4th Sunday in Lent
18 March 2012
St. John's, Chicago
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The heavy stone cover was heaved to the side of the entrance to the underground chamber. The hero leaned in, peering into the darkness as he dropped his torch. When it hit the floor many feet below, the slithering, crawling forms of the cobras and various other deadly serpents became somewhat illuminated. Indiana Jones then lamented, "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?"
His local guide nervously looked in. "Asps. Very dangerous. You go first."
The children of Israel had experienced this on a far greater scale, far more serious scale. They had been complaining against the Lord, and He sent venomous snakes among them. Many people were bitten and died. They cried out to Moses to ask God to take the snakes away. But do you remember what He actually did? Unlike the legend of St. Patrick, the Lord did not remove the snakes from that land. Instead of removing the deadly threat, He provided salvation from it.
Moses was to craft a snake out of bronze, and lift it up. When people were bitten, if they looked toward the bronze serpent, they would be saved and live. Such a bizarre thing, for God to command Moses to make an image of the very source of death, and then through it, save His people. But that is exactly what the Lord did.
The serpent had been possessed by Satan as he tempted and deceived our mother Eve, in the Garden of Eden. As he craftily persuaded her to defy God and eat the forbidden fruit, the snake brought death into the world.
Centuries later, the hundreds of thousands of Israelites were encamped in the wilderness, and as they defied God, He permitted these snakes to bring death to these people.
And now, the image of death became a picture of life! It still is that way. From the earliest times in the Church, the image of death on the cross has been a picture of life. Instead of the body of a snake on the pole, we behold the body of Jesus Christ on the cross. We see Him who gave up everything and suffered and died, so that we might live.
That is precisely what Jesus prepares His hearers for in this text. Not just a picture or sculpture, though, but the actual event; Jesus would be "lifted up" on the cross, and in His death, give life to us! "Lifted up" is a verb that was used by the people of that time, referring to those being crucified. Jesus makes it as plain as day that the bronze serpent was a foreshadowing of what God would do by "lifting up the Son of Man."
But "the world" -- those who complain against God and are the reason for death in the first place -- isn't just the children of Israel. It is not just the media, or the government, or some unnamed, unseen forces "out there." When God so loved the world, it isn't some generic group. It is you too.
You join in on the grumbling against God. He isn't fair. It feels like He picks on you. "Other people always have good stuff happening to them," you say, "Why is it always hard times and suffering for me?" And the devil delights in distracting you from the Lord, and discouraging you into doubt and despair. When you listen to him, you are straying from the promises of God, and forgetting His boundless love and mercy for you and, He desires, for all.
You get jealous of the supposed "good things" that happen to others, while bitterly complaining against God that He doesn't give you enough stuff in this world. Such ingratitude condemns you.
Yet Jesus has saved you with His amazing grace. You could never boast that your works had saved you, sin you were stuck in your judging of God and complaining against Him. But by His grace -- the undeserved, limitless love and mercy of God on account of Christ -- "you have been saved, through faith."
So today, the Church encourages you, the dear, rescued, saved, grace-given children of God. Christ's Church repeats her dear Lord's promises of forgiveness, life and salvation. The pastors of the Bride of Christ speak sweetly to her and say, "Rejoice!" While still in the midst of the purple season of repentance, your dear Father in heaven blesses you with a rosy day of rejoicing in Him who conquered the ancient serpent, Satan.
So in the midst of hardships and troubles, rejoice! Just like Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, Jesus, the Son of Man has been lifted up, taking away your sin.
As you are staring down the devil, who tries to conquer you with fear, just like Indiana Jones' enemies did with all those snakes, rejoice! Almighty God has sent His Son to be lifted up on the cross for you, conquering your fears and assuring you of His care and protection.
When you find yourself confronted by death, whether the possibility of your own, or the death of loved ones, in the depths of your sorrow, you can rejoice. That doesn't mean you put on some phony smile and pretend to be happy. No. Remember, even Jesus Himself wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. It means that as deeply as you hurt, your loving Savior is your Good Shepherd who comforts and cares for you. He is the source of true and deep and lasting joy -- a firm, sure, and certain hope and confidence in your Risen Lord -- a gift that comes through faith in Him.
Yes, dear friends in Christ, rejoice! Your encampment in this sanctuary is not overrun with snakes. And even in the earthly "worst case scenario," no matter what may happen to your body, no matter how the devil may attack you, you belong to the One foreshadowed by the bronze serpent. Christ Jesus has endured death so that it is no longer a overwhelming threat. Yes, it is the enemy. It is at odds with you. But your Jesus has conquered it decisively. He crushed the serpent's head as it bit His heel. Death is still the enemy, but an impotent enemy. Fear not, but rejoice!
Rejoice, you have received God's grace and been saved. Rejoice, you are forgiven. Rejoice, death will not win. Rejoice, you don't have to track down some bronze sculpture of a serpent that foreshadowed Christ; Jesus Himself comes to you in His Word and Holy Sacraments, delivering these gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation for you! Amen.