March 11, 2018 Lent 4
Have you ever stopped to think about what it means that “Jesus died for your sins”? That’s really at the heart of a theological conversation about what ‘atonement’ means. How did Jesus’ death on the cross reconcile us with God? It seems to me like killing God’s son in the most painful, humiliating way possible should have made God a whole lot less interested in being in relationship with us.
In western Protestant Christianity, particularly in American churches that are so deeply rooted in Calvinist theology, the most common understanding is what is called the theory “substitutionary atonement” or “penal atonement.” Those who espouse this understanding point back to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament in which it was believed God required a blood sacrifice in order to be satisfied, in order for the divine ledger of sin to be balanced. This theological position often points back to the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as a precursor to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
There was a time when that imagery worked for me, but it doesn’t anymore. It makes no sense to me that a God who created all things in love would suddenly fall into the patterns of all the other so-called gods of the Ancient Near East and require blood—human blood—to set things straight. Rene Girard, famous for his work in seeking a non-violent framework for our faith, speaks of this as the danger of mimetic desire—the urge to be like other people—and the scapegoat mechanism that allows us to persist in this false way of being by placing our own faults and sins on the heads of a scapegoat.
Fortunately, there are actually a lot of ways of thinking about what happened on the cross. I lean toward the “Christus Victor” understanding—that is, that in accepting death on the cross, and then being resurrected, Jesus sets us free. Free from sin’s power to keep us imprisoned by guilt; free from the power of death to keep us imprisoned by fear. We are free to trust that God is with us and will lead us through even our worst moments. Instead of seeking ways to placate God or convince God to come to our aid, we instead discover that God has been here with us all along, and if we feel the need to imitate anyone, it should be Christ.
Today’s Gospel reading, which points back to one of the more bizarre episodes in the Israelites’ desert sojourn, has become a particular favorite of mine—not because of the 16th verse that we all know and love, although that certainly encapsulates our faith in a few short words. But because it offers us a different interpretation of the cross.
When I was in Germany last spring, I was poking around the Stadtkirche Wittenberg, one of the churches where Martin Luther preached. Hanging over the main altar is a painting of the crucifixion, placed within the context of a 16th century German town. The symbolism, that Christ is crucified in every age, as we fail to live into the promise of new life, was striking. I was there during Easter week, so it was softened by a bouquet of glorious tulips, but it was still stark.
However, when I walked around it and up a short flight of steps into the chapel, I discovered a different altar and a different painting—or set of paintings, as it were. In was triptych, a set of three paintings used to convey one concept or story.
In the center was a glorious painting of the Resurrected, victorious Christ, holding a cross that looks like a beam of light, with its base in a tomb, raising the dead to new life. On the left is a very dark and foreboding painting of the sacrifice of Isaac, looking at the crucifixion and resurrection through that lens. But on the right is a painting of that story that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel reading—the raising of the serpent on the rod, in response to the Israelites’ suffering at the hands of poisonous snakes.
I’m not going to pretend this story isn’t weird. It seems to fly in the face of the commandment against idols, and after the incident with the golden calf I would think the people would be hesitant to follow through, even if Moses was saying it came directly from God. The idea that the people would be healed from poisonous snakebite by looking at this image is an example of magical thinking that we don’t normally find in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. We are people of faith, not magic. Lest we try to dismiss it as some odd little story with no foundation in history, we need to remember that generations later King Hezekiah found this bronze serpent in the Temple, and destroyed it because it had, indeed, turned into an idol. I’m not saying you have to believe that the people really were healed of snakebite by looking at the image, but I do think we need to believe that the image existed.
One of the commentaries I read this week suggested that the way to resolve our discomfort with it is to imagine that the snakes were behind them, and they were only bitten when they tried to turn around and go back to Egypt. His idea is that the snake was held up as a reminder to keep moving forward. This does help to tame the image, but it completely ignores the heart of the story, which is that the thing is the remedy for actual snake bites, of course. At the core of the story is the assertion that one need only look to the image and believe that God will heal the injuries that had already occurred. It was healing, not prevention.
And we haven’t even grappled with the text’s idea that the serpents were sent by God, or that when the people asked God to take them away, God said no. Or that the Hebrew word for poisonous serpents is seraphim. Yeah, that word that is used elsewhere to describe a certain kind of angel…confused yet?
For now, let’s focus on the idea that Jesus used this image in the context of his own being ‘raised up’—not on an earthly throne, as many wanted, but on a cross. This cross is a promise from God that the light will overcome the darkness, hope will overcome despair, life will overcome death.
And the power that drives all of it is God’s love. Love for the whole world—I know I’ve shared this in previous sermons, but the word “world” here is kosmos. The whole creation, including and especially those parts that really don’t want to have anything to do with God. Those parts that would rather stay in the dark. God loves even those parts. Enough to die rather than abandon them.
And we don’t have to do anything to earn this love. It’s not a prize to be won by good behavior or right-thinking. All we have to do is look up, open ourselves to the light of Christ, and believe that it sets us free from the darkness. Free to move forward, following the cross of Christ into a life of service and good works that are a result of the grace of God. Good works that will spread that light further and further out into every corner of that kosmos until, I believe, there are no more pockets of darkness, no more snake-bit people stubbornly looking at their feet or trying to make their own way through the wilderness. It will take a long, long time—eternity minus one. But I have to believe that the power of God’s love is enough to overcome—overcome the poisonous snakes, overcome the darkness, overcome the kosmos.