Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Driving out Snakes

Sermon on John 3:14-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 15, 2015 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.”  Just by itself, that sentence, taken from the beginning of today’s Gospel, sounds pretty good.  The Son of Man is to be lifted up.  He is to be placed on high, so that everybody can see Him, be drawn to Him, and live forever.  Many Christians have taken this to mean that His name and His praise is to be spread as far and as wide and as publicly as possible.  Confessing faith in Him is do be done with as much public impact as possible, so this line of thinking goes, so that He can draw as many as possible to Himself.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself.  But spreading the good news that mankind can now have eternal life with its Creator is not, first and foremost, what Jesus was talking about here.  The “lifting up” that Jesus speaks of here is not, first and foremost, a matter of putting His name and His face on as many billboards or TV’s or whatever as possible.  Nor is it a matter of singing over and over again repetitive songs about how good God is without ever saying anything about how He showed that goodness in sending His Son to die for us.  What Jesus is speaking about, here, is His death.  Jesus is lifted up the same way the bronze serpent was lifted up: He is put on a pole as a sign that what plagues us has been defeated.  And what plagues us is sin and death.

It’s no accident that it was serpents which attacked the Israelites in the wilderness.  It was Satan in the form of a serpent who first tempted Adam and Eve (and all of us, their children) to sin in the garden.  Snakes have always been depicted as Satanic creatures because of this.  A missionary named Patrick, centuries ago, was reputed to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland, when in fact what he drove out of Ireland was devilish pagan ideas about religion, by teaching the people there about the Holy Trinity.  He used a three-leaved clover (a “shamrock” in the local dialect) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, by the way, which is why that plant is still associated with his name and with the Church’s traditional celebration of his life and work, which takes place this Tuesday.  I do think it’s ironic that a Christian symbol of the Trinity gets splashed all over the place in connection with that festival, even in places where people would otherwise object to anything remotely Christian being displayed.  Who knows, maybe that’s the next Christian symbol the “angry atheists” will attack.  I also think it’s ironic that this time of year we put this Christian symbol of the Holy Trinity next to icons of the old pagan earth-spirits (leprechauns, in the Irish dialect), but that’s just a symptom of the world not knowing what it’s doing when it stumbles upon holy things, or supernatural things in general, for that matter.  But anyway, the point is, where the Trinity is confessed, the devil is defeated, which is why the legend grew that he cast out the snakes.  He actually cast out the demons, by baptizing and catechizing the Irish natives about the true God, the Holy Trinity.

The irony about this, though, is that it was precisely a snake that the people were to look at in order to be cured from snakebite.  You would think a more appropriate symbol would have been something having to do with God and His majesty and holiness, His power and ability to save.  But it was a snake, the very thing that ailed them, that they were to look to for salvation from snakebite.  So also with us.  It is precisely the image of sin and death that we are to look to for our cure from sin and death.  But, Pastor, we’re supposed to look to Jesus, aren’t we?  He is life and peace and love, isn’t He?  How can you say we’re supposed to look at sin and death?  Jesus on the cross is the very image of sin and death.  Yes, He was perfect and knew no sin.  But, as St. Paul points out, He who knew no sin became sin for us.  He took the world’s sins upon Himself, and paid sin’s penalty.  The wages of sin is death.  And so, in order to be saved from sin and death, we look at where the whole world’s sin and death were concentrated into one man, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

As Jesus tells Nicodemus, it is precisely in His death that His love for the world is shown.  He took sin and death into Himself willingly, so as to defeat them, and in so doing he also defeated the ancient foe, Satan, who tempted Adam and Eve into sin in the first place.  We look on Christ’s defeat in order to receive the fruits of His victory.  Resurrection to eternal life comes at the cost of dying to this old world.  You can’t raise up what hasn’t first died.  You can’t bring forth from the font that which hasn’t first drowned there.  That’s why it’s Christ’s crucifixion that the Church has depicted at the center of the faith for centuries.  Yes, the resurrection is there, too, but it is the cross that has become the preeminent symbol of Christianity.  We still live in this old world, and so it is precisely the fact that He took everything that ails us into Himself on the cross that is our comfort here.  The resurrection is coming, and that’s also a great comfort, but it was the crucifixion where our victory was actually won.  We look upon sin and death in order to be cured from sin and death.  We eat and drink Christ’s body broken and His blood shed so that our bodies will be whole and perfect on the day of His coming.  Christ was raised up on the cross, and it is precisely as the Crucified One that He draws all men to Himself, and gives them eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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