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A WORD FOR TODAY, September 14, 2023
“No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended out of heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:13-17, WEB
Today is Holy Cross Day, a festival that celebrates the triumph of the cross. This festival comes at a very appropriate time in the church years, as we have been looking at dealing with sin and forgiveness in the lectionary the past few weeks. The cross stands as a witness to both. As we look at the cross, we are overwhelmed with the conviction that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We are also overwhelmed with the promise that we are saints made free by God s forgiveness. The cross both convicts and sets free those who believe.
The Old Testament lesson for Holy Cross Day is a story about Moses and the company of Hebrews in the wilderness traveling to the Promised Land. The people were grumbling about the journey and the food. They were tired, hungry, thirsty, and frustrated and they were beginning to doubt the promise. They cried out, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?” The answer from the LORD is shocking to us. He sent venomous snakes that bit the people. Many died. The people went back to Moses and asked him to pray for them. He did. God told Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole, displayed for all the community to see. All who were bitten by the snakes needed only to look at the bronze image on the pole and they would be healed.
My first question is whether snakes were an appropriate punishment for a little bit of grumbling. The reality, though, is that those snakes made the people see their sin and turn to God. The second question I have always asked, “Why didn’t God simply remove the snakes?” It would have been easier for everyone if He had taken away the problem rather than offering a source of healing. Yet, this story shows us that the people had taken their eyes off the promise, off God, to focus on their flesh and desires. They cared only about themselves and forgot the God who was delivering them from a life of bondage and oppression. In their grumbling they showed God that they would rather be bound and beaten than to trust in Him. The snakes and the snake on the pole helped them to see again God’s power and authority over the world and their nation. They turned to Him for salvation from the snakes, but God provides so much more.
John tells us that the Jesus on the cross is like that serpent in the wilderness. Sin is a sign and a symptom that there is something wrong, that there is brokenness and imperfection in our lives and our flesh. We fail. We do the wrong things and don’t do the right things. We are upside down and backwards against God’s good and perfect purpose and intent for our lives. Something needs to be fixed. It might seem unfaithful to ask whether God could have dealt differently with the Israelites in the desert, but many Christians also wonder whether God could have saved us by any other method than the cross. People struggle with the idea that God could be so cruel to His own Son. It is a hard question for us to answer.
God could, and did, offer forgiveness to His people even without the cross. But the cross served a purpose far more important than just the forgiveness of sins. The cross offers healing and wholeness. The cross convicts, opening our eyes to the reality of our brokenness and imperfection, but on that same cross is lifted the Son that saved the world. We see God’s love in both the conviction of our sin, as God calls attention to the things that make us imperfect before Him, and in the promise of forgiveness and healing. It is an object of both pain and peace, an object that shows us our failure and draws us into God s heart. That’s what makes it so holy because it is through the cross that we are restored to the God who has loved us so much that He will not let us go even when we turn away from Him.
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