They say that you can tell a lot about a culture from what its tallest buildings are. Of course, the tallest buildings are always the easiest to see. Once upon a time, the tallest buildings in the world were family homes; they were the first kinds of structures to be built. In later times and in later cultures, military installations, government facilities, royal palaces, and houses of worship dueled for the “tallest building” title. In various parts of the world and in multiple eras, a different one of those might be the one casting an imposing shadow over the place where people lived.
And now, today? In every major city in the world, in every culture, we can see what takes up our highest spaces. It’s always business. Money talks, after all, and it elevates itself above all other concerns. We live in a time in history in which the families, governments, militaries, and religions are all subject to the whims of money. After all, money’s what makes the world go ‘round, as people are fond of saying. In fact, there’s a huge sermon about idolatry in that idea somewhere, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Instead, I would ask that you accept my premise that we put what’s important up highest, and think about it in relation to our stories today.
I read for you an odd little story from the book of Numbers this morning. This is one of those weird stories that I remember talking about as an undergrad in religion, and a lot of people born & raised in the church had no idea about. I’m not surprised if most of you out there have never heard this story before. It’s this story of poisonous snakes. It’s such a weird story that most preachers will avoid it. In fact, I’m not really going to preach on it today, either, but it is referenced in our other reading, so I think it merits some explanation before we move on to talk about the passage from John. The passage from John relies on us understanding this Numbers passage, so let’s make sure we all get that one first.
As you probably know, there was a time when the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses helped lead them out of their time of slavery and to the Promised Land of Israel. The journey, though not a long one by miles, took them forty years as they would set up camp for a while, then move along, slowly and deliberately. The story we read today takes place in one of those times, when the Israelites have not yet arrived in the Promised Land.
On the trip, this trip which has been long, difficult, and boring, the Israelites begin to complain. Now, I don’t want to be too critical of that, nor should any of us be. The furnace went -out at our house this week – Monday, I think it was – and it got cold. Carissa and I complained, as you do. It was “way down” to 60 degrees at the coldest point. And honestly, that’s really not that cold. I mean, think about what people did in South Dakota 130 years ago. I’m sure most houses were substantially colder than 60 degrees on the day of a blizzard. So we do the same thing; it’s very easy to take what you have for granted.
And beyond that, we can often forget what things were like before. I think the Israelites suggest that “at least the food was better in Egypt” out of the same sort of logic that can cause any one of us to wish to return to an earlier time in our lives. Sometimes, earlier times were better; but honestly, most of the time, we forget the things about the “good ol’ days” that were worse than now, because we’re idealizing the things we miss. If the Israelites had given it much thought, they certainly wouldn’t’ve been wishing for Egyptian food at the cost of days of rest, the ability to control their own lives, and the promise of better days ahead. But, in a moment of difficulty, it’s very easy to make a desire to go back to something before.
So, that’s when we get to the tricky part of the passage; see, this is where the book of Numbers tells us that “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so many Israelites died.” Now, to my ear, that makes God sound petty and childish.
It’s one of those situations where I think we have to acknowledge that the writers of Scripture were more often concerned with explaining everything than they were with necessarily being consistent in their portrayal of God. So, in order to explain a plague of snakes, they say, “God did it; clean, easy answer.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that works for me; it doesn’t sound like the God I know. I don’t know God to punish everyone every time we complain about something. So I prefer to think of it in one way, but your mileage may vary.
Regardless, there are these poisonous snakes around, and people are dying. The Israelites ask Moses for guidance, and Moses prays to God. See, this is part of why I don’t love (or really even understand) that earlier part about God sending the poisonous snakes – God is, in this passage, the one who offers deliverance, not the one who gets the people in trouble in the first place. But either way, Moses’ prayer is answered. God tells Moses to build the highest thing in the camp – a bronze snake on a pole, which will miraculously heal anyone who looks at it. Just as we have in our cultures throughout history, the most important thing is elevated. In this case, it’s a promise of deliverance from God, and it’s healing for people who are desperately in need of it.
So hopefully that clears some of that up. Even if you didn’t know the story before, you do now. And it’s relevant, because our brief reading from John’s Gospel begins with that line, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” It’s a weird reference, but think of the commonalities. The serpent was lifted up so everyone could see; likewise, when the Romans crucified people, part of the point was to have them up high on display, so that people could see the execution. The serpent was on a pole, while Jesus was on the cross. The serpent was a direct result of fleeing a foreign power who wanted to control the Israelites; Jesus was executed by a foreign power who was controlling the Israelites. Finally, and most importantly of all, the serpent on that bronze pole and Jesus were also a means of salvation.
Yes, the serpent was a means of salvation from a physical illness. And when we’re struggling with physical illness, it’s probably very tempting to wish for some sort of serpent of our own; something we could just look at an be made well. When we’re ill, and while we walk this earth in our bodies, it’s pretty easy to think of our physical health as being the most important thing in the world. But really, think about why John’s Gospel chooses to include this reference to the story from Numbers; it’s a story about the most important thing being raised up the highest.
As I’ve said before, the season of Lent is a long march to the cross. It’s a metaphorical journey we make as we attempt to think our way through what Jesus is doing in the season of Lent. He knows that he has to prepare himself for his death and resurrection; we must therefore prepare ourselves, too. Many people choose to do so with prayer and with fasting, depriving our bodies to focus our spiritual lives. But what for?
And that’s where our passage hits us with those verses that we all probably know; those verses that are so famous that people go to sporting events and hold up only one verse from the whole Bible to describe Christianity and choose John 3:16 – “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.” Continuing in verse 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.”
Jesus does not come to us as a poisonous snake to bite us, to make us ill, and to kill us; Jesus comes as the way out – the deliverance, the promise of hope. Yet, Jesus also goes through his own trials, and through them, offers us change. We’re told in these most famous of words from the Bible that od loved the entire world so much that we who believe would be given the keys to everlasting life. That’s where we see the similarity to this snake: we see that lifting up of the thing that will save us.
But the case of Jesus is different than a snake. The promise in Jesus is not a temporary relief from the pains of life, but a permanent home of life everlasting, enjoy the fruits of heaven with the creator of the universe. That’s the great hope in the promise of this passage. We know that Jesus comes to save.
And that last point is crucial; verse 17, so often omitted from readings of this passage, is just as important as its more famous counterpart in verse 16. Jesus did not come here just to condemn us; he came here to save us. It would be easy to compare ourselves to Jesus, to see where we don’t stack up, and for that to be God’s proof that we’re worthless, or that we need to be discarded. There are Christian groups a lot more excited about God’s judgment than God’s deliverance – except, that’s not what John’s Gospel has us concerned about. Instead, Jesus is the proof that God loves us, and that we will be saved, in spite of our imperfections. Jesus is the proof that God so loves us all that God’s primary concern is not harming us, rather saving us from harm.
Brothers and sisters, the life of faith is not an easy one, as the journey to the cross shows us. We will face poisonous snakes throughout our lives. But most importantly, we always have the option to look up; and when we do, we should not look to the things that the world towers over us – buildings desperate to show off the extravagance of wealth and power – but rather to the humility of the cross, on which God in human flesh came to show us that we are saved. Amen.
There’s a baseball writer I very much admire named Bill James. He is a powerful thinker and a great analyst, and has taught me a great deal about how to approach a problem. He went from being a night watchman at a factory in Kansas City in the 1970s to being named, in 2006, one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Of course, like most people, his story isn’t always a straight line. And, as it does for so many of us, his story really begins with school.
In one of his books, James wrote about how frustrating school was for him. Not because he wasn’t good at it or anything; he was a fine student, not straight-A’s or anything, but he did okay. The problem was, we was always getting in trouble. He would spend his classes taping baseball statistics into a notebook and analyzing them; asking questions about them, performing mathematical operations on them, etc. He loved baseball, and that’s what he wanted to do with his time. Of course, teachers would yell at him to study the “important” stuff. But I think all of us can understand being frustrated in school (or perhaps at work) because there’s something else you’d rather be doing.
Well, when he wasn’t messing around with baseball statistics, he spent his time in class trying to make his classmates laugh by writing funny notes and passing them around. Again, this is not unusual behavior – plenty of kids pass notes. But specifically, he liked to make people laugh. By passing notes to his friends, he learned what worked and what didn’t, what got a laugh and what was ignored. But most of all, he learned that getting caught was a problem – just like with the baseball statistics he would mess around with in class, his teachers would yell at him for passing these notes.
In the book he wrote as an adult, he wrote that, reflecting on all those years in school, the two most valuable things he ever did were 1.) mess around with baseball statistics, and 2.) write funny notes to his classmates. As it turned out, paying attention to what the teachers thought was the “important” stuff was actually distracting him from his life’s work – which is to entertain through his writing and to educate about baseball, its statistics, and its history. He’s a very funny writer even now, so I imagine that was true when he was younger, too.
Now, of course, he recognizes that, “Just let the kids do whatever they want,” is not really a viable classroom management technique; his point was really that, what appeared to be valuable was actually not actually as valuable as the thing that appeared to be value-less. What other people assumed was important was not necessarily the most important thing. I thought of this little story today because of our reading from 1 Corinthians.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God,” writes Paul. Paul tells us that “the world” views the cross as foolishness. Let’s unpack that for a moment.
What is a cross? Sure, we can start by talking about its physical description: it’s a tall plank of wood with a cross-bar, meant for execution. We can talk about its meaning to us as Christians, and we’ll get there, but for right now, I’d like to put that aside. Instead, I’d rather that you imagined yourself in ancient Israel, two thousand years ago, before Jesus was executed. Imagine that you’re just an ordinary person, minding your own business – perhaps going to market to make a purchase to help feed or clothe yourself or your family. Suddenly, on the horizon, you spot a group of Roman soldiers bringing a few crosses into town. They find a spot visible to everyone, probably on top o a hill, and start pounding the crosses into the ground. So, what would you, as an ordinary person, see, think, and feel?
Of course, as I said earlier, you’d see the planks of wood, familiarly in the cross shape. But you’d know that it had more meaning than that. The meaning would be death. It would be that the Roman Empire is all-powerful, because they will come and kill you if you represent a threat to them. Not only will they kill you, they will do it painfully, publicly, and in a way that will scare other people into not doing whatever it was you did. The cross was a symbol of death, pain, and the power of the Romans. It was meant to instill fear. And you would’ve felt it. I mean, what American doesn’t at some point, complain about the government? If you did that in ancient Israel, which was part of the Roman Empire, you’d have to worry that your passing comment about the Emperor was overheard by someone who told someone, and now they were coming for you.
Okay, now that we’ve thought that through a bit, I’d ask you to imagine being a Christian in the years immediately after Jesus was crucified, when Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians from which we read today. Christians didn’t necessarily use the cross commonly as a symbol as we do today (they used a fish more often), but they did talk about the cross, meditate on it, and talk about what Christ accomplished through it.
If a non-Christian saw that, they’d probably think that all these Christians being so giddy about a cross were crazy! WHY did they care about this scary, powerful, even evil symbol? Why would they talk about it, think about it, and even revere it? How could it turn their thoughts to God, rather than to the awesome and frightening power of the Roman Empire? After all, wasn’t the cross a symbol of how Jesus failed? After all, what kind of Messiah ends up executed?
Well, here’s the thing. It’s possible to understand a non-Christian having this perspective. But this is what Paul is talking about in our letter to the Corinthians today; the cross is a stumbling-block or foolishness if you’re not a believer. But if you’re one of us, if you place your faith in Jesus, the cross is a symbol, not of death nor Roman power; rather, a symbol of life and of God’s power.
You may notice that we have an empty cross at the front of our church. Perhaps that’s something you’ve wondered about: why do some churches have crosses with no one on them at the front of the church? Our cross is empty because it’s a reminder that Christ is not crucified forever; rather, he moved beyond the cross. He is not dead, but he is alive! The cross, painful though it was, is not the ultimate arbiter of meaning; rather, it reveals the truth about who God is.
Sometimes, the wisdom of God is foolishness in the eyes of the world, and the wisdom of the world can be foolish in the eyes of God. In the passage we read from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus turns over tables and drives out money-changers, we see this in action. The people in the Temple are doing what seems wise in the world: they’re maximizing their profits. They’re selling stuff, and they’re makin’ money. That’s wisdom, in the world’s eyes.
But Jesus goes out there to tell them that that’s not what God wants. They’re supposed to be there to worship, not to profit. While the world may see making money and taking advantage of the people in the Temple with nothing to sacrifice as “good business sense,” God sees it as deplorable; as something that threatens to undermine the very idea of worshiping God.
People were selling things in the Temple to help people make sacrifices on their trips to Jerusalem. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s all it had been, I don’t think Jesus would’ve had any problem with it: after all, not everyone could come equipped with a goat or a dove to sacrifice. Instead, the problem was the sporting event problem: you ever go to a Major League Baseball game, get ready to pay 8 bucks for a hot dog. Why? Because you have no other choice! That’s what happened here; people had no competition, and they could basically charge whatever they wanted. Good people, just wanting to worship properly, were taken advantage of by people who were looking out for themselves, rather than honoring the Temple as God’s house and treating it with proper justice.
Look, a little wisdom in the eyes of the world never hurt anyone. Paul is not telling us here is to be stupid. He’s not saying to close your eyes and walk across 41st and Louise. That’s not what this means. Paul is not saying that all wisdom is bad; rather, he’s telling us that when the world thinks it knows what the most important things are, the world will always be wrong if it hasn’t considered God. God shows us things we might never have dreamt of if we didn’t listen.
So, this passage is really about how we’re supposed to have our eyes on the prize. We need to look to the cross and see, not an instrument of death as the world sees, but the very way of life. The world may look at a cross and see one thing, but we should see something much greater. To us, it’s not humanity’s final solution for enemies; it’s proof that, no matter how cruel we can be to one another, God can show us kindness, and grace, and life. It’s easy for someone outside the church to look at a cross and see foolishness; in fact, it’s just as easy now as it was 2000 years ago. But we know there’s more to the story than that.
So, brothers and sisters, go out there and be fools for Christ. Go ahead and ignore the wisdom of the world. Keep your mind on the wisdom of God, stay focused on Christ and the cross, and remember that, no matter how powerful a symbol we can construct, however dark an answer we can provide, God can grant us life, and love, and grace. Amen.