Sermon at St James
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
Jesus said, “Just 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 Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
St John in his Gospel clearly sees this statement as Jesus predicting his crucifixion, Jesus being lifted up on the cross. It’s a statement that harks back to an incident that took place when Moses was leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The people got absolutely fed up and disillusioned. It was a long, long trek and they’d had to endure all sorts of hardships. Hence they became very rebellious and complained to both God and Moses. “Why have you brought us here?” they said.
Then, according to the account in the Book of Numbers, the Lord retaliated by sending poisonous snakes among them, and many were bitten and died. This made them repent, and they came to Moses to ask him to plead with the Lord to rid them of the snakes. And the Lord told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and erect it as a standard, so that anyone who had been bitten could look at it and recover. And that is what Moses did.
It’s a strange story and hard to believe, but it’s easy to see how this came to be regarded as a preview, a prophecy of the cross of Christ. If someone has sinned, but then comes to look at Jesus lifted up on the cross, he or she will be saved.
What as amazing, potent, enduring symbol that cross has become! And almost universal – from massive stone crosses atop mountains, through simple wooden ones or bejewelled golden ones in churches, to tiny crosses worn on necklaces or lapels. And millions upon millions of catholic and orthodox and other Christians regularly sign themselves with the sign of the cross, that sign which was printed on all our foreheads at our baptism, invisible but indelible.
Yet it is a gruesome sign. It represents something utterly horrific, an extreme method of execution. It takes hours to die; it is excruciatingly painful; it is utterly degrading. It was chosen by the Romans as being the ultimate deterrent, so much so that they regarded it as too extreme for even the worst criminals among their own citizens. They were allowed the benefit of a quick death by beheading. No, to be there at any crucifixion, let alone that of Jesus, would. I’m sure, cause us, as the hymn says, to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Lent invites us look afresh at the cross, which most of the time we see or display, even lift high, without any qualms. Sometimes we hardly notice it; it’s so ubiquitous. But why, why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Why did God let it happen, or even engineer it? What was its purpose? It is, you could say, a crucial question, and this morning I’d just like to suggest a brief and no doubt inadequate answer - for who can fathom the mind of God?
First, I should say that I don’t find at all helpful those theories which suggest that it was a God versus Jesus conflict, Jesus standing in for us as our substitute, with God exacting a vengeful recompense for all the sins of humankind past, present and future. Nor was it a matter of Jesus down here, on a green hill without a city wall, and God up there in heaven, a distant witness. No, I believe that God himself was totally involved, in all of it.
Jesus was a man, with all the attributes and also all the limitations of human body, mind and spirit. He was a man through and through; that’s why he referred to himself as Son of Man. But in him, in a unique way, was God; so completely that what Jesus said and did, God was saying and doing, and what happened to Jesus, happened to God.
Do you remember that Sydney Carter song which had one of the thieves crucified alongside Jesus saying to him: It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me, I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree. God was there – in Christ – on that cross. God in Christ doesn’t just know about suffering: he knows it intimately, personally: he has experienced it, to its extremity. So, by the cross, he can share our suffering, and also in a way he allows us to share something of his. All suffering shared is at least a little easier than suffering borne entirely alone.
So, what brought Jesus to the cross? It was in a word love – his love for others. In his life he had astounded people and alienated the religious leaders of the day by his friendship with people of doubtful character, fraudulent tax collectors, prostitutes and so on. He talked with them; he shared meals with them. He was Jesus, the friend of sinners. He put people before religious rules. And it was this popular undermining of the authority of the religious leaders that more than anything made them want to do away with him. So it’s an historical fact that he died for sinners. It was his love for them which he wouldn’t give up that brought him to the cross.
Remember, he could have escaped. Time and again he could easily have slipped away into obscurity and given up his troublesome ways. But that would have been a betrayal of all he had stood for. So, courageously, he went on: he loved his friends to the end. And that’s not just his friends of 2000 years ago: his love projects onwards and outwards like ripples on a lake to include all his friends today.
But why did Jesus, Jesus good above all other, have to die? His death on the cross was totally undeserved, a complete miscarriage of justice. But it was only by dying in that way, a self-sacrificial way, that he could prove to us and that we can believe that he loves us and loves us without limit. In effect God in Jesus said; I love you so much, I would even die for you. And not only did he say it, he did it.
The church of St John the Baptist in Swindon, where I was vicar in the sixties, was a new, stylish, almost Italianate building. It had a tall, red-brick separated tower, which tapered slightly toward the top, and it was surmounted by a simple concrete cross which was 18 feet high and painted white. Here is a picture so you can see just how high and lifted up that cross was.
You could climb to the top of the tower by a series of rung ladders within it, and if you opened the trap door you could come out onto the flat roof which was only about 8 feet by 7 feet. And there was no parapet, just a sheer drop all round. I’m not usually worried by heights, but I just had to hold onto the cross, and I thought of that line from the hymn Rock of Ages: “Simply to thy cross I cling.” It was my only security: it saved me.
As we pass through Lent into Holy Week let’s look out for the crosses around us, and not, as we probably usually do, take them for granted but embrace them and their meaning, and remembering in the words of another hymn: “Inscribed upon the cross we see in shining letters: God is love.”