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Lifted up

It might seem a strange association that when I wrote the hymn "Pieta", cast in the noble sentiments of Mary with the body of her Son, that I had been thinking about the story of Moses in the desert trying to lead an unruly mob of complaining people, who didn't like the food, and even said they were starving when they were not. You know how it is with children: a demand for more food or better food usually means "Love me more", or "Pay more attention to me", and Moses often found the grown up children of Israel like that. Anyway, as we read this morning, the story goes that God was not happy about these complaints:

Then, like children who have been given a bit of a fright, they repented: As a good pastor should, Moses took their concerns to God, and prayed for his people. Then something really strange happened: As you might expect me to say, all this is highly symbolic. We are, after all, dealing with the symbol of a snake, which appears to have had almost magical properties. But there is more to the mystery than that. The whole episode was a kind of symbol and more fantastic than at first appears. Excuse me for bringing in the Hebrew language, which I always find fascinating even though I don't understand it very well. The word translated "poisonous" -- the Lord sent "poisonous snakes" -- also means "fiery". Indeed that is how it is translated in the old Authorized or King James Version: the Lord sent "fiery snakes"; the Lord said "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole". It can also refer to flying snakes as in Isaiah when the prophet used it as a kind of code when he was warning a foreign nation not to think their troubles were over just because the ruler for the Assyrian empire which had oppressed them was dead, because a new oppressor would arise. This is highly symbolic language. The scholars think it refers to the time after the death of the Assyrian king Sargon, in 705 BC, when his successor, Sennacherib, had trouble consolidating his seat on the throne, but later posed a real threat to nations previously conquered by Sargon.

What are talking about then? Is it relevant to us? Yes, in this way, that real historical events are described in very fanciful imaginary symbols; and we will see that those symbols are useful to us. The "fiery flying serpent" was not expected to be seen tomorrow morning flitting through the olive trees or flying over the vineyard wall. It referred to a fearful enemy king, who could and would come marching with a murderous army to destroy the nation.

Now, do you imagine that the fiery serpent of which Moses made a bronze image for people to look at was a plain ordinary snake that you might easily find in the desert? No doubt the people of Israel did remember for many years their fear of snakes in the wilderness after their escape from the relatively comfortable life in Egypt where they had been slaves; but I am sure they were afraid of more than snakes out there! In fact, there was a mighty conflict in their minds about what they were doing there and where they ought to be:

The minor excuse of the complaint about the food was just a cover for rebellion against God. They were beginning to think that they would rather not be saved (that is saved or set free from slavery). They spoke against God! Here is a conflict worthy of a fiery serpent. Is it not the same danger that Eve was in when the serpent spoke to her in the garden of Eden: the danger of rebelling against God? In their limited understanding, fighting against God and his servant Moses was like fighting against fiery or flying or spiritual serpents.

Before I come to the poem I wrote for this day a few years ago, I want to ask you to have patience while I bring in another piece of strange, frightening, awesome, imagery, with a little more Hebrew. You will probably remember the great vision that Isaiah had in the Temple when he was called to be a prophet. Let me read the account of it in Isaiah 6:1-8

It is one of the truly great models of worship which has influenced Jewish and Christian ideas of God and our relationship to God ever since. We still repeat regularly the pattern of coming into the presence of God with awe and wonder ready to give our praise to God, then realizing that we are unworthy of his presence we confess and we receive the sign of forgiveness. The seraph is an angel close to God that flew to Isaiah with the burning coal from the altar, which touched his lips and his sins were forgiven. The ministry of reconciliation was performed by the "seraph". The "seraph" did for Isaiah what I regularly do for you with the assurance of forgiveness after the confession each Sunday. Now, I find it interesting that the word "seraph", which is what that angel creature was called, is again the same word as was translated "fiery" in reference to the "fiery serpent". What we have here is a fiery flying thing which is a spiritual being mediating between God and a man. You don't have to understand all of this. Just let it float around for a while, but remember the bit about mediation, one coming from the presence of God to bring the unworthy sinner into a new relationship with God.

What has this to do with the gospel? You might suspect, when we mention mediation and reconciliation, that is has a very great deal to do with the gospel, the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God in the life and work of Jesus Christ in which we who were estanged were reconciled to God. Reconciliation is right at the heart of the gospel. In the particular reading we had from John today, Jesus had been speaking with Nicodemus about starting a new life, being born again. Nicodemus had some trouble with the idea of being born again. How can a man be born when he is old? Jesus said, in the passage just before what we read this morning:

Well, that seems plain enough. Heavenly things are rather remote and might be more difficult to understand, but then Jesus said something that was not at all obvious: What is all this about ascending to and descending from heaven? We will be thinking in a few weeks about Jesus being raised up to be with God, and the early Christians would have known what John was talking about, but what we can see here is that he, the Son of Man, which is what Jesus liked to call himself, he, came down from heaven. Like the seraph, the fiery being who served Isaiah, he is a mediator of God's mercy, carrying God's burning coal of forgiveness to sinners, reconciling with God those who had rebelled. Then comes the reference to Moses and his bronze fiery serpent. So when the Lord Jesus was lifted up, in his sacrifice on the cross and in his resurrection and ascension, he opened the way for rebellious sinners to be reconciled to God and be with him for ever. That great work was not, however a neat piece of magic. It was the costly consequence of radical identification with humanity who had been estranged from God. The same fiery serpent of rebellion that Moses had to contend with was still flying around. Jesus, by taking himself the form of the rebel, liberated humanity, he became their mediator: by looking to him on the cross the antidote to their poison was found. What more I could say about the cost of it, and the wonder of our salvation, is better said in the poem, which is called "Pieta".

Pieta [see link for music]

O painful, painful, painful day!
My Lord, my flesh, my son;
the breath of life you breathed away,
was life in God now won.

The pain of birth you chose to make
a sign of God's new life.
So for God's Kingdom you now take
the pain, the curse, the knife.

"Here is, your son", you said to me,
"Mother", to one well loved.
Disciples all, we are to be,
in grief and love embraced.

O painful, painful, painful day!
That joy through tears may come,
I do believe, and hope to say,
when you have led me home.

© David Beswick, 1997

When we come to Good Friday I expect we will sing it as intended, but it fits today as well. We respond in devotion as we move from the dramatic images of flying fiery serpents, beyond fear of God and his punishment of rebellious sinners, to the reconciling acts of love in which God draws us to himself in Christ. As we sing you might put yourself beside Mary in one of those great works of art called "Pieta", like Michelangelo's piece in St Peter's, Rome, where Mary holds the broken body of her son, which I am sure a number of you will have seen, or you might know it from books. Make a personal act of devotion, praising God for that eternal life in him which we are promised through the one who was lifted up.

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