4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.
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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But 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.”
We began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, not only confessing our sin, but remembering our mortality.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
My ashen cross didn’t work out so well because the wick of the candle I used had too much wax on it, perhaps yours worked better. In any case, we remembered that we will die.
Remembering that we will die isn’t everyone’s favourite thing. Some fear that the things they fear the most will surely happen as soon as they think about them, even though they know that this is not rational.
Remembering that we are mortal and confessing our sin we had said was to remember that God is God and we are not.
One of the old Good Friday liturgies of the church is called the veneration of the cross. A worship assistant or another person will carry a large rough hewn wooden cross from the back of the church to the chancel where it will be placed. That cross may remain for Easter Sunday to be adorned with flowers, then representing Jesus’ resurrection.
But here on Good Friday, the cross stops three times on the way to the front of the church. And each time the person carrying the cross calls out, “Behold the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the whole world,” to which the congregation responds, “Oh, come, let us worship him.”
Finally the pastor exclaims, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,”
to which all reply, “By your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
This is about as direct and graphic as we get all year. We remember Christ’s death. No wonder the Easter Sunday service is more popular than the Good Friday service.
For the Easter season we close our triptych to display an empty cross on which vines grow, though – if you have looked closely, not without the stigmata, little carved crosses marking the wounds of Christ, for it is by his wounds that we are healed. (Isaiah 53)
Most Protestant churches display empty crosses. And, I suppose, if I had to choose between a kitschy crucifix and an empty cross, I would choose the empty cross.
But our crucifix is beautiful, full of devotion, tenderness, and love, not withholding from us how our salvation was won.
This comes to mind as I think about the bronze serpent in the wilderness.
You know that I grew up in an unhappy home. When at age 14 or 15, I confided this information to the youth worker in my home church, he expressed surprise, as he had thought we were the perfect family.
And yet I always knew God to be present in difficult times and in dark times. I knew that God’s presence was not reserved only for the happy places of this world, but that through the cross God had entered my darkness and the darkness of the world.
And I knew somehow, that God’s presence did not make the darkness we experienced magically go away, but that somehow my darkness was transformed, as the psalmist can pray, “even darkness is not dark to you.” (Ps 139:12)
This is the paradox of the cross of Christ. Later St Paul, speaking about his ‘thorn in the flesh’, would say, “8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
The cross is the symbol of our salvation and of God’s presence in the world. The theologian Douglas John Hall calls this the slow grace of divine suffering-love.1
Behold the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the whole world!
Oh, come, let us worship him.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.
By your holy cross you have redeemed the world.