READ: Numbers 21.4-9
I’ve been thinking about the word “Up” a lot lately.
We talk about “up” this time of year a lot, what with the “resurrection” and Christ “risen”, which we will celebrate on Easter.
Not the word’s definition, but its connotation.
Primarily that the direction of “Up” is good and “Down” is bad. Right?
Think about all of Up’s synonyms.
Rise, elevate, lift, high, soaring, boosted, buoyed, inspired, upthrust, built up, exalted, above….
We exclusively use that word to mean good.
We say things like “Things are looking up.”
“The stock market’s on the rise.”
“He lifted himself up by his boot straps.”
“She came out on top.”
“That sermon is uplifting…” And so on.
Conversely, things that are “bad” are down.
Like the stock market, when it turns…
or… “Her health took a downturn.”
“My grades are spiraling….”
And the psalmists are always “falling into the pit…”
“I’m feeling down. Low. Under the weather….”
I used to be a big fan of the television show “The West Wing.”
It was a great show because at least once an episode, it made you really stop and think.
In one episode, there was a group — called Cartographers for Social Justice — who came in to pitch an idea to CJ Craig, the Whitehouse spokeswoman.
They presented the president a revised map of the world.
The revision on the map basically just flipped it all upside down.
North was still north and South was still south, except North was at the bottom of the map now and South at the top.
Can you picture it? It’s hard.
But that put the countries in Africa at the top of the map and North America at the bottom.
Their point was that because of how we think about “up” being good and “down” being bad, part of the reason Third World countries are basically ignored and discriminated against is for this reason.
Think about how we use the term South…
My grades are headed south.
His 401(k) went south…
We know what that means, right?
Why is that?
Why is “south” bad…
Why is “down” bad and “up” good?
Do I need to give you some downtime to get you back up to speed?
I realize this introduction to the sermon might seem a bit far out there.
But if we didn’t realize that in our society and culture up is good and down is bad, and we heard or read something about these things out of their context, they might not make a whole lot of sense.
So today, I’d like to look at the Scriptures we read today — a bit from the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers and again, we continue with Jesus in the New Testament Gospel of John —
because especially that directional “up” has some deeper connotations in each of the texts.
So let’s jump in to John’s Gospel.
The backward Gospel?
If the order of John’s Gospel is a little confusing to you, you’re not alone.
Because here we are in the fourth Sunday in Lent, with Holy Week and the Passion just a couple of weeks away, yet we’re only in Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel.
Still pretty early.
The other Gospel writers — Matthew, Mark and Luke — have most of the accounts that we read about Jesus’s confrontations with the Jewish leaders closer to the Jewish Passover.
And it’s during that Passover that the Jewish leaders arrest Jesus and send him to the cross.
Why then does John put all this stuff at the beginning of his Gospel?
Well, we can assume John is trying to establish early the fact that Jesus is Lord and that God works through Jesus in the world.
That is critical for John, and that is what much of his Gospel is about.
By the time John’s Gospel was written, there were very clear divisions among the Jews and the Jesus followers.
With Jesus having been killed by the Jewish leaders, John is trying to establish a truth about Jesus as Lord.
After the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE (AD), those same Jewish leaders were losing their power.
John’s writing of his Gospel comes after the temple is destroyed, and he is very much trying to show that Jesus is Lord.
That Jesus is salvation.
And that Jesus is — and here comes that directional — risen.
Good snake, Bad snake
So back to our text, then, John recalls the story of Nicodemus — the Jewish Pharisee who asks Jesus what does it mean to be born again or born from above?
And we pick up the story right at the end to begin our lesson today.
And it might feel like a strange place to start, but, again, if we look at the context and understand what it means, we can see precisely what John is emphasizing in what Jesus is talking about.
Jesus quotes the author of Numbers in the Old Testament.
And we begin this story today with these quoted words from Numbers 21.8-9:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”
Do we all know or remember the story about Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert?
So we go back to Numbers 21, and we hear the story.
The Israelites, who had been freed from Egyptian slavery, are wandering around the desert for 40 years on their way to God’s promised land, and they are grumbling that there isn’t enough food.
They are complaining, against God.
They are disobedient to God and are turning away from God.
And they have lost their faith in God.
And so, Numbers tells us, God sent poisonous snakes, which killed a bunch of them.
It takes this act for the Israelites to recognize that they’e sinned against God — that they’ve turned away from God.
And then then confess their sins.
And that’s so important — this confession.
So they ask Moses, their leader, to ask God to help.
See, turning away from God means death.
Sin means death.
Death means separation from God.
Moses confesses the sins to God, and God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake and put it at the top of a pole.
When the people who are bit — who will die, or be separated from God because of their sins — will be saved when they recognize God again.
And they are saved.
Now, we know the story of the Garden of Eden, and the snake that tempted Eve, and we understand the snake to be a thing of evil.
To this day, I still don’t like snakes.
But in the ancient culture, snakes were not only signs of evil, they also were signs of life and vitality.
They didn’t only represent death, but life, too.
It’s a mixed metaphor.
God knows what God’s doing here…
But if we don’t understand up from down, then we’re not going to get that connotation either.
We see this then:
* God’s people sinned against God.
Sin creates separation from God. We can call it death.
The people having confessed their sins to God helps them reconnect with God.
God takes the symbol of death — the very snake that was killing them — and makes it a symbol of life, how?
By raising it up on a pole, so that all who see the symbol of death may live.
Should I pause a second here?
The (fore)shadow of the cross
So back to John, we begin this passage with Jesus recounting that story in Numbers about the Israelites and the snakes.
Jesus says that in verses 14 and 15.
What is Jesus doing here?
He’s foreshadowing his own death.
The people have sinned against God.
They are poisoned. Separated. Dead…
But in the very next verse, John 3.16, Jesus tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
Isn’t that cool?
For the Israelites in Numbers, they looked up to see the symbol of death and it saved them.
Because God so loved them.
For the people that Jesus is addressing in John, Jesus is telling them that the cross is the symbol of death — that’s where people are killed —
But they will look up at that cross, the symbol of death, and that will save them.
Because it is Jesus who will be placed on top of that pole.
He will be lifted up for all to see.
And when they confess their sins, the thing that will reconnect them to God — that which will save them — will be Jesus.
See, we all probably know John 3:16 well.
We might have it memorized,
and at the very least, we’re reminded of it every time we go to a sporting event.
Some guy always has a cardboard sign with the bright words and numbers John 3:16 written upon them….
I used to have a T-shirt like that when I was a kid.
The thing is, it should have John 3:17 on it as well:
“God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
That’s just as important.
Sin equals death.
When we sin, again, it means we turn away from God.
We are separated.
God didn’t send Jesus to tell us we’re awful, broken people.
He didn’t come to put us down.
God sent Jesus to tell us that we’re beautiful children of God who are loved by God.
He came to lift us up.
Do you see the difference?
Jesus tells us that the light came into the world, but for some reason, we like the dark.
Because we do things that separate us from God. We sin.
And when we do that, we don’t want the light to expose any of it.
Instead, we think we can hide in the darkness.
It feels safer there.
Jesus is that light, but not as judge — not to expose our weaknesses.
But to bring attention to our strength in God.
To bring attention to God’s love for us.
That is the truth, Jesus says.
“Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God” Verse 21.
Jesus didn’t come to tear us down, but to build us up.
At the cross
Now, I started this whole dissertation today on the connotations of the words Up and Down.
And I hope we see that what we actually did was raise up death to see life.
As Christians, we see the sign of the cross, and it gives us a warm and happy feeling inside our hearts, right?
But think of what that cross really is for a moment.
There was no more slow, gruesome and cruel way to die than to have to be nailed to a cross and suffer for what was often days on end.
The Romans were horrible to doing this to people.
The cross was probably the most evil symbol that was known in that day.
…Like a guillotine.
And know, too, that the cross wasn’t just for your random thieves and murderers.
It was especially used for the lowest classes in society. The worthless. The slaves.
So to be hung on a cross also acknowledged that you were the most wretched of the wretched on earth.
It made a social statement about who you were as well.
But God reverses that.
Like the poisonous snake in the desert, that very same symbol that was lifted up was so that they could be lifted up …
the very symbol that would raise them from their death…
the very symbol that would reunite them with God…
That is what the cross is, too.
And it’s hard to look upon that thing sometimes…
It should be hard.
Our savior, our lord, was nailed to those planks of wood and lifted up for all to see and watch him die there.
And when we look upon him up there, we must be reminded that he didn’t come to judge us, but to save us.
We confess that. That’s what reconnects us to God.
Of course, there’s one more very important piece to this equation, isn’t there.
There’s one more directional still…
That word is “resurrection.”
Just as Jesus tells us the temple will be rebuilt in three days to allude to himself being raised in three days,
we see that the very same symbol — that cross — that reconnects us to life in the presence of God also points the way to what happens three days later.
When Jesus goes down into the grave, but then is raised back out of the ground.
Not because he came and judged, then paid a price to a wrathful and bloodthirsty God who required a blood sacrifice;
But to show us that resurrection is possible.
Not to expose us; but to shine that light on the truth.
On God’s immense and eternal love for us all.
That because Jesus can die and then also be resurrected and given new life,
we can both die to our old ways and be risen to a new life here today,
and we can physically die when our time here is done and be risen — resurrected — to a new life.
That is the Good News, my friends.
That is why we’re here.
This is the perspective we need to have as we approach Holy Week and the Passion.
Because Jesus reverses everything.
We could say he turns things upside-down.
What is a symbol of death becomes a symbol of life.
The things we think are those that tear us down are the very things that lift us up.
That’s because God is everywhere and can make even those things that we fear good.
God is undefeated.
God can do anything.
God is able.
Even to take the most horrific symbol of death and make it the most hopeful symbol of life.
There is no “down” for God.
Everything is “up” for God.
Because Jesus was elevated, we too are elevated.
Because Jesus was risen, we too are a risen people.
And because Jesus is the Light, we are a people who live in the Light.