Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sermon: "Look at the Snake" (John 3:14-21)

Today we get to talk about snakes. Snakes are never the good guys, are they? In stories - in movies and books - snakes almost always signify something bad.
Snakes are the only thing Indiana Jones is afraid of. He cries out: “Why does it have to be snakes?”
Voldemort had Nagini, a snake that was more of a companion than a pet. When Harry Potter discovered that he, too, had a connection to snakes, it was a troubling realization.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, snakes have been symbolic of evil.
Strangely enough, snakes have also been symbols of fertility and rebirth and everlasting life. Part of the reason for this is that snakes shed their skin and become new. Many ancient cultures revered snakes for this reason.
So snakes, we must say, have been both revered and feared; admired and abominated, a source of both blessing and curse.
In the book of Numbers, chapter 21, there is a story about snakes… The story takes place during the exodus, when God’s people - led by Moses - were journeying from Egypt, through the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land. The story goes like this:
They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water? And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.
The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
And then the scripture says that God heard the prayer of Moses, and came up with a solution. What was that solution?
It was another snake...
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live. [Numbers 21:4-9]

Look at the snake. Look at the symbol of sin, the symbol of evil. Look at the source of your pain and misery.
The last thing the people wanted to do was look at another snake! “Geez! We're sick and tired of looking at snakes! We just want to turn our back on them, and look at something else!”
Yet that was the solution. That was the cure.
Look at the snake if you want to live. Confront your sin. Confront your weakness. Confront your temptation. This, you must do, if you want to live. This, you must do, if you want to be healed. This, you must do, if you want to be made whole.
We heard today from the gospel of John, chapter 3. There, John says that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One [Son of Man] be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”
John compares Jesus being lifted up on the cross to the snake that Moses made, mounted on a pole, and lifted up so that the Israelites could see it and live.
And just like the symbol of the snake, the cross is a symbol of evil, a symbol of sin,... but also, a symbol that represents healing, wholeness, and new life.
The cross was the Roman way of executing people who actively opposed the Empire of Rome. It symbolized Roman dominance and superiority. But the Empire of Rome was - in the biblical worldview - contrary to the Kingdom of God. The way of Caesar was against the way of God.
So the cross stood for oppression. The cross stood for violence. (Crucifixion was a very violent act.) The cross stood for inequality, since the kingdom that used the cross was rigged in favor of the few at the top, to the detriment of the people.
But followers of Jesus learned to see in the cross something else. They learned to see the symbol of a man, a savior, who would not let Roman oppression and intimidation stop him from proclaiming a new way of living, a new world in which all lived according to the ways of God and God’s teachings.
So the cross came to stand for new life: life oriented to God’s kingdom, rather than the kingdom of Rome.
“The kingdom of God is now,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God is peace and equality and justice and harmony and love between all living things.”
Life in the kingdom of God is BIG. Do you know what I mean by that? Life in the kingdom of God is much more. It is so much bigger than life in the kingdom of Rome, or life in any other human-made kingdom. Life in the kingdom of God is big because God is big. God is bigger than we can imagine. God is so much more than we can imagine.
And life in God’s kingdom is so much MORE than we can imagine.
Jesus called life in God’s kingdom the “life of the ages.” It is not tiny. It is not small. It is not insignificant.
It is everything.
It is life in abundance.
It is the life of the ages.
In the Bible, this phrase often gets translated as “the eternal life.” Usually, we hear this phrase - “eternal life” - and think only in terms of the length of life, that life will go on forever. But it also means the breadth of life, the depth of life, the richness of life.
A normal life varies in its breadth, but the eternal life, the life of the ages, is infinite. Infinitely rich. Infinitely meaningful. Infinitely abundant. Infinitely connected to God.

Jesus fully lived this life. As the Son of God, he was able to tap into this life like no other human. It enabled him to walk on water, to restore people to wholeness and to heal them. It enabled him to fully live out his identity as a beloved child of God. That, to him, was everything. It didn’t matter how popular he was with the people of the Roman Empire. His identity was not rooted in Rome. His sense of self-worth, his sense of wellbeing, his identity, was rooted in God.
And God affirmed him for who he was and who he was created to be.
In the same way, God affirms you for who you are and who you are created to be. So if you constantly seek affirmation from elsewhere, then you aren’t fully living in God’s kingdom. You aren’t fully living the eternal life.
So many things influence how we feel about ourselves. We feel good if we get a lot of likes on instagram. We feel good if someone compliments our clothing. We feel good if we have a lot of money in our bank account. We feel good if we get in to a good college. We feel good if can buy a new phone or a new car. We feel good if we get a promotion.
But if how you feel about yourself depends too much on any of these things, then you’re not fully living in the kingdom of God. You’re not fully living the eternal life, the life of the ages.
There was a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a good man. He sought understanding. He was part of a faith community that sought understanding. He sought out Jesus, hoping that Jesus could help him further understand how to live, how to increase the breadth and depth of the life he was living.
He saw in Jesus someone who was fully living the eternal life, someone who was fully living life in the kingdom of God. He went to Jesus, and said, “You must have come from God…”
And Jesus said: “Only if someone is born anew can they see the kingdom of God.”
And Nicodemus said: “How is that possible? How can someone enter their mother’s womb and be born again?”
Jesus said: “You have been born of the flesh; but to see the kingdom of God and live the eternal life, you must be born of the Spirit.”
Again, Nicodemus said: “How is that possible?”
And that’s when Jesus said what he said about the snake in the wilderness: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”
...So that everyone who looks upon him there on the cross will look upon their own sin and the sin of society… will look upon that which separates them from the kingdom of God… and they will reorient their life to Jesus. They will be born anew. They will live the eternal life.

In Lent, our desire to live the eternal life, to live in the kingdom of God, intensifies. In Lent, our eyes are drawn to the cross, which helps us in this. In the cross, we see the sins of society, a society that chooses the kingdoms of this world over the kingdom of God. In the cross, we recognize the many times we have failed to find our identity in God, the many times we have instead sought our identity in the things of this world. In the cross, we see all that separates us from God’s kingdom. We look at it and see all that keeps us from the eternal life.
It’s not fun. We don’t want to do it. We don’t want to talk about sin. We don’t want to examine all the ways our lives move in the wrong direction, all the priorities we have wrong in our lives... In the cross, we see all our vain attempts at affirmation from the world. In the cross, we see all the powers and all the ways of thinking that lead to death.
We don’t want to look.
But looking is the path to healing and wholeness.
When we look at the cross, we see the one who lived fully for God… and we see the words and actions of those who put him there because their lives were not lived for God. Their lives were lived for the wrong kingdom.
We need to look at this and ponder this, because every day that choice presents itself to us: the choice of whose kingdom we choose to live in; the choice of whether we will live the eternal life that is offered to us by God, or a shallower, narrower version of life that we create for ourselves.
It sounds like an ordeal. It sounds like trudgery. It sounds… depressing.
But in truth, it is a great blessing. Because it allows us to rediscover that life of breadth and depth, and recommit ourselves to that life. It allows us reclaim our identity as children of God, beloved by God, affirmed by God. It allows us to extend blessing and affirmation to others in what we say, what we do, and how we live.
It allows us to find healing and wholeness, for ourselves and for the world.

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