Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Sermon: "Of Snakes, and Other Symbols of Death"

Year B Lent 4
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond
“Of Snakes, and Other Symbols of Death”

Imagine the scene.  A leader of the Jewish faith, someone who has just witnessed Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple comes slinking in.  He comes at night.  Can he not sleep?  Is it he wants no one to see him?  What brings him to Jesus we do not know, but we do know he is wanting something.  His slithering in at night makes a strong point. It is hard to trust things coming in from the Darkness.  Jesus spoke to Nicodemus that night, and God can still speak to us today, even at night.

Today we speak of snakes, other symbols of death.

A nice, light topic for an emerging spring day.

I have always found this an interesting Sunday in the Lectionary, taking an obscure passage from the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Numbers because of the nod it gets in the Christian Scriptures.  The passage tells of a time when the grumbling Hebrews forgot the multiple miracles of their redemption from slavery in Egypt, and happened upon a den of vipers or some other slithering serpents.  People began to die from the wounds inflicted.  Moses, despite being down a few less grumblers (And what leader want some of that?), Moses did the pastor-ly thing, and prayed for his people.  A word of the Lord came to him, saying: "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."  So Moses made a bronze snake, and people looked to it and lived.

This symbol of death became a deliverance from death.  Something dark, and feared, and despised, becomes not a symbol of hope but hope incarnate.  Look to the stylized snake and be delivered from the poison of the snake.

While it may seem superstitious and hokey to us nowadays that understand medicine and poison, but if I found myself bitten in a desert I have to admit I would look.  Our cynicism is much easier when we are not the ones bitten.

Is the cross of Christ any different?  That is the point Jesus is making to Nicodemus.  Our Gospel reading contains the most quoted verse in our society, John 3:16, but it is encapsulated in a story fascinating and sad.  Nicodemus starts exploring rebirth, and his literal understanding is holding him back. 

John 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Nicodemus is given a metaphor he can understand.  “Remember that snake of Moses who delivered the people?  The Son of Man,” a self-referential euphemism of Jesus’,” must be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  So if you get bitten by a snake, if you look to the snake and believe, you will live. 

So Jesus is telling Nicodemus, when the Son of Man is lifted up, those who look to him and believe will also live.  How was Jesus lifted up?  He was not yet.  That was to come.  But we know.  We have our own “bronze snakes.”  How many can you see from where you are right now?

I am wearing one, and maybe you are, too.  We paraded in behind one this morning.  We will face one when we say the creed in a bit.  The cross is our bronze snake.  Just as deadly, this symbol of death has become for us a symbol of life here and now, as well as there and then.  It has come to mean so much to so many.

The cross is our scandal and our salvation.  It reminds us of the sting of death we deserve according to our biting of the forbidden fruit, for which we were promised that we would surely die.  It is our salvation in that if we look to it and believe, we are promised eternal life.  Promises and heartache, and the one that binds it together, Jesus.

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And I cannot quote that verse without the next that goes with it.

17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3:16 can so easily come to divide.  There are those that are in and those that are out.  But John 3:17 from Jesus’ own mouth shows that all are welcome and wanted.

I grew up in a very protestant upbringing.  Our crosses were plain and simple.  They were vague reminders of what took place on that Good Friday.  They were not bloody and visceral.  They were sanitized and I became desensitized.  I did not think of what these pieces of wood mean.  Perhaps I had forgotten or never truly learned that this symbol of death became a deliverance from death.  Something dark, and feared, and despised, was a not just symbol of hope but hope incarnate.

I still remember when this changed for me.

Like Nicodemus’ nocturnal questioning, night-time was when my revelation came.  I still see it clearly, though it was a dream 20 years ago.

For the dream to make sense I have to set it up a bit.  I was in seminary, and Stephanie and I were poor as dirt.  We used to look after the children here in Ginter Park at Ginter Park Baptist for the Wednesday night programming so we could eat a meal for free and get paid, too.  June Dorsey always looked out for us.  This was one of our many part-time jobs.

Another one of my many part time jobs I strung together to make ends meet was at the Warner Bros. store at Regency Mall.  It was like the Disney Store, but more snarky like Bugs Bunny.  With all the WB properties, they had more than cartoons to hawk.  At the back of our store’s wall, we had a big video screen.  It was about 10 feet tall and about 15 wide.  It ran videos all day long.  It was about an hour and half long, so it was not too bad during the shifts.  And it would change every two months or so. 

During the normal routine of the store, one of the jobs was to be a greeter at the front of the store.  It was friendly and helped with loss prevention.  I was often assigned up front because, as one of my managers put it, “You sound like you actually like people.”  This was true, and I was glad she thought so. 

Seminary’s struggles were no fun, and I knew the toll it was taking on Stephanie and our finances.  One day, the manager asked would I consider applying for one of the manager jobs that were coming open.  It had insurance, a full-time salary, and it was now.

Soon after the offer I had this dream.  I was working the front of the store greeting, and it was during the holiday rush.  People were crowding in the store.  There were several oohs and aahs as people came into the festive store.  Several, pointing at the video wall said very clearly, “Look at that!  Wow!”  I remember thinking in the dream, “They’ve never seen a TV before?  Sheesh!”  But people kept pouring in, many exclaiming and pointing to the wall.

Finally in the dream, I turned around.  And there, in the store, there was no video wall.  People were streaming in and pointing, not at a TV, but to Jesus on the cross.  People were standing around in awe, with Jesus bruised and bloodied.  They were astounded.  They were amazed.  They could not look away.  In my dream I remember saying, “What have I done?  I’ve sold out.”  And in a full body jerk, I jumped up, wide awake, calling out.  The power of the cross reached across time and into my dream reminding me of the who, and the why, and the how of my being in seminary.

The thought of jumping ship and leaving seminary behind was no longer a temptation.  The power of the cross had reached across time and space and jolted me back to what I was to be about and who I was to be.  My struggles were minor in comparison to this Son of Man, high and lifted up.  I looked on this vision of death, believed, and was saved.

I was hesitant to share this, and it is not something I share quickly.  That dream changed my life.  It was so personal and so real, I have been a different person since then.  But in my weakness and frailty, I point to the power and wisdom that saved me.  As Paul put it in today’s reading from Ephesians 2:

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

That dream was a gift to me, and I thank God for it.  In the dark, in my questioning, I was given something that reminded me who I felt called to be and what I felt called to do.  I am a sinner saved by Grace.  I look to the cross, believe, and am saved.  Nothing more, but nothing less.  Thanks be to God.

Whatever we do, and whoever we are, Christ’s cross can be lifted up.  And people will be drawn to it.  The sermon you preach with your lives will speak much more loudly than I can here today. 

Just like Jesus told Nicodemus on that night so long ago: 

21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Let us all come out of the Darkness and into the Light.  How?  If you ever wonder how beloved you are to God, look to the cross, believe, and be saved.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. I am so thankful to Andrea for posting this link on facebook. I feel like I am still asleep and really feeling the dark night of my soul. These words are the "lamp to my feet", helping me walk to the light and I am forever grateful. The timing, of course, always perfect. Thank you so.


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Blessings, Rock