26 March 2006

Homily (9am Family Service)

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; John 3:14-21.

When I was a small child, my mother was bitten by a snake in our garden. I was hustled off to a friend’s house while she went to the hospital. I was terribly afraid that I would never see her again.

This is the kind of fear that infected the Israelites in the wilderness. They had left all that they knew in Egypt, they were beset by fear of hunger and an unending wilderness. Their fear brought them a blight of snakes and ever more escalating panic. And in that moment, they turned to Moses for help, and Moses, as their intermediary, turned to God. They are seeking hope, deliverance from their fears and from the possibility of death.

Through the image of the bronze serpent, they trust in the power of God. This is an icon rather than an idol, because it is a way of looking towards God. The salvation offered in the wilderness is specific to the needs of these people, in this time and place, a hope tailored to their fears. The first verse of our Gospel reading echoes this story, as Jesus tells us that like the serpent, he will be lifted up.

What is striking, however, is the absence of limits on salvation through Jesus, compared to the hope offered by the serpent. Instead of addressing a current crisis, Jesus offers a universal hope, the prospect of salvation and the promise of life. It is precisely because Jesus is fully human that this assurance is open to all of us. He understands our worries, our needs, and our transgressions, and he carries these to the cross, for our salvation.

We all know the end of this drama, the story of Jesus’ death. And every year we revisit this story, because it matters so very much. It is of the greatest importance; Jesus was lifted up on the cross, raised high for all of us to see. On that cross, in the sight of his companions, his mother, and God, he was crucified. In his crucifixion, Jesus saves us from all fear, from the absence of hope, from a life lived in darkness. Jesus has brought us through suffering and death into light. It is a journey he has shared with us, in our world, in human form.

This is the amazing story we are recounting in the season of Lent. This Sunday, we are halfway to Easter, and the lectionary inserts a hint of what is to come. It is at this moment that we begin to look with hope towards the darkest hour, because we know of the dawn that follows.

We are told by Saint John that God so loved the world that he gifted our lives with Jesus. This gift is not for a select few, but for the whole world, for all people in every time and place… for us. The story of the cross and the resurrection that we are anticipating this Sunday are not the entirety of Jesus’ work here on earth. It is the culmination of all that Jesus Christ did and taught. It summarizes the whole of his life and work, so that when we look with hope to the cross, we cannot separate it from his message or his actions.

By looking to Jesus, lifted high on the cross, we can see the love that offered this gift. Like the sacraments that we celebrate together, Jesus makes visible and present the tremendous love God has for us. The Israelites in the wilderness had already experienced the grace of God, but the symbol of the serpent made it physically present to them. For us, Jesus Christ is lifted up high, for all to see, in order to make known the love of God, to make the grace that is available to us all visible. This love seeks to draw us out of darkness into hope and possibility. We have all known the darkness, each in our own way, that consumes us and leaves us discouraged. And this is why we return to this story regularly: the work of salvation that Jesus undertakes is not yet finished in our lives.