Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jesus is lifted up for our salvation

In the name of God, source of all being, incarnate Word, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our family car was a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon, turquoise and cream. We boys rode in the back seat. My parents rode in the front. Looking over the driver’s shoulder I could see out through the windshield to the front hood of the car. There in the middle of it was a hood ornament, or as I called it, “the aimer”. I figured when you drove you steered the car using the aimer as kind of a front sight, like the one on the front of a rifle. With it you could steer your way down the road to where you were going.

It acted as a sign, pointing the way. I never mistook it for the road or for our destination. In fact, I knew where we were going: our cousins’ house, for a family visit and a vacation. “Are we there yet?”

The people of Israel, it seems, sometimes mistook the sign for the thing it was pointing to – or looked another way entirely. They had lost their way in the wilderness, at least morally. Moses and the Lord had led them out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt. They were ‘under the cloud’ – the pillar of cloud that guided them by day – and they were being led by Moses, and the Lord, through the desert. They complained a lot, though.

They murmured. In fact today’s lesson records Murmur Number Five. And this time they complained, not only about Moses, but also about the Lord – and that was not going to work.

“We have NO FOOD and NO WATER and we detest THIS MISERABLE FOOD!”

They had water from the rock – and manna, food from Heaven. But – no thanks. 

And so – something happened. They were afflicted – and they were convicted.

With snakes they were afflicted; of sin they were convicted.

Since everything comes from God, the good and the bad, they must have reasoned, God sent even the snakes – even the punishment that came to them. And that is how they took it, as an affliction that recalled them to their senses. They repented. “We have sinned against you and against God,” they said to Moses. Now save us already!

And then a strange thing happened. God told Moses to make an image of the very thing that had been killing them – the engine of their affliction – and put it up where everybody could see it, and everyone who was bitten who turned and looked at it would be saved.

Look to the snake on the pole and you will be saved. A strange sign, indeed: but what does it point to?

It points to – we discover – something stranger yet: the innocent person who took upon himself the sins of us all, who was lifted up on a cross – the most excruciating of devices for punitive humiliation and tortuous death, and thereby – by that very means – became the source of our salvation.

If we look to Christ – if we trust him, believe in him, put our faith in him – we find our way to life.

The wanderers in the desert had received their freedom. They had water from the rock. They had bread from heaven. And they had healing of this strange affliction.

We, who were wandering in the wilderness of sin, have been given our freedom – we have been released from our own captivity to the follies and destructive behaviors that kept us from God. God has sustained us; everything we have, all we need to live, is a gift of God. And we have received salvation – healing from more than sickness of the body, we have received healing and wholeness of our souls, our inward life.

God has given us eternal life. It is life in its fullness. It is life in right relationship to God, to nature, to each other, and to our selves. It is life that comes to completion in Christ; that finds its fulfillment in the presence of the Lord.

Jesus, whom everyone knew was innocent, nevertheless gave himself up – gave his life over – as a testimony and a witness to the truth – the truth of God’s love for humankind.

And so he was lifted up – raised up, onto the cross at Calvary, and raised up, into the new life in the resurrection – and in this dying and in this rising was the saving of the world.

If we look to Christ – if we trust him, believe in him, put our faith in him – we find our way to life.

This good news came to the people of Ireland in a strange way – a godly way.

A young patrician, a teenager from a prosperous family of Roman Britons, was spending his time by the seaside, at a waterfront property of his family, convenient to the coast – and convenient for pirates. Irish rovers came across the sea and stole him away, kidnapped him, and made him a slave. They sold him on, to a farmer in Ireland.

Young Patrick, as he came to be called, found himself tending cattle on the backside of beyond, way over on the west coast of this distant and foreign island.
And that is how he spent his teenage years. They were teenage years – formative years – but not his only formation for adulthood, for he found his way to freedom, and to a spiritual re-formation.

Patrick first found his way to physical freedom. He walked out, somehow, away from his master, and escaped across Ireland and the sea. He journeyed far, into France, and there he found a spiritual freedom. He encountered a spiritual master, Martin of Tours, founder of a monastery and a movement. Martin took him in and taught him the Christian way – the way of the Cross.

Patrick learned from Martin – and gained a blessing that he was meant to share. For Patrick had a dream – not a daydream, but a vision: he was being called back, across the sea, to bring the good news of the freedom of the spirit, the gospel of God, to the very people who had enslaved his body. And he answered the call.

Rough-hewn and mystical, Patrick was the perfect apostle to bring the good news to the Celtic peoples. He returned to Ireland. And he did something there that was much more significant than any legendary miracle.

Legends like driving all the snakes from Ireland. (There were not snakes in Ireland to begin with.) The point is not what he drove out; the point is what he brought in.

He brought into Ireland and to its people the good news that in Christ was to be found their completion, their wholeness, and their salvation. He brought the gospel to a people that had been enslaved by greed, ignorance and sin, a people lost in darkness. He brought to them the light of Christ.

And they in turn became a light to the world. From the Celtic lands, from the people he taught the gospel, came in time a series of monastic missionaries, adventurers on the seas of the world, who sought holiness and brought salvation to the people they encountered, all across the continent of Europe.

The learned monks of Ireland, in the centuries following Patrick’s mission, studied and shared the great gifts of civilization – and beyond civilization they brought the saving news of Jesus Christ.

Patrick never drove the snakes out of Ireland. What he drove out, under the Master’s guidance, was the fear and the ignorance that kept the Irish people in bondage to sin.

What the Lord did in Ireland through Patrick and all the Irish saints to follow was to establish an outpost of courage, hope, generosity, and freedom; a beacon that shone across Europe with the light of Christ.

What God brings to us to day is the good news of salvation: we look to the Cross – for salvation, for Jesus was lifted up so that we, and all people, may receive the gift of life.

And what calls us today is the mission of the kingdom. We carry with us into our world, our place and time, to those around us, those we know already and those we must seek out, the message of hope and the means of salvation, the abundant grace that is found in the Cross of Christ.

O God, who made the world and made it good, and who redeemed the world you made when we had fallen into sin and wandered far from your purpose for our lives, you who redeemed Patrick from bondage, sending him on a mission as your apostle of freedom, compassion, and grace, so bless your servants here with courage and hospitality, generosity and faith, that your spirit may abide in the hearts of this congregation and that this church may be to your world a beacon of hope and a light of your salvation. Amen.

BLent4, Fourth Sunday in Lent, Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10,
John 3:14-21, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22.


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