I haven’t posted a sermon in a while because I’ve stopping using a full manuscript, just going from notes or with nothing, but this time for whatever reason I came up with a decent rough draft. So here it is. The final, preached product was significantly different (it always is) but, well…
May 18, 2008
The purpose of this sermon is to get at the meaning of the last reading from John. To do this, I think you have to follow a thread that is drawn for you through scripture, and I’ve picked a few points on that thread. Then you need to do some work yourself to see where the thread is pointing.
What we have in John 12 is John’s equivalent of Gethsemane, in a way. Jesus’ soul is troubled – this won’t be a sweating bullets scene, because John’s story of Jesus is of a man who knows exactly what is going to happen to him, and even a lot of why it will happen. But still, Jesus is afraid to die. If he wasn’t afraid to die, he couldn’t possibly be human, he couldn’t possibly say anything at all in the face of our fear of death.
He says “my soul is troubled. Shall I ask God to save me from this hour?” The answer is no – so that God’s name will be glorified when Christ is lifted up, so that God’s judgement will come, co that light will shine out, making children of light, it has to be “no”.
Now, we need to be clear that Christ is being lifted up on a cross, which is a terrible irony in John. We think of ‘lifted up’ as being glorified, but Christ will be lifted up in order to strain and bleed and suffocate until he cannot hold up the weight of his body anymore on the nails that are tearing at his flesh, at which point he will finally collapse, his weight bearing down on his diaphragm, depriving his lungs of air until he is dead. In many cases, this death took days, and in the meantime, his followers and family will be able to watch him slowly die, unable to do anything to help him.
That is what “lifted up” means to the Romans. We shouldn’t forget, we shouldn’t water down what is going on here. In fact, it is crucial that we not make Christ’s being lifted up into a metaphor. Imagine if Jesus is on death row, and he says that he will be strapped down on the execution table so that God will be glorified. That is was we’re dealing with here, and we need to deal with it, or we will miss the point.
If we look earlier in John, we see Jesus talking about being lifted up again. This occurs a few times, but I picked out the best one to make my point. In John 3 Jesus says that he will be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
And so we must follow the thread further back to Numbers, to the story of Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness wandering, to one of the stranger scenes in that larger story. In this story, the people have been afflicted by poisonous serpents whose bites burn like fire and who are killing them. They are panicked and begging Moses to peak to God on their behalf, to do something to save them.
I researched this, and one possible culprit would be the black desert cobra. They grow to be about 4 feet in length. Unlike a lot of other vipers, they have small, fixed fangs that don’t retract or fold back. The venom then inject into you when they bite is a cocktail of powerful neurotoxins and enzymes. The main thing that they do is they interrupt or even stop the heartbeat and breathing of a victim. You might not even exhibit symptoms that would worry you for 24 hours, but tens of thousands of people are estimated to die form cobra bites every year. It’s a very painful way to go, and it isn’t quick.
The people cry out to Moses in terror. Can you imagine the panic of huge crowd of people trying to scramble around and climb over each other trying not to be bitten? They’d be trampling each other to get away from any snake they saw, while others collapse writing in the dust in pain. They flee Egypt with Moses and face near-drowning, a narrow escape from the Egyptian army, thirst, hunger, and now this?
So Moses prays to God, and God offers a strange solution. Craft a serpent and put it at the top of a pole. Then, whenever someone is bitten, they can look to the serpent and the poison will be drawn out of them. If they keep their eyes on this serpent, they will live.
And it works.
So, in order to save the people from the venom of the serpents biting them, he lifts up a serpent he’s made, and the poison is drawn out of them.
And its this story that Jesus, in John 3, chooses to compare to his own time when he will be “lifted up” in the terrible way that I described earlier.
And again in John 12 Jesus talks about how he will be lifted up, in order to glorify God. “Now is the judgement of this world” he says. He will be lifted up on the cross to die because of the judgement of the Sanhedrin, and because of the judgement of Rome, but he says that he will in fact be lifted up on the cross for the judgement of this world. When he is lifted up on the cross to die he will draw all people to him.
Jesus says that he is the light with us. When a light is lifted up, it can be seen from further away. When Jesus is lifted up to die a gruesome death on the cross, it will be the judgement, not of him, but of the world. It will be a shedding of light, a light that reveals this judgement – and if we believe in this light, then we will become children of light.
Without following the thread back to Moses, I think we can miss the point of this passage entirely. Because as it stands, plucked out of the story as we do when we focus on a few verses without looking at the rest of them, this judgement doesn’t make any sense. The judgement has no content. We don’t know what the light reveals. We don’t know what we’re supposed to look toward, what we are supposed to believe so that we become children of light.
The Hebrews, in the wilderness, were afflicted with poinsonous serpents, and so a serpent was raised up, and when they looked to it, they were cured. The poison was drawn out, and they lived.
Now it is Christ who is being lifted up, his body writing in agony, nailed to a cross, trails of blood leaking from his wrists and his feet, gasping and struggling in the hot sun, set upright above everyone’s heads so that he can be seen, so that the people of Jerusalem can watch while he dies, so that they will know that Rome has the power of life and death over them, so that they will know that the Sanhedrin is not to be trifled with, so that they will know the price of resistance, the price of preaching what Jesus preached.
Good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the captives – all nailed up for everyone to see while these ideas die, while Jesus dies. The social order is restored; the powerful can sleep in peace. It may take a while, but this Jesus will die, as certain as Rome’s power is absolute, as certain as death comes to everyone.
And this is how Jesus says the judgement of this world will come. This is how God will be glorified. This is how the light of the world will be seen by the children of light.
It sounds crazy until you realize that what Jesus is saying is that we are poisoned. We are filled with a poison that is killing us, that causes us to kill each other, to continue to kill each other. It is a poison that blinds us, makes us children of darkness. Like black cobra venom, the signs of the poisoning aren’t immediately clear – symptoms can take time to manifest.
A serpent was raised up in the wilderness to cure one kind of poison, and a man sentenced to death is lifted up to cure the poison that fills us.
The root of the poison is there for all to see. The Roman Empire has put another human being to death, crushed another movement which sought to empower the poor and bring them hope. The Sanhedrin had betrayed this man because he was too prophetic, too truthful. His words cut way too close to home. Blessed are the poor? We cannot have that. The last shall be first and the first shall be last? Not this time.
The poor are the ones who are crushed by the powerful. The last are nailed to crosses by the first. That is the way that this world works. Make no mistake about it. Do you think there are rich people on death row in the United States? Or that our justice system isn’t racially biased? And when another hundred deaths are in the news coming out of Iraq, do you think those are people living in mansions?
Rome crucifying Jesus is exactly how our world works. It is exactly how order is maintained, then and now.
As long as we hang that cross in our sanctuary, we need to deal with this. In a country that puts people to death, we worship a God who was put to death. Shouldn’t that sort of bother us? He was put to death because he preached good news to the poor, because he called himself a king when he had no army, no soldiers to protect him. He was put to death because he challenged the rulers of this world, saying that judgement is against you, that a turning is coming where God will change the world. And we still put the poor to death. We still crush and oppress. We still sit atop the global heap and crow. And all the while the cross hangs on the wall for us to see.
Shouldn’t this bother us? Shouldn’t we see that something is wrong?
Do you know who an anti-venom works? To cure a snake-bite, to save someone’s life who has been bitten by, say, a black desert cobra, you first have to have the venom. You have to get some of the stuff that will kill them. Then, you water it down, until it isn’t strong enough to be lethal. Then, you inject some of it into a living thing, and the animals’ body starts to fight the venom using things called antibodies, little cells the body makes to fight off the poison. When there are enough antibodies, you can draw them out of the blood, and now they’re ready to inject into someone who is dying of a snake-bite.
In our reading today, Jesus is telling us that the cross is antivenom and that we are poisoned. You have to use poison to cure poison, and so what is it that we see? A man, a prophet, a healer, a teacher, a king, nailed to a cross and raised up high to die publicly, for all to see. And this is the antivenom. This is the cure.
It’s the cure for the idea that it is ever ok to kill another human being. It is the cure for the idea that we are safe because we hold the power of death over other people. It is the cure for the sickness of violence that plagues us and makes it impossible to live together in peace. It is the cure for death-row thinking and Guantanamo-prison-thinking and war-against-terror thinking. It is the cure for the venom we are sick to death with, the venom that is killing us and making us kill each other.
Look! Look! Keep looking! That is the cure! That is the judgement that Christ brings on this world! That is how God is glorified and lifted up! God is lifted up to die, lifted up by us, so that every time we see someone die, every time we look on someone who we are compolicit in killing, we will see Christ there. So look! Keep looking until you see the cross everywhere, all over the world, where people starve and suffer and die when we could stop it, when it could have been prevented. Look! Keep looking until you see the cross in every suffering person, every person killed in our wars, every poor person killed by injustice or oppression.
Then, you will see the light. Then, you will become children of light. When you look and you see. When you look and you see that our world is founded on the power of death, our government, our economy is still founded on the venomous power of death, that our rulers hold death in their hands and deal it out when they are threatened, that our fear makes us kill, that our hate makes us kill, and that every time we do, it is Christ we are killing..
Many great people have preached on this text before me this morning, and many will after. I feel like I am in humbling company. I have one last story, which sums up everything I want to say.
On March 24th, Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down while saying the Mass in El Salvador. His homily was on this text.
The day before he had confronted the military that was killing his people. Dead bodies were clogging the streams of El Salvador. 3,000 a month were dying. That’s one September 11th each month, as the government sought to kill and crush the poor of El Salvador.
He talked about how this is the judgement of the world, and that we must not shrink away from what it will cost us to follow God in this world. And then he was murdered in the middle of saying the Mass.
The United States government supported the El Salvadoran death squads because we believed that we needed to fight Communism. The poor of El Salvador wanted control of their own land, and so they resisted the government, and the government crushed them. The bullet that murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero may have been manufactured in the United States. The gun that killed him might have been paid for by our tax dollars. The killer who did the deed did so on behalf of the government which we supported at the time.
If we accept the rulers of this world, then that is the result. The poor die and the rich prosper. The powerful sleep soundly and the powerless mourn.
But this is the judgement of the world, this is the antivenom that might save us if we dare take it into ourselves. Our fear and our hate and our evil is so deep that when presented with God among us, calling us to be who God made us to be, we turned and killed him. We nailed him to a cross and lifted him high.
And it is in that moment that we have a chance to see. To see ourselves for who we really are. To see God for who God really is.
And until we see we have to keep looking. We have to look at that cross until we see it wherever we see the power of death. We have to look at that suffering, dying Christ until we see Christ in every suffering, dying person in this world. Then, God will be glorified. Then, we will be children of light. But not before.
Oscar Romero said that he did not believe in death without resurrection. He said, shortly before he was killed, that if he died, he would be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.
Christ has died, and Christ is resurrected in us. We are the body of Christ. We cannot believe in death without resurrection. This world has been judged, and after we have seen, we cannot see the same way after, we cannot live the same way ever again.
So look, and keep looking. Keep looking until you see.