Sermon for March 21/22
Sermon for March 21/22 2009
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Hilary’s, Fort Myers, FL
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
We all know that our Christian faith sprang out of a much older faith, the one we call Judaism. Sometimes we forget that Jesus was never a Christian, but that he was Jewish to the core.
What we now call Judaism in turn sprang out of the life and experience of an ancient near-eastern people, the Hebrew people. What we call the Old Testament is a written version and interpretaion of their lived history - a history in which a wandering clan became a people, and then a nation.
We imagine that the Hebrew people had always believed in but one G-d. That is not the case. Long before “Moses” we hear tales such as that of Rachel, who travels with her household gods.
Long after “Moses” we read such startling things as this (in Psalm 82) “G-d” take his place among the council of the gods”, suggesting that the Hebrew G-d was one of many.
It was as those nomadic people began to settle in Canaan that they hit upon the “truth” of but one G-d - the Lord of heaven and earth.
Belief in one G-d was hard to sustain, particularly as they lived among a people who had other more attractive gods, such as the gods of fertility. That is why the ancient prophets are always railing against the “false gods”. The prophets were opposed to the “high places”, the “sacred groves”, and the “sacred poles” - places for religious activity for the adherents of other gods.
Hebrew writers were sometimes embarrassed by the history of their own people. Had they indeed once followed false gods, epitomised by sacred poles?
Of course they had, and the story of the serpent in the wilderness is an attempt to explain away this older way. It’s as if they were saying “yes, we did look up to sacred poles, but only because the Lord told Moses to make one for our healing”.
Some later Rabbis explain it away be saying that the people did not look up to a pole, but that they looked up to the Lord above the pole.
When we come to the Christian era we find that John makes reference to the serpent in the wilderness “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”. He is in effect saying, “yes, that may well have happened ‘way back then’, but it was no more than a pre-figuring of the real thing – the lifting up of the Son of Man”.
John refers to the lifting up of the Son of Man as the way to eternal life. Note, if you will, that eternal life is not the same thing as heaven. It is the way we experience life here and now, and the choice is stark “choose life or perish”. Again, that “perishing” does not refer to hell - but it’s a metaphor for life without God – a life in which we perish on the vine so to speak.
In what way do we perish? I suggest (with Rabbi Arthur Waslow) that we are in danger of perishing when we ignore the snakes or serpents in our own lives, and let them bite away at our souls. I think of the insecurity that I frequently feel. “If only” I think, “people really knew me, they would not like me”. Or I think of the times when I get so needlessly angry. That anger eats away at me. Living in anger or insecurity is a way of perishing - I know it all too well.
Rabbi Waslow suggests that one meaning of the snake on the pole is that we must look at our own snakes – full in the face. For it is when we begin, in true Lenten style, to face our own fears, angers, insecurities and sins that we can engage in repentance, and turning to the Lord.
We cannot bear all our own sin, anger, pride, lust or fear - it simply eats away at us and we perish.
But to look at the Son of Man lifted up, is to see one who does not and will not condemn us. He is the one who bears all that we cannot endure. So we bring our own snakes and serpents to him. We bring them out of our own dark places into his light.
It is the way of eternal life. For when we know that we are not condemned by G-d, then we are delivered from our own perishing self-condemnation. And if we are not condemned, what’s the point in condemning others!