Lifting Up the Son of Man
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, September 12, 2021.
Here we are gathered together, celebrating a new year on the day after 9/11. I like to stay aware of the rhythm of the church and remember that September is the beginning of the liturgical year. Like in academia, we are beginning anew. And the way we begin is to remember our forebearers. Last week we remembered Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, this week we remember Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary. But as we celebrate the birthday of the Virgin Mary and take our leave of that feast today (Charlie Marge reminded me that St. Mary’s was consecrated on this very day 67 years ago, on September 12, 1954), and tomorrow, we head directly to the elevation of the cross. The beginning and the end of the year are packed into this weekend. It’s as if the church means to remind us right at the beginning of where we are heading. It is our destiny to embrace the cross. The path to heaven is through the cross, and although today’s Gospel never mentions the cross directly, this is the message.
So, let’s unpack it and provide some context: Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night with a lot of questions about what it means to be saved. Jesus says to him: “Unless one is born again, he will not be able to see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus replies: “But how can a man be born when he is old?” Jesus answers: “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven. That which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not marvel when I say, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it will; you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. And so it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – in other words, in Christ, we are completely free. Or as St. Augustine said, “Love God and do whatever you please, or blow where you will.” Nicodemus is utterly stymied and asks, “How can this be?” Jesus replies again: “Are you a master and know nothing? How can we even begin speaking to each other? We speak what we know and testify about what we have seen. How can you begin to understand the things of heaven if you can’t even understand the things of the earth, the obvious things?” Then he continues with todays’ Gospel: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in Heaven.” Of course, Jesus is referring to himself.
Then Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. For God sent his Son not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Let’s wind back now and review this story as it’s told in Numbers. Back, back to the time that Moses delivered the Israelites from the Pharoah though the Red Sea: “After the Israelites started to complain that Moses had led them out to the wilderness to starve, The Lord sent fiery serpents that bit the people so that many of them died. Then they came to Moses and said ‘we have sinned for we have spoken against the Lord. Pray that he takes the serpents away from us.’ So, Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, so everyone who is bitten when he sees it, shall live.’ So, Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, and if a serpent had bitten anyone, they looked at the bronze serpent and lived.” If anyone desired deliverance, they had to keep their eyes on the serpent. This bronze serpent is obviously an icon of the cross, and God’s blessing was obtained by looking at it. And this very bronze serpent was kept in Solomon’s temple for centuries. They named it Nehushtan and burned incense before it until Hezekiah eventually broke into pieces. Healing came to the snake-bitten Israelites by venerating a bronze serpent hanging from a pole. It’s a strange image. It is also the very same symbol we see emblazoned on the side of ambulances: it is the symbol of healing.
It is interesting to imagine Jesus reading these words from Numbers and applying them to his own life. This image of the serpent on a pole clearly moved him. He could see himself destroying the serpent of death on the cross.
Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Just as the Israelites were healed by looking toward the serpent draped on the pole, so as we look toward the cross, we too are granted healing. The lifting up of the Son of Man is the only remedy for our turning away from Him. Only on the cross, can we meet God’s expectation of holiness, righteousness and love.
Remember the Israelites in the wilderness and look to Jesus who is lifted up on the wood. Keep looking at him, and a power will come from him that will enable you to rise up to newness of life, to live in his way, and that way will grow in you. Amazingly, God continues to love our foolish, blundering, wayward, and sin-sick world. Why doesn’t he blast us into annihilation? Of course, He is almighty and omniscient. But mostly his name is Love, which is constantly breaking into the world and reforming it afresh. As Isaiah wrote, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways.”
Or as Saint Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “In Christ, God reconciled the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” This is another way of sharing today’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And if the Son of Man is in Heaven as he speaks to Nicodemus, so it can be and so it is with us. Heaven is no physical place, it is right here, right now. Heaven is our mode of being. This heavenly mode of being is also called “eternal life.” And our eternal life (zoe aionios) will most surely widen into the fulness of glory. “Doxa si ho Theos!” Glory to God Almighty! Amen.