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Empty to the Sky
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
March 11, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of John
And 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. “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. “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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
I have bad news and I have good news.
The bad news is about the serpent. You just heard a quick reference to it in our Gospel reading — this bit about just how Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up. I want to tell you that full story that John’s referencing, real quick, and it’s kind of an odd story. The story goes like this, from the book of Numbers: Moses and the Israelites are slowly making their way through the wilderness, after their escape from Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt. And the people are complaining. They complain a lot, as you may remember from some of our hearing of these stories last fall. They complain a lot — why has the Lord brought us out of Egypt just to die in this wilderness? — and so God in this case sends poisonous snakes to bite the Israelites. Which is a different sermon altogether. But regardless, the people come to Moses hat in hand; we should’ve kept our mouths shut, please make the serpents go away. And Moses prays to God, and God commands Moses to make a statue of a serpent and set it high on a pole, and if anybody gets bitten by a serpent they can look at the statue and live. And it works. And they do.
On its face, that’s already a strange story. Kind of a famously strange story, pretty drastically different than the way God reacts to Israel’s complaining any other time in scripture. But at least, to start with, at least this story ends well. The people repent. They get saved. All they have to do is carry this statue around and none of those serpent-bites will sting anymore. And so maybe you can see the analogy already: this snake gets lifted onto a pole to save everybody else from death, and then Jesus will get lifted up on a cross and save everybody else from death. The problem is that this story keeps going. The problem is the sequel.
Long after Moses and the Israelites, but long before Jesus came around or John wrote his Gospel, in the time of the kings of Israel, a good king named Hezekiah comes to the throne — now I’m way off the lectionary but just hang on with me for a second. Hezekiah shows up during a time of massive corruption and widespread religious abuse. The people are worshiping all kinds of false gods, and the temple authorities are using all the tools in their toolbox to keep the people in line and maximize their own profits. But Hezekiah is a reformer. Hezekiah shows up to right the ship. Hezekiah starts rooting around for all the things he can get rid of to try to get Israel back in line. And one of the things Hezekiah finds is this bronze serpent, high up on a pole, still very much in use. And it’s not just being used to save people from snakebite; it’s actually become an object of worship unto itself, folks who have turned away from the God of Abraham and Isaac just so they can worship the bronze serpent and make offerings to the bronze serpent and somebody somewhere is making a profit off this bronze serpent. So the sequel is depressing because it turns everything inside out. God commissions this statue to extend grace and forgiveness and the people turn it into an object of power and greed. God made a nice thing and the people corrupted it. That’s the bad news.
Or at least it’s part of the bad news. So Hezekiah takes it and smashes it to the ground. And that’s the end of the serpent. But it’s still not the end of this story. Because you already heard Jesus make such strange reference to this moment: just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the son of man be lifted up. It’s like Jesus only wants to talk about the first part, the part where the serpent becomes a symbol of life and salvation and the grace of God. It’s like Jesus doesn’t want to talk about the second part at all, the part where ordinary people take this symbol of God’s power and use it for abuse and idolatry and corruption. There’s something kind of charming about him just not even realizing how this story winds up, like some kid watching the Star Wars movies for the first time in narrative order and saying “Gee, I want to be just like Anakin Skywalker when I grow up.” Or maybe Jesus does know. Maybe he knows exactly how this goes. That just like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too will Jesus be lifted up on that cross. To save us. To give us life. That God makes this nice thing. And then we break it. And we corrupt it. And we turn it inside out.
The story of the cross is the story of the serpent all over again. It’s a symbol of death, a torturous death widely used by the Roman Empire and then reclaimed by God on Good Friday, and then adopted by the early church. But the church has always had a problem differentiating between worshiping God and worshiping the symbols of God and this is one of those times; by the time of the medieval church the cross itself was widely worshiped and one could easily have imagined some latter-day Hezekiah showing up and smashing them all to the ground. Actually that’s pretty close to what happened: in the 12th century, an early proto-reformer named Peter of Bruys shows up in France angry at all sorts of church practices and in particular angry about the veneration of the cross. It feels like idolatry. It feels like you’re worshiping the symbol instead of worshiping God. And so as protest he starts dismantling crosses and publicly burning them; he starts a movement of burning crosses just to take all the power out of them. Just to make them go away.
Nowadays, of course, we know the power of a burning cross. The church I attended for some time in Charlottesville, Virginia, wore this as a badge of honor, that during the Virginian resistance to court-ordered school desegregation Westminster Presbyterian Church had refused to go along with other local congregations in providing shelter for private alternative schools for white families. And so one night in the late 1950s Westminster found itself staring out the window at a cross burning on its lawn. And of course generations later this story is told with a sense of justly-earned pride, and rightly so. But I can’t help but wonder. What does it feel like to stand inside a sanctuary and look out the window at a cross on fire? That symbol was supposed to be ours. It was supposed to mean grace. It was supposed to mean love. Look what you did with it. Look what you’ve done with it. Look how you’ve mangled it. The serpent was supposed to be about life. And it turned into violence. The cross was supposed to be about life. And it turned into violence. Look what you made it do.
But you don’t have to go outside the church to find God’s gifts twisted and broken and turned inside out. I told you there was bad news, and here’s the very bottom of it, what Paul Meyer calls the worm at the core of the apple, which is that all the ways we have of trying to get close to God are all just as corruptible as everything else. It’s the bronze serpent, in the hands of the priestly class. It’s the burning cross, in the hands of Klansmen. It’s the church, in the hands of all us sinners. After all, I think we all more or less imagine the same thing from this church, from God’s church, we imagine a place where the world can come and discover God and learn about God and talk to God and feel God and feel called by God; it’s supposed to be a place that gives life. And then we break it. We break it in all these little ways, some unwelcome glance at a visitor or some triggering illustration in a sermon or some obscure moment of the liturgy. And we break it in all these big ways, like some church leader abusing his office or some denomination saying something we can’t stand or some cultural moment left totally unmentioned.
This is the problem. This is the worm at the core of the apple. This is the bottom of the bad news. People come to church looking for life, and they find us worshiping the serpent on the pole. People come to church looking for Jesus, and they find us wielding the cross against the powerless. People come to church looking for God. You come to church looking for God. I come to church looking for God. The world comes to church looking for God. And what they find, instead, is us.
But there is good news. I told you there was good news, and I meant it, and the good news is this. Jesus Christ is alive. “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.” This story isn’t just about the cross. It’s about what comes after. It’s about what comes next. It’s about Jesus who doesn’t stay on that cross but rather gets up out of that tomb and gets back to work. Which for today very simply means this. Despite all the terrible things the cross has said. Despite all the terrible things the church has said. Despite all the ways we’ve gotten in the way of people finding God. Despite all the words we’ve chosen poorly and all the ones we’ve left unspoken. Despite all the ways we have nourished the worm at the center of this apple, despite all the ways we’ve mangled God’s gifts and broken God’s gifts and turned God’s gifts inside out. Despite all of it. Jesus Christ is alive, and can speak for himself.
This sounds like some pithy rejoinder and I do not mean it that way. I mean it from the very center. I mean it as the very thing that allows us to do any of what we do with boldness and confidence. Honestly, if I thought for a second that any of our relationships with God rested entirely and solely on what I get up and say here on Sunday morning, I wouldn’t know how to get out of bed in the morning. Such power is not for me or for any of us. And if I thought for a second that any of our relationships with God rested entirely and solely on what our church looks like or what somebody else’s church looks like or what somebody else says in the name of God or what somebody else does in the name of God I think I wouldn’t know how to start the day. If I thought that our cross was the thing. I mean, the thing exactly. If I thought we had to get it right, exactly. Its shape, exactly. Its proportions, exactly. Its power, exactly. Its love, exactly. If I thought we had to get that cross exactly right. But the cross is empty for a reason. The cross is empty because Jesus Christ is alive. The cross is empty because Jesus Christ is alive and working. The cross is empty because Jesus Christ is alive and working and whispering into creation. And the only reason any of us can we do what we do in this place is because Jesus can speak for himself.
A couple of days ago on Facebook a friend of mine posted a picture taken in a convenience store not far from here, one of those highway gas station shops full of beef jerky, energy drinks, and knick-knacks. In this case one of the knick-knacks took my breath away. It was a cross.
A decorative cross, something you could put up in your living room or your office. But this one was made entirely out of ammunition. Made out of bullet shells. So for $15.99 you could take home a symbol of the love and grace of God made entirely out of instruments of death. And this of course hurts my heart. It makes me mourn for what it says about the church at this moment of its life and it makes me mourn for all the folks who see that and believe that it speaks for me and for us and for my community of faith and it makes me mourn for what it purports to say about the God we believe in who chose weakness over power and came to turn swords into plowshares. But. Also. The good news. In thousand little ways. On the lips of children and in the whispers of creation, Jesus is speaking for himself. On the faces of strangers and in the movements of the spirit, Jesus is speaking for himself. In songs of praise and in prayers of lament. In and through this long Lenten wilderness and bursting into the glory of Easter morning. Even when we say the right thing and even when we say the wrong thing and even when we say nothing at all. Jesus is speaking for himself.
Listen. Hear. And be of good faith.