Lent 4 Year B/March 11, 2018
Pastor Maurice Frontz
When we look at the cross,
we see darkness and death.
But worse than even having to contemplate the act of crucifixion,
we must contemplate who is on the cross.
If it were Hitler, Castro, or Madame Mao,
Jerry Sandusky, Harvey Weinstein, or Bernie Madoff,
we might take some grim satisfaction from the sight:
but this is the One who spoke words of hope, peace, and life.
He does not die in old age,
at peace in his bed,
in the satisfaction of a life well-lived,
crowned by his good works,
surrounded by loving family and friends.
He dies an outcast,
in dreadful pain
for sins he did not commit,
shorn of human dignity,
abandoned by all,
his words and works seemingly forgotten,
and God seemingly silent.
And it gets worse.
For not only do we see a death as innocent
as the death of a teenage girl cut down in flower in a school massacre in America
or as the death of an eight-year-old boy drafted into a South Sudanese army,
but we are asked to consider the monstrous concept
that we have participated in the cause of Jesus’ innocent death.
Such a thought may seem too farfetched for us.
Surely we are not evildoers.
We may dismiss this as at best the overzealous dramatics of a preacher,
or at worst a calculated manipulation of guilt feelings.
But we learn from our childhoods that ‘Christ died for us.’
He did not die for innocent people,
for then we would not have needed him to die for us.
We might also say, ‘Christ died because of us.’
Insofar as we have not trusted in God and kept his commandments,
insofar as in thought, word, and action we have violated the inviolability of the neighbor,
we have participated in the madness of the world
which slaughters the innocent and would even cast out God.
Perhaps again, we do not feel this to be true.
Perhaps it is irrational.
But it is not our reason or feelings which must convict us,
but God’s Word.
If this is the assertion that is being made,
that I myself have participated in the death of the innocent victim on the Cross,
that in looking at the cross I am seeing there
what would naturally happen
if my anger, pride, envy, and covetousness were given free reign,
then I seemingly have two choices.
I can deny that this assertion is true,
making excuses for the errors in my life,
magnifying my positives and minimizing the negatives,
holding up my trifling unfaithfulnesses
against the truly monstrous in the world.
Or, if I believe the assertion,
I might be moved to despair,
for if I am inextricably part of this human story
where the slaughter of the innocent is a principle of existence,
then indeed I am lost if the innocent one is judged righteous and I guilty.
Denial will not look at the cross out of pride.
Despair will not look at the cross out of fear.
And the two may be intertwined.
But both will avoid the cross.
There is another choice.
That is to be moved to look at the cross
without denying my responsibility
as part of the humanity that put there the one who hangs upon it.
Jesus recalls a story from ancient Israelite history,
when the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness.
He recalls the story of the poisonous serpents. (Numbers 21:4-9)
The story reads that God sent serpents among the people.
But it was God’s people who first heard the whispering of the serpent,
the same serpent who moved Adam and Eve to distrust of God in the garden
moved the people to speak against God and against Moses,
betraying their lack of trust in God’s servant.
And so the serpent which follows hard upon the sin
is an indictment of the sin of the people.
They make clear what has truly happened.
The serpents are not simply a punishment,
but a warning.
And warnings can be given out of love,
and a desire for restoration.
The people come to realize what has happened
and their part in it.
And they come to Moses and confess their sin.
God tells Moses to make a representation of a poisonous serpent.
When the people look at the serpent,
it is both a confession of their wrongdoing
and a recommitment to trust.
Certainly it is a strange thing to look upon that which is the symbol of death.
But when they do so in renewed faith and trust
that God indeed means to heal them,
and in this very way,
they discover to their surprise that death can lead to life.
‘So must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that those who believe in him may have eternal life.’ (John 3:14-21)
Jesus says this,
and we can find so much in this statement.
We look at the one who is lifted up
and see that this innocent death is because of humanity’s rejection of God,
and that simply by being human, we are indeed part of that rejection.
This is part of what it means to say that Jesus died for us.
Secondly, that this innocent death is for us
because for those who confess their sin,
and put their trust in the Crucified,
the judgment of unbelief is lifted,
and the sins which brought us to the cross are forgiven.
Thirdly, those who are forgiven are also given life that is eternal.
When we say ‘eternal life’ or ‘everlasting life’ we often think in terms of time,
a life that goes on forever in heaven.
To say the life that is eternal,
we are thinking not simply of life that goes on and on,
but a life that truly is different in this life;
life that is redolent of eternity,
the life of communion with God.
We look at the cross and we see darkness and death.
But from that place of darkness and death,
the light of Christ streams.
Those who despair or deny do not come to the light,
but those who confess and repent come to the light.
This is what John means
by ‘Those who do what is true come to the light.’
In a paradoxical way, to do what is true
is to confess that one has not been true.
Those who do this, looking upon the cross,
are those who find God full of wondrous love,
ever-ready to grant life that is eternal.