What Goes Down Must Come Up

Passage: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Date: March 30, 2003
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

Why would anyone - - compare Jesus - - to a SNAKE ?

Well - - - - there might be some - NOT so nice reasons . . .

LIKE: . . . anger . . . or . . . unbelief . . . or . . . hurt . . .

But why would JOHN - - do it ?

John - - who wrote the GOSPEL - - this morning' New Testament reading.

John - - compared Jesus - - to a snake. He wrote, "Like Moses - - RAISED up the SNAKE in the wilderness - - so must the Son of Man be - - RAISED up". Lifted up - - - like the snake.

A snake - - is NOT the most appealing image.

What do you think of - - when you think about - - snakes ?

Some people like snakes I know, they say snakes got a bad rap.

But if you're like me, you think of them as creepy - - and slithery - - - - - dangerous - - and poisonous - -

There was an article in the magazine "Sunset" - - a while ago - - that a friend told me about -- that described - - all KINDS of snakes. / A collector's room - - full - - of snakes - - was the SITE - for the photographs in the article. / And there were TWO visitors - to the room. / One - was a woman who thought the snakes were "Cool". / And the other - - a man who gets the "willies" and is grossed out by them.

Snakes - - have been around for a long time. / In the Bible - - since the very beginning. / At the creation of the world - - in Genesis - - there was the snake. / The one who TEMPTED us. / In the garden of eden - - SIN itself. Embodied in the snake.

The serpent - - at best - - carries MIXED meanings.

It's a symbol for evil - - but also - - - - - a symbol for HEALING. / The MEDICAL symbol with a snake wrapped around a pole - - reflects this meaning - - - AND reflects our Old Testament reading for this morning.

In the Scripture reading - from the book of Numbers - we read about a time when the people of Israel GRUMBLED. / And this - - of course - - was NOT the FIRST time.

This was AFTER - - a series - - - of grumbles. And in response - - - God sent a bunch of SNAKES. / It almost makes me LAUGH - -

- - if it weren't such a troubling image for God.

God just - - fed up with us. / "Take that - - you - - bunch of - - "

It seems like something I would do. / A person can certainly understand - - I can think of a few times when I have acted that way - but coming form God it feels different. / In LAST week's scripture readings - both Jesus turning over tables in the temple - - and Moses breaking the 10 commandments - - they both get angry.

In the Wednesday evening class - - we talked about what might cause anger in us - - righteous anger over things in the world - gone wrong.

How it is that we either DO - - or DON"T prepare ourselves to work in the world for CHANGES - - when we see something wrong.

And how anger can be frightening - - when we don't UNDERSTAND - - where it is coming from.

But - in humans at least - - - we understand it. / But it is even more troubling - when we see these traits - - in Moses - - or Jesus - - or God. / It's troubling - - even though we openly ACKNOWLEDGE our understanding and even limited support for ZEAL - and righteous anger.

And here it is again this morning - in the text: God sends snakes.

But - - as it turns out - - the snakes are not JUST a curse. / They are the way - - - for healing too. After the BITE - - - in order to be CURED - - - people simply LOOK at - - - a snake - - - - held up on a pole. / Lifted up. / Raised up. Cured - - by looking at the affliction. / /

It's a strange story. And stranger still - - - - if you FORGET the Exodus story. So let's remember. / Do you remember - - - where the people who got bitten WERE ? / They were in the wilderness. / Why ? / Because they had been freed. / From ? / Slavery in - - - Egypt.

And in Egypt - - - - what does the serpent represent ? / /

Pharaoh. / Pharaoh's power. Pharaoh as a god.

Think of anything you know about Egyptian culture - - even from the movies. Can you picture the image of a Cobra - - attached to the royal crown of pharaoh? / It was. The very power that enslaved and oppressed the Israelites - - - was represented by the snake.

And so - - it's like - - they had forgotten - - as they GRUMBLED - - - about the food and water in the wilderness - - - they had FORGOTTEN - - - WHAT they had been FREED from. / The snake.

Don't forget - - says God - - or it will BITE you. If we forget where our freedom comes from - - it may bite us. But if you remember - - and look upon it - - and believe - - - so say the texts - - you will be healed.

Can you think - - now - - why John would compare Jesus to a snake ?

Actually - the snake is really more like the SIN and violence of the CROSS. The snake is more like the sin than the person of Jesus. But like metaphor it's muddy - the snake is on a pole.

Jesus - - raised up on a - - cross.

A cross represents - - all the worst sinfulness in the world. / It's an instrument of execution. / A reminder of crime - - and punishment - -

- - torture - - power - - and struggle.

Sin - - like the snake. / And Jesus - - - lifted up from sin to resurrection. Strange as they are - the images come together - both the crucifixion - - - and the resurrection. Simultaneously. Down into sin - - - and up on the cross - - - and out of the grave. It all goes together. Sometimes I think we'd rather just talk about RISING UP. And even that's - - not easy.

In Bible study THIS week - - we'll talk about - - what the resurrection means to each of us. / What does it mean - - when you hear about - - "raised up". / And maybe we'll share some healing stories. There is a connection between resurrection and healing.

As I thought about these things - - in preparation - - I realized that - - - one thing you CAN'T do - - is raise very far up - - from UP.

You raise up - - - - from DOWN. So - - it starts with - - SIN. Something we REALLY don't like to talk about. But - - - it's Lent - - - so here goes:

To get ready I read some journal articles. I thought, if I'm going to talk about sin - I better read some articles. In some recent journal articles, three professors from New York - - all who I remember from my time as a student there - - Walter Wink - Larry Rasmussen and Tom Driver - - they have all written about sin. / They are reputable scholars. And so I have read and thought about it.

Talk about sin - - is not popular. But understanding SIN - is essential - to understanding ourselves - - and the Powers of the world.

Sin - - affirms the reality of evil. Most of us - don't want to believe in radical evil. / The implications are terrible. / Things like - - the Holocaust. / But to DENY - - is to leave ourselves open to being caught by sin.

Sin means that there is a FALL. The powers of this world - - to a degree - - CAN be humanized and made better - - but they are still fallen. / They can be open to doing good - - but they will still do evil. And we can be swept away by an illusion of a transformed society - - and have no sense of history.

Sin means we can't perfect OURSELVES. / We have to reach OUTSIDE ourselves. / We have to turn our lives - - and our WORLD - - over to the POWER of GOD - - - who transcends - - - the powers that be. /

The powers that be in this world - - are strong. And God - - is stronger. / And that is GOOD news.

Sin is NOT about total human DEPRAVITY. There is GOOD in creation. All the way back to the time of the snake in the garden. The world was created GOOD - - by God. / Evil is NOT our essence. / Sin does not TOUCH - our essence. / BUT - - sin DOES characterize our EXISTENCE.

No ONE - - can escape it. But together - - and with God - - we can be set FREE. And we are not only sinners - - - we are sinned AGAINST too. And we are part of a world in which there is sin.

Way back in the 1950's - - in the middle of the cold war - - a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these PROPHETIC words - - about what might happen if someone WON the cold war:

"The victors would - - face the IMPERIAL problem of using power in global terms - - but from ONE particular center of authority. / So PREPONDERANT and UNchallenged - - would it be - - - - "

- - - it would be a struggle - - not to violate standards of justice.

But how could that BE ? It is SO difficult to think - - BADLY of ourselves. Isn't our society - - essentially virtuous ? And yet when we look around we see: - - crime - - sex - - violence - - drugs - - guns - -

And the most recent Newsweek magazine cover has this headline: "Why America Scares the World" The article describes U.S. power - and how it has been managed. And WHATEVER you think - - about HOW we might manage ourselves - - the fear is there. Certainly there might be an article titled: "Why Iraq scares the world".

Whatever the REASONS are - for the brokeness in the world. Whatever your sincere convictions lead you to - - - regarding politics - - both domestic and worldwide - - I am convinced that the fear - - and the sin are there.

So then what ? It's one thing to sit - - judgementally. Or to pull your window blinds and cower in fear. It's another thing - completely - - - to be RAISED up. To be raised up - - is PASSIVE. It is to be lifted up - - - by God. It involves surrender. Acknowledging life prior to the healing - - in a state of NEED. And it means - - looking right at sin - - acknowledging being down - - starting NOT on top - - but at the bottom - - - and being raised - - by God alone.

A fabulous old 19th century preacher - - named Anna Howard Smith has preached on this passage from Numbers. Near the end of her sermon she tells of a man who had a dream:

He stood in a desolate spot - - on the very EDGE of a steep cliff. / Far below - - at the bottom - - the sea dashed violently. He stood - - with only half a footing - - and then some UNKNOWN force - - whirled him over the edge. / He felt himself falling. / Down. / Toward the chaotic water.

And - - somehow - - suddenly he caught hold of a craig - - a rocky handhold - - on the side of the cliff. He hung there - - - as the handhold crumbled - - bit by bit. What should he do ? He saw a figure all in white - - coming toward him - - walking across the water. Nearer and nearer - - gentle and strong. As their eyes met - - the figure said, "Let go". He let go - - - and fell - - into the figure's arms - - and he was LIFTED UP - - raised. / /

I heard another story - - about a mountain climber in Yosemite National Park - - in 1998. The climber was not as experienced - and had wandered off a bit. And he found himself - - trapped in a culde-sac. / Looking down - - several hundred feet of sheer ice. / About 10 feet away was - safety. But one slip and it was over.

This climbers friend - - and companion - - a more experienced climber cut two FOOTHOLDS in the ice. He said, "Step out into the first foothold - - and when your foot touches it - - without a moment's hesitation - - swing your other foot across - - and reach out and take my hand". (yea right)

He wrote - - ". . . that sounded good - - but the NEXT thing he said - - scared me more than ever". "Listen carefully - - as you step across - - - do NOT lean into the Mountain. If anything - - lean OUT a bit. Otherwise your feet could fly out from under you - - and you'll start sliding down".

He had to trust his friend. But his advice went AGAINST his natural inclination. And it saved his life.

The word of the Gospel - - which goes against our natural worldly logic - - says - - "what goes DOWN - - must come UP". God - - SO loved the world - - that much. Believe - - and live. This is the Good News - according to John. Amen.