Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When You Lift Up The Son Of Man, You Will Realize That I AM.

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Reading I
Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road,
to bypass the land of Edom.
But with their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
The bronze serpent of Moses lifted up is seen as a symbol of Jesus on the Cross.

We see the Israelites on their long journey through the desert to the Promised Land. They are quite near their final goal. In their way stood the territory of Edom. In spite of requests to pass through without causing any trouble, they are turned down.

Moses, however, was determined not to engage Edom in battle and the people became impatient with him and also with God for the direction in which they were being taken. They were full of confidence, having just won a victory over Arad, a territory lying between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. They forgot that their victory over Arad had been granted by the Lord in response to a solemn pledge to put a curse on the towns they attacked. But now they had forgotten what they had done with God’s help and were ready to rebel again.

As they make their way to the Sea of Suph, that is, towards the Gulf of Aqaba (at the southern tip of modern Israel) and skirt around Edom, they begin grumbling against God and Moses. They are finding life hard and wish they had never left the slavery of Egypt, which now seems better than what they are going through now.

The focus of their complaints today is especially against the manna, the food that God provided them with six days a week. “We are sick of this meager diet.” Their impatience leads them to blaspheme against Yahweh, to reject Moses and despise the ‘bread from heaven’, the manna which fell every day as God’s gift to them. This was more serious than it might appear. By rejecting the food God was sending to them in abundance, they were rejecting God himself.

Their complaints about the tastelessness of the food represents a kind of tastelessness of their own, their ingratitude to God who fed them in the desert and prevented them from dying of hunger. Thanksgiving to God for his blessings to us is often one of the prayers we make least often.

It is then that God sends a plague of poisonous serpents which kill many people. They are called in Hebrew ‘fiery serpents’ (saraph), from the burning effect of their poisonous bite. (The word ‘seraphim’ comes from the same root.)

The people see in this a punishment from God for their grumbling. “We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh.” They beg Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. Moses is told to mount a bronze serpent on a pole; anyone bitten who looks at it will live. And so it happened.

The significance of this reading is clearly in its being a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross. Later on Jesus will say, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that those who believe in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (John 3:14ff).

The serpent only healed people of the bite of a snake. Later, we are told in the Second Book of the Kings that Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent which Moses had made because it had become an object of idolatry.

The life that Jesus gives from the cross is of a totally different kind. And that is what we prepare to celebrate as we come to the end of the Lenten season.
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Psalm 102
O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.
O LORD, hear my prayer,
and let my cry come to you.
Hide not your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
in the day when I call, answer me speedily.
O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.
The nations shall revere your name, O LORD,
and all the kings of the earth your glory,
When the LORD has rebuilt Zion
and appeared in his glory;
When he has regarded the prayer of the destitute,
and not despised their prayer.
O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.
Let this be written for the generation to come,
and let his future creatures praise the LORD:
“The LORD looked down from his holy height,
from heaven he beheld the earth,
To hear the groaning of the prisoners,
to release those doomed to die.”
O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.
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John 8:21-30
Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“I am going away and you will look for me,
but you will die in your sin.
Where I am going you cannot come.”
So the Jews said,
“He is not going to kill himself, is he,
because he said, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’?”
He said to them, “You belong to what is below,
I belong to what is above.
You belong to this world,
but I do not belong to this world.
That is why I told you that you will die in your sins.
For if you do not believe that I AM,
you will die in your sins.”
So they said to him, “Who are you?”
Jesus said to them, “What I told you from the beginning.
I have much to say about you in condemnation.
But the one who sent me is true,
and what I heard from him I tell the world.”
They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father.
So Jesus said to them,
“When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM,
and that I do nothing on my own,
but I say only what the Father taught me.
The one who sent me is with me.
He has not left me alone,
because I always do what is pleasing to him.”
Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him.
Listening to Jesus, the Pharisees must have thought he was speaking in riddles. This was largely due to their own preconceived ideas about him. They take every statement he makes literally (they are the original Fundamentalists) and miss the symbolism. Basically, their problem is, as Jesus points out, that they “are from below; I am from above”; they “are of this world; I am not of this world”.

John uses the word ‘world’ in two senses. In one meaning he simply is referring to the world that God created with all its variety. Later, he will tell his disciples that, if they want to communicate his message effectively, they will have to be fully inserted in that world, like the leaven in the dough. Separating themselves from that world will not do much for the building of the Kingdom on earth.

The second meaning of ‘world’ for John refers to everything around us which cannot be identified with God or Jesus. It is that part of our environment which speaks and acts in a way that is contrary to the Spirit of Jesus and the vision of Jesus for the world. Jesus does not identify himself with that world nor does he want any of his disciples to identify with it either. Their mission is to change it, to shine his Light on it.

Twice in today’s passage Jesus says of himself “I AM”, an expression we saw yesterday and which was used directly of God himself.

When they “have lifted up the Son of Man”, then they will know who Jesus really is and that everything that Jesus has said and done comes from God himself because, as he will say later, “I and the Father are one”. “Lifted up” not only refers to Jesus being lifted up on the cross but also includes the glorification of Jesus, his lifting up to sit at the Father’s right hand. For John the cross is Jesus’ moment of glory, the triumphant climax of his mission.

And, because of these words, we are told, “many” came to believe in him but most of the Pharisees were not among them.

This is a time for us also to examine our allegiance to Christ and what he means for us in our lives. Is our following of him truly a healing and liberating experience not only for ourselves but for others as well?

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

Jesus gives the Pharisees a frightening warning:

'For if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins'

But then he makes a solemn promise, describing how it will be possible for them to believe and so avoid dying in their sins:

'When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM'

The significance of this is stressed by St Paul:

1 Corinthians 15:17 'And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins'

In our time, there are many ways in which Christ is raised up and believed in. Some of these ways may be idolatrous (as Moses' bronze snake became) or even anti-Christian. But He is still raised up and belief of every description (including violent unbelief!) abounds. I sometimes wonder whether the Jews might still be bitterly divided about the resurrection of the dead, if it weren't for the existence of so many utterly confident Christians. Muslim belief in the afterlife too might look like their own wishful thinking, were it not for the strength of preexisting Christian beliefs. All kinds of beliefs or intuitions about the afterlife gain credence from the Christian experience. The cross and resurrection of Christ are, I believe, central to everything, whether we know it or not.