Friday, September 11, 2009

Sermon: Holy Cross Sunday (13 September 2009)

Sermon: Holy Cross Sunday (13 September 2009)
(Isaiah 45:21-25/Psalm 98/Galatians 6:14-18/John 12:31-36)
Strange Stories

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world,
we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.

There is a strange story in the Old Testament; well, there are many strange stories in the Old Testament, but this one seems stranger than most. It is a tale of sin and serpents, of death and life.

4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6 So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. 7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived (Num 21:4-9, NKJV).

Israel is tired of trekking the wilderness going God-knows-where, tired of dry water skins, tired of unsatisfied bellies, and tired even of manna – the bread of angels. If this is the best the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Aaron – Aaron the High Priest of Israel who now lies dead on Mount Hor having never even seen the Promised Land – if this is the best this God has to offer, well the gods of Egypt don’t look so bad by comparison. So Israel grumbles. So God sends fiery serpents among them to strike and to kill, to drive Israel to its knees in pain and in repentance.

This part of the story is not so strange. Israel grumbling against Moses and against God? Every day stuff. God punishing Israel to bring the nation to its knees and thereby to its senses? Common enough. But the bronze serpent on the pole? Now that’s different. That’s puzzling given the very law God established for his people.

1 And God spoke all these words, saying: 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 “You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Ex 20:1-6, NKJV).

If we were to read the story of the fiery serpents in any other context about any other people we would see it as a case of idol worship, clearly banned by God for Israel. The people – not Israel now, but some hypothetical, pagan, polytheist tribe – the people have somehow offended their snake god who then sends his earthly minions to punish the tribe’s infidelity or slight or whatever fault is theirs. To appease their god the people fashion a bronze image of the god, erect it on a pole and bow down in worship. About any other ancient people, this is the way we likely would read the story.

I can even imagine the idol: giant, menacing, coiled serpent in striking position; head erect, mouth open, forked tongue flicking, fangs bared, still glowing red from the heat of the forge, and lifted high on a royal banner pole – all-in-all an idol to strike fear and kindle worship in the hearts of pagan people. For some reason I cannot now explain, this is the image I have always brought to the biblical account – the image of an angry, powerful, serpent god. And that is what has made this story strange and disturbing: not the story itself, but the image I have brought to it. That’s what makes the story seem like idol worship. So, let me work for a time with a different image – one that you may have held all along, one reminiscent of the church fathers. What if the pole were not a banner pole at all, but a spear? What if the serpent were not in striking position, but limp and dead, run through with the spear upon which it was lifted high? What if the entire image portrayed not the power of the serpent – symbol of the sin of the people – but instead the power of God to destroy the serpent, to deal with the sin-infested heart of his people? Whether I have the image right now, I cannot tell; but, I am certain of the message: in the heart of every man lies a venomous serpent which must be destroyed and only God can destroy it. The serpent within must be speared and lifted high by God or man cannot live.

There is a strange story in the New Testament; well, there are many strange stories in the New Testament, but this one seems stranger than most. It is a tale of water and Spirit, of death and new birth.

1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:1-8, NKJV).

Who knows why Nicodemus came to Jesus. Who knows what questions drove him to seek out the controversial rabbi under cover of darkness. Jesus never gave Nicodemus the opportunity to pose his questions, to contol the discussion. “You must be born again,” usurped the conversation and propelled it in a strange direction. Nicodemus lost his bearings early and never regained them: “How can this be?” is about all he could manage from then on. If we have lost the sense of the strangeness of this encounter, it’s likely the fault of overexposure and under-comprehension. Strange.

But the story gets stranger still as Jesus continues.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:14-17, NKJV).

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, because the fiery serpents of Mount Hor live in the hearts of all men and must be destroyed if man is to be reconciled to God. So, Jesus united his divine nature with our human nature, took upon himself all the sins of the world – drew to himself all the fiery serpents of all men for all time – and carried them to the cross. There he was pierced through the heart with a spear and set on a pole – suspended on the cross – so that all who look to him in faith may live. When we see Jesus on the cross we must see the serpent – the sin of man: my sin, your sin – limp and dead, run through and hoisted high, a symbol not of the power of sin, but of the power of God to destroy sin, a symbol of the love of God who seeks our salvation and not our condemnation. When, on the third day, the power of God shatters the power of death and Jesus rises victorious, the serpent, our ancient foe, does not. It remains in the tomb, limp and dead.

What, however, is the dead serpent? The serpent fixed upon the top of the pole healed those that were stung. The dead serpent overcame the live ones. Thus it is a figure of the body of the Lord. The body which He took of the ever Virgin Mary, He offered it up upon the cross, and hung it there, and fastened it upon the tree; and the dead body overcame and slew the live serpent creeping in the heart. Here was a great mystery…[1]

Strange stories – a serpent on a pole, a man on a cross; yet, both testify to the love and power of God to destroy sin and death. And so the cross has become the sign under which the people of God live; not an empty symbol, but a sign with power to accomplish what it signifies: the destruction of sin, the reconciliation of man and God, the gift of eternal life, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At a recent baptism at St. Demetrios’ Antiochian Catholic Church I watched the bishop, Mar Michael, anoint a sleeping child with the oil of gladness, tracing the sign of the cross repeatedly on this new servant of God. I could not hear the prayers the bishop offered as he sealed this child as Christ’s own, but I imagine they were similar to those in our own baptismal service.

The Celebrant then takes some of the oil and makes the sign of the cross with it on the forehead, breast, ears, shoulders, hands and feet of the candidate, saying:

Forehead: The servant of God is anointed with the oil of gladness in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. That his mind may be opened to the understanding and acceptance of the mysteries of the faith of Christ, and to the knowledge of His truth, now and ever, and forever. Amen.

Breast: For the healing of soul and body, and that he may love the Lord God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind, and that he may love his neighbor as himself.

Ears: That his ears may be ready to listen to the teaching of faith, and accept the words of the divine gospel.

Shoulders: That he may willingly take upon himself the easy yoke of Christ and gladly carry His light burden and that he may shun all craving of sensuality.

Hands: That he may innocently raise his hands to heaven and do the right thing at all times and bless the Lord.

Feet: That he may walk in the path of the commandments of Christ.

Such is the power of the cross of Christ.

Saint Macarius knew the geography of the human heart; he had thoroughly explored its wilderness. And so he writes – linking together the two strange stories of serpent and cross:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. [2]

And what separates the dragons and lions and poisonous beasts and the treasures of evil in the human heart from God and the angels and the life and the kingdom and the light and the apostles and the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace? Only the life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Note: The image above is of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem erected on the site of Golgotha and the Garden Tomb.

[1] Saint Macarius, Fifty Spiritual Homilies of Saint Macarius the Egyptian., accessed 9/6/09.
[2] Saint Macarius

No comments: