Sermon for Lent 4

John 3:14-21

©Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Snakes alive! Today’s gospel is so dense and so filled with complex ideas that it is easy to overlook the almost throw-away line that likens Jesus to a serpent and his crucifixion to a bronze serpent placed on a pole to ward off death.

The image of a serpent in today’s gospel is disturbing to say the least. Even though our lectionary gives us the OT Testament reference – the plague of snakes and the bronze serpent as the cure, it can be difficult to see the connection between looking at a bronze likeness and living. It is even harder to see any relationship between Jesus and this almost superstitious solution to the poisonous snakes. In the OT account, the bronze snake represents both the cause of death and the cure – (in much the same way that modern day vaccinations use the source of a disease to inoculate us against that disease). In the gospel, John is less concerned with the prevention of death and more interested in the idea that the serpent was “lifted up”.  He contends that just as the serpent was lifted up, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

“Being lifted up” is a key phrase in John’s gospel. We meet it for the first time here, but we also come across the expression in chapter 8: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, (28)  and again in  Chapter 12 where Jesus tells the crowd: “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”(32).

Chapter 12 v33 makes it clear that, in John, “lifting up” refers to Jesus’ crucifixion – not to the resurrection or ascension. Here, the author adds an aside: “He said this (about being lifted up) to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” In other words, for this gospel writer, Jesus’ being lifted up and his dying are one and the same. Jesus is lifted up on the cross and he dies on the cross. People will see Jesus lifted up, will see  the lengths that Jesus/God will go to for us and will believe.

In John, the cross takes centre stage. It is on the cross, not through the resurrection, that victory is won. The cross is the sign of victory, not defeat, because it is on the cross that evil is defeated, and the ruler of this world is driven out. By willingly submitting to crucifixion, Jesus demonstrates that evil and death have no power over him – they can do their worst because Jesus is not in thrall to them, he will not avoid or evade them, because power belongs to God.. The cross is the place of victory because Jesus is not a victim, nor is he at the mercy of secular or supernatural powers. He could choose to avoid the cross, but he does not. In the cross is victory, not because Jesus sacrifices himself, or because an angry God demands to be appeased. In the cross is victory, because it is there, in the midst of suffering and death, that God fully identifies with the suffering and pain of the world.

The cross is a sign of Jesus’ victory not in the sense that he wants to draw attention to himself, or that he is making the choice to be a heroic martyr. Jesus chooses the cross in the sense that he doesn’t avoid it, in the sense that he follows the path set before him, even though he knows it leads to torture and death and in the sense that he refuses to be cowed by evil or by the worldly forces that conspire against him. Jesus submits to the cross because he chooses crucifixion and death, over self-preservation. He chooses to walk into the lion’s den, to confront evil and to take on the ruler of this world no matter the cost.

John’s gospel depicts Jesus as a man who, from beginning to end is the master of his own destiny. There were many times and many ways that Jesus could have avoided such a gruesome end. He could have succumbed to the temptations in the wilderness and walked his own path not God’s. He could have remained in Galilee and lived out his life as a well-respected teacher and worker of miracles.  He could have kept quiet about the misleading teaching, the corruption, and the injustices that he observed both within the church and in the governing powers.

Jesus would not save himself if it meant being complicit with the powers that control and subdue the people, he would not take the easy way out and protect his own life when there were truths to be told and he would not make compromises that would in effect be colluding with the powers of this world.

Even though the cross led to Jesus’ death, the author of John can claim that the cross (not the resurrection) is the place of victory because Jesus did not allow his message to be contained, colonised, sanitised, or moderated. He held to the truth even though to do so was dangerous. He refused to compromise, even when compromise would have been safer.  He defeated evil by refusing to give evil the last word.

Today, in the face of the horrors that we are witnessing in Gaza, the Ukraine, the Sudan, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other places I find myself asking in what way is the cross a sign of victory here and now? How can we claim victory when injustice abounds and whole nations are oppressed, when people continue to live in abject poverty and when there is an inequitable distribution of the world’s resources? 

I suspect that the answer lies with us. The cross was the place of victory, because on the cross, instead of putting himself first, Jesus aligned himself with all the suffering of the world.  That the world continues to promote violence, oppression and injustice, relates in part to our desire to conform to society rather than to confront injustice, our concern to protect our own comfort and security and our refusal to see that our relative comfort comes at the expense of the discomfort of others, and our willingness to make compromises that result in our shoring up the status quo.

The cross is the place of Jesus’ victory, but it can only be the place of victory for all people if we make it so, if we continue Jesus’ self-giving, self-denying confrontation of evil.

Jesus has demonstrated that evil can be defeated, but it will only be truly defeated when it loses its power over us.