Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B - March 18, 2012 (Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21)

Anyone who has seen Disney’s The Lion King—either the movie or the musical—is very familiar with that iconic scene that comes right at the beginning. All the animals of the African savannah have assembled around the base of the lion’s home on Pride Rock, an imposing rock formation which juts out over the surrounding Pridelands like the bow of a ship. They’ve come from miles around to witness the birth and anointing of their new lion king, upon whom no animal has yet laid its eyes. At the critical moment, just as the opening music reaches its stirring crescendo, they lower their heads in respect and adoration as the young cub is taken from the lion family by a priest-like ape and thrust into the air, lifted high so that all can see him. Not a word has yet been spoken in the movie. No mention of good or evil—or light or dark—has been made. And yet this gesture of lifting up is so clear in its symbolism, so unmistakable in its message. At that point we know a new king has arrived. It is a judgment upon the state of things: a new day has begun and all may rest peacefully and secure in the great circle of life, as Disney calls it. Of course, this circle of life aspect is driven home once more at the end of the movie as the exact same scene is repeated with a new generation’s lion king.

On a somewhat of a side note, there was a priest in the Roman Catholic parish in the part of Pittsburgh where I served who basically re-enacted this type of pose with every baby at a baptism. It was even colloquially referred to as the “Lion King” pose, and I saw it with my own eyes once as he took one of our friend’s daughters—four months old and very squirmy at the time—and bravely lifted her up seven feet or more over the hard marble floor after he poured the water on her head. He was a sturdy man, but most parents found the symbolism a little too breathtaking at that point.

Lifting up: it’s what we do to things that need attention. It the universal gesture for ‘this is important.’ For ancient Israel, especially in the story to which Jesus refers in this morning’s gospel lesson as he speaks with Nicodemus, it is also the gesture for ‘this is life.’ Moses once lifted up a serpent in the wilderness so that people could look at it and live.

Visit of Nicodemus to Christ (La Farge, 1980)
Nicodemus is a Pharisee who has come under the cover of night to see Jesus and get to the bottom of Jesus’ teachings, if such a thing can be done. We don’t know specifically why Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus. Perhaps Nicodemus is feeling a stirring of new faith because of the signs Jesus has performed. Perhaps Nicodemus wants to nail down the essence of Jesus’ relationship with God and clarify how the Pharisees’ understandings of God differ from Jesus’ so that he can better describe and define the coeternal nature of the second person of the Trinity, whether he is begotten or made…OK, maybe that’s not what Nicodemus is thinking…but whatever Nicodemus’ motivations, the conversation reaches a point where Jesus compares the Son of Man to this otherwise obscure story about the snakes in the wilderness.

In that occurrence, which is recorded in the book of Numbers, the people of Israel had been complaining about what they had to eat in the wilderness. They complained about this several times, in fact, but this time God is provoked to send venomous snakes in their midst. As the snakes bite the Israelites they begin to die. Interestingly, historians have often wondered whether the “fiery serpents” in this account might not have been snakes at all but perhaps an outbreak of guinea worm, a debilitating but preventable parasite that lives in unclean water that still afflicts people in some remote parts of Africa.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Bourdon, 1653-54)
Whatever the case, in order to save them God instructs Moses, their leader, to make a serpent out of bronze and hoist it up on pole so that everyone could look at it. And there you have it: lifting up the bronze serpent means life. All the Israelites who are gathered out on the plain of the savannah can look at it and be saved. Life can go on.

As a Pharisee, someone familiar with the Law and the history of his people, Nicodemus would have known that story well. What would have seemed strange was to hear Jesus, this new and confusing rabbi, compare himself to that story. Jesus, you see, would not just come to teach something new about life in God, or to impart some novel understanding through signs and wonders, like changing water into wine (Pharisees lap up that kind of stuff, you know). Rather, Jesus would come as the Son of Man to be lifted up. Jesus would come to be lifted up as important, to be lifted up as life. Furthermore, what Nicodemus could never predict is that here Jesus really means “lifted up”…that he, too, would be attached to a crude pole and lifted high for all to see.

The act of lifting Jesus up, as it turns out, is one of the chief themes in the gospel of John. Like the recurring imagery that serves to anchor the story in The Lion King, this action is referred to and repeated at various key times in the gospel story. This conversation with Nicodemus is one of those occasions, and as we read on, we learn that “lifting up” is the word that Jesus uses for his death on the cross. Where in the other gospels, Jesus speaks about his death in terms of humiliation and suffering, here Jesus repeatedly mentions it in positive terms. When Jesus is lifted on the cross, God is saying “This man is important, this event is significant.” And more than that: God is saying, “This man is life. Look at him and live.” By being lifted up on the cross to die, Jesus is later able to be lifted up in the resurrection in victory over death and then, again, lifted up in his ascension to the Father. Being lifted up: for Jesus, it’s all one continuous motion that is directed at you and me, and we may live as a result of it.

It all seems a little intellectual and heady, doesn’t it? Much of John’s gospel comes across that way—at least, it does to me. What it all comes down to is this: when Jesus is lifted on the cross, we see the effect of what is truly killing us. We see in Jesus’ crucified body the result of our sin, that fiery serpent that will not leave us alone. We see in Jesus’ crucified body the incredible pain our brokenness causes, both to ourselves and to God. In this sense, the cross is also God’s judgment. We see and understand that, left to ourselves, we are doomed people, wandering aimlessly towards certain death. An essential part of Christian faith is a realization of how much help we need, how dead we really are, how hopeless our situation is until God does something to save us. I dare say that is not a popular point of view these days—that is, the admission of the failures and utter helplessness of humanity and of the fact we can’t save ourselves. Yet this is what we see when Jesus is lifted up.

Crucifix (Michelangelo, 1492)
However, we also see in Jesus’ cross that which brings us life. And what brings us life, true life? The love of God brings us life—a love so great that we see God will give his only Son to have us back on the journey toward home, and that everyone gathered on the savannah of this planet may see him lifted up and, believing in him, have eternal life. Indeed, a new day has arrived. Life may continue in the presence of God, now and forevermore.

At the center of Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp and conference center just south of Asheville, North Carolina, there is a small lake (or large pond, depending on your frame of reference). At one end of the lake a large, white cross has been lifted up and placed at the point where shorelines come together by the feeder creek. Even if you’ve never been there before, you can imagine what it looks like: I suppose it looks similar to any other cross that’s been placed at any other water’s edge. At night it’s particularly beautiful because a bright floodlight placed in front of it helps the cross form a reflection on the water below.

One summer as I was working as a counselor there, a pastor who had brought his confirmation students for a week at camp led some staff devotions before we all turned in for the evening. Normally these devotions would take place in a room or on the balcony of some lodge or cabin, but that night this pastor decided to take us all down to the lake to look at the cross.  And rather than lead us to a nice spot across the lake, this pastor traipsed us through the woods to the back of that cross. Standing there in the stark shadow that was formed by the floodlight hitting the cross at such close range, he asked us to look up at the cross and tell us what we saw. In the presence of a pastor, we all spouted out our best theological answers: “Forgiveness.”  “Love.” Someone I’m sure mentioned that old Lutheran standby answer, “Grace.” None seemed to be the exact answer he was looking for. He let us go on for a few seconds before he said, “Sure.  That all sounds good. What I see is simply God, on the other side, looking back at us. Remember this: whenever God looks at us, he is viewing us through the cross of his own Son, Jesus.”

What that pastor was saying is that, in Jesus, God judges us dead in sin and, at the same time, loves us…loves us for all time, even through death. Like much of John’s gospel, the meaning of the cross can difficult to summarize, difficult to grasp, and like Nicodemus, we may be totally puzzled by the ways of a God who would lift up his Son in this humiliating way. We, too, may ponder it more often than we understand it, and fade away from his conversation in the same way Nicodemus does, only to arrive at a deeper faith later in our story.

No matter what—whether we’re by a lake at a church camp or maybe here, on Sunday, receiving his body and blood in the shadow of this wooden replica—my prayer for each of us is that on the journey through this wilderness we may eventually find our place not, as Disney hopes, in the circle of life, but rather at the foot of the One who has been lifted up for us, in the graciously bright light at the cross of life.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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