John 3:14-15 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
This text comes immediately before the very famous verse, John 3:16, “God so loved the world”. It is not nearly as well known, nor understood as John 3:16. It is deserving of more than that.
But first let me take you back to the fourth century. In 313 A.D. the Emperor Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians. Christianity subsequently became the new religion of the Roman Empire. One of the first things Constantine did was to command the building of two great basilicas in the Holy Land to mark the birth and death of Christ – one in Bethlehem and one at Calvary.
The basilicas of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre still stand today, though pot-marked with bullet holes and the ravages of war and time. In order to build these two great churches they had to pull down the temples of the Roman gods which had been erected over those holy sites deliberately.
Underneath those Roman temples were layers of crops and soil, which were intended by the Romans as a mark of desecration. The Emperor’s mother, St. Helena, came to Jerusalem to preside over the building of that basilica on behalf of her son the Emperor.
As the tons of soil were removed from the site of Our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, they came across the cave where Christ’s tomb had been. That cave is still at the heart of this great basilica today – though the church is now just a shadow of its glory when the whole Empire was Christian.
By the grace of God, during the excavations they found the very Cross on which Christ was crucified, buried in the soil. We can only imagine with what excitement the workers came rushing to St Helena. And with what joy and triumph the Cross was brought up.
Subsequently the basilica was dedicated with great splendor on September 14th, 335 A.D. – and this day was set aside in the church calendar as a feast to celebrate the triumph of the Cross over the world.
For so it seemed then, that at last the Cross of Christ had become victorious over the known world.
Since that time Muslim conquests, the crusades, kingdoms rising and falling, wars and refugees, have altered the landscape of Jerusalem.
But Holy Cross Day remains in the calendar – not necessarily in celebration of that basilica, nor even the finding of the Cross. But a celebration of this one fact so central to our faith: the Cross of Christ.
This feast today serves to celebrate the glory, the victory, and the triumph of the Cross, away from Good Friday with its shadows of death and suffering. In the same way much as Corpus Christi is a feast to celebrate the joy of the Eucharist away from Maundy Thursday, with its shadow of Our Lord’s Passion.
The glory and triumph of the Cross is expressed wonderfully in today’s Epistle – Philippians 2: 6-11.
In looking at that reading we can see set before our very eyes a theology of the suffering and death of Christ as a great triumph.
The Gospel is another matter entirely!
What are we to make of Jesus’ reference to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness? What has it got to do with the Cross?
The first reading (Numbers 21: 4-9) sets out the story of that strange serpent. The Jews during their 40 year wandering through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land had become dissatisfied, especially with the food and the drink. They started complaining about God, and about Moses. So to pay them back snakes came and bit them.
It says in the Scripture that God sent the snakes – but I have a feeling it was probably Moses. I can imagine Moses saying to himself: “I’ll fix them – Lord send them snakes”!! And then he regretted what he did – as we often do in a moment of anger – and so he entreated the Lord to save them.
Moses was commanded to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole – and when the people who were bitten looked up at it they lived. It’s an intriguing story, almost bordering on magic.
When Jesus refers to this in John 3, we can see how the story fits in. For the Son of Man Himself has been raised forever on a pole – like the bronze serpent. The pole is the wood of the cross – and all we have to do is look at it and live.
Just as the Jews were healed of their sickness, so we are healed of our sins through the wood of the Cross. It is simple enough, and quite logical.
But why was Moses commanded to make a bronze serpent? It’s a strange image for healing – a serpent usually brings death, as it did to the Jews.
Snakes came and bit them – to heal them God provides another snake!
It’s rather bizarre. They had to look upon another snake for healing. That surely required a lot of faith on their part…to look at another snake for healing. It required faith – which seems to be the point.
The other point is that the object of their faith looks like the very thing that afflicted them.
On that pole of wood in the desert was the image and identity of their affliction. Similarly, as Jesus is lifted up on the wood of the Cross he takes on our affliction – sin – so that we might be healed from sin.
Christ becomes the affliction, so that we might be healed from the affliction.
This is the meaning behind St Paul’s strange words in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. When we look upon Jesus on the Cross, we look upon our own sin, taken on by him in his sacrifice.
Jesus – the sin bearer – becomes the life-giver.
“Forbid it Lord that I should boast,
save in the Cross of Christ my God….
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all”.