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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Looking at the One Who Was Lifted Up

John 3:12-17

The words “lifted up” can have a lot of meanings.  Maybe the first thing it brings to mind is someone lifting up your spirits when you’re feeling down.  Or maybe you think of more literal lifting up like when you pick up a box or go to the gym and lift weights.  Or maybe you think of yourself being lifted up on a ski lift, a roller coaster, or an elevator.  I found a website with a section called uplifting elevator jokes.  For example, “Why do they call them lifts in England and we call elevators in the US?  Because we’re raised differently.”[1] 

I’ll spare you from the rest of the corny elevator jokes.  But I do wanna draw our attention to that phrase “lifted up” because it appears to be a major theme in both the Gospel reading and in the Old Testament passage from Numbers.  In talking to Nicodemus, Jesus references that story of Moses lifting up a bronze serpent so that the people can look to it for healing and life.  And Jesus tells Nicodemus that in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up.  Now we may think of this “lifting up” as only Jesus’ crucifixion, but it actually encompasses the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension.  All three are Jesus being lifted up in a certain way, and all three go together in John’s theology.  Jesus being lifted up is both a brutal experience of torture and death on the cross, and also the very uplifting experiences of the Resurrection and Ascension.  Jesus is lifted up so that the world may be lifted up to God.

The story in the book of Numbers is one of the most curious and confusing parts of the Bible.  In this passage, the people of Israel have been wandering around in the wilderness for years at this point.  They’ve just defeated one group of Canaanites in battle and are on their way to another.  And then they complain about God and Moses…again.  Such complaining has happened before.  This time God punishes them with an infestation of poisonous snakes.  So, as usual, the people repent and ask Moses to help.  Moses prays to God and God tells him to set up a snake on a pole which the people can look at in order to be healed and live.  God doesn’t take the snakes away or make them any less poisonous.  But God does provide a way out, a path toward healing.  And that is to look at the poisonous snake on a pole.

This story about snakes has an interesting parallel with life.  The people bring suffering on themselves because of their sin, in this case forgetting what God has done for them.  Likewise, all human beings suffer the consequences of sin.  To remedy the situation, instead of God simply removing the suffering, God tells Moses to set up a bronze serpent which will provide healing for those who’ve been bitten.  Similarly in life, even the most faithful people will still suffer the consequences of humanity’s brokenness and sin, but all can look to Christ for healing and wholeness and restoration. 

Perhaps the best interpretation of this passage I’ve ever heard didn’t come from a theologian but from a psychologist.  He said that in this story we see that God doesn’t take away the thing the people fear.  Instead God provides a way to healing using the thing they fear.  The way to healing is to look at the bronze serpent.  To look straight at the thing they fear.  Because there’s no way around it, but the only way is straight through.  Look at the thing you fear straight in the eye.  That’s how God instructs the people to find healing.

In the same way Jesus tells Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted up this serpent for the afflicted to look at, so will the Son of Man be lifted up for the afflicted to look at.  To heal not just those afflicted by snake bites, but all those afflicted by sin and suffering and death.  That is, all of humanity.  Perhaps, just like the story from Numbers teaches us to look straight at what we fear—the theological reason for Jesus’ comparison here is to say that those who fear suffering and shame and death are to look straight at the cross of Christ, because it is on that cross that suffering and shame and death are not overcome by avoiding them but are overcome by going straight through them.  By looking straight at the consequences of sin, we witness the way in which Christ frees us from sin and suffering and death.   

By this lifting up, Jesus Christ brings salvation to the world.  Jesus overcomes the worst things in the world by literally going through them.  Not by making them go away.  Not by avoiding them.  By diving headfirst into them.  By Jesus Christ being lifted up—lifted up on the cross and then in the Resurrection and the Ascension—by this lifting up the world is given new life.   

Now this salvation that we have through the lifting up of Christ is a free gift of God’s grace for the whole world.  The word for “world” here is the Greek word “cosmos” which can mean world or universe.  The Gospel of John is not just talking about humans here, or even just planet Earth.  In John 3:16 Jesus is talking about God’s love for the entire cosmos.  John presents Jesus as the Cosmic Christ incarnate.  In this passage, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that he is the embodiment of God’s salvation plan for the whole universe.  Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God, the Word made flesh—will be lifted up so that everyone and everything can be lifted up as well.  That is, to a life connected with God, a reconciled relationship with the divine.  And not just after we die, but right here now.

John 3:16 is considered the quintessential Christian verse by many.  And Ephesians 2:8 is considered by many to be the quintessential verse of Lutheran Christianity.  This verse defines that the salvation we have in Jesus Christ is a gift, not something we have to earn.  Paul is very specific here that it is God’s grace that saves us.  Not anything we do ourselves.  It’s not good works, it’s God’s grace that saves us.  It’s not even our own faith or decision making—even that is a gift from God, Paul tells us.  Our egos are always trying to make sense of salvation by insisting it’s something we have to earn in some way.  Whether by good works or by having the right understanding or by making the right decision.  But Paul is clear that God’s grace is expressed in things like faith and good works, but God’s grace is what saves not anything we do.  Paul says you are saved by grace through faith, and even this faith is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. 

It is God’s love and grace that lift us up into right relationship with God.  The healing of the divine-human relationship is what Jesus was lifted up for.  And it’s what Jesus lifts us up to experience: right relationship with God.  Through Jesus Christ, God has provided a way out of the snake pit of sin.  That is, by the Son of Man being lifted up and going straight into the consequences of sin and suffering and death.  Going straight into all that mess and chaos and evil and coming out the other side.  All as a free gift of God’s love and grace.  Thanks be to God for the uplifting of the Son, and the lifting up that does for us.  So that we all may experience the freedom, wholeness, and divine life God intends for us.  That we have through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

Pastor Brian | Fourth Sunday in Lent | March 10, 2024

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