a human being, not a man-made idol.

At the same time, Christ’s power was infinitely greater than the bronze serpent. Christ could bring the true and living God to humanity. In Christ, people could find life.

So there follows in the Bible one of the most famous sayings of Jesus: John 3.16 “For 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.”

Here is another comparison that we might make with Moses’s statue. The people of Israel could give reverence to the statue and be healed of their wounds from poisonous snakes. But those who worship the Son of God will receive more than healing from their wounds. The One who is lifted up gives us something to live for.

St. John Vianney was a French parish priest who died in 1856. He is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and he is also known as the “Cure d’Ars”–the curate of the town of Ars in eastern France.

St. John Vianney became internationally known for his work as a paster. In the Roman Catholic Church, he is regarded as the patron saint of all priests. Yet he told a story of an old peasant man who also found a way to holiness. The man would come into the church and spend hours just sitting in front of a crucifix.

Finally the Cure d’Ars asked the peasant what he was doing. The man replied, “I look at Him, He looks at me, and we are happy.”

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” The text says that Christ must be lifted up. He had to give himself for us so that we could find in him the divine consolation.

As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed, there is an infinite abyss between God and human beings. The only way to overcome the gap between divine perfection and human reality was for Christ to offer himself as the bridge over the gap.

Unlike the image of the dictator Stalin, the image of Christ derives its power from the way that Jesus offered himself. This form of contemplation is not the same thing as being in awe of a king on his throne—or a dictator in his office, for that matter. It’s the power of sacrifice—the power of love.

Of course, Christ’s death on the cross wasn’t the end of the story. As we are grateful for Christ’s offering of himself for us, we also give thanks that his resurrection demonstrated that God is able to conquer death.

That’s one reason why the empty cross is also an object for devotion for many Christians. The cross above our high altar here at Incarnation lacks Christ’s body. And so it reminds us not only of Christ’s death for us, but also of his resurrection.

In 1966, the songwriter, Richard Farina, published a novel entitled, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. The book was a huge success with the alienated rebels of that era—not least, I would think, because the title expresses a sentiment we all recognize.

That sentiment is being “down”—being so unhappy and dissatisfied with our lives that we no longer think there is any way to go on. We’re so downcast and downhearted that this state of being seems normal! We think we’re never going to get out of the snake-pits of the world.

No wonder that our liturgy says, each and every Sunday: “Lift up your hearts.” No wonder we respond: “We lift them up unto the Lord.”

We all need to be lifted up to the Christ who offers himself for us. We all need to be lifted up not to gaze at bronze serpents or to dream of fanciful pleasures but to approach our God – our God who so loved the world that he gave us his only Son—that everyone who believes in him should not perish.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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