Serpents and the Cross: Preaching Lent 4B

I’m preaching this Sunday on the passages in the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ll try to update this post throughout the week with some thoughts and observations that I have. Consider all of the notes here brainstorming more than ideas that I’m fully committed to. Feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments!

The texts this week are: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21.

What does it mean to be lifted up?

The first thing I noticed about these passages is the connecting point of being “lifted up”. The connection between the passages from Numbers and John is obvious, because Jesus says it explicitly: He is like the bronze serpent (or rather, the bronze serpent points to him). Everyone who looks upon Jesus will receive eternal life. But I’m also thinking about how this relates to the Ephesians 2 passage, especially verse 6: “…and raise us up with him…”.

John’s use of the phrase “lifted up” is interesting. The Greek word is “ups-o-o” (it’s hard to transliterate into English, so just go with it…). Throughout the New Testament, and the Greek translation of the Old, the word is used to refer to Jesus or God being raised up, seated in heaven, or exalted, or to God bestowing honor upon human beings (“Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.”  In fact, in most places in the Bible, the English translations usually render “ups-o-o” as “exalted.” More often than not in the New Testament, it’s used to refer to Jesus’ resurrection and/or ascension. John, however, only uses “ups-o-o” to refer to the crucifixion, to Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. For John, the exaltation of Jesus begins with the cross. What if we read Ephesians 2:6 through this lens? We are raised up with Jesus, and that begins with the cross. When we allow ourselves to be crucified, those who look upon us will receive eternal life because it will be as though they were looking at Jesus.

Is God Overreacting a Bit?

It also seems like it would be tempting when reading Numbers 21 to think that God is overreacting to the Israelite’s complaints. The people speak against God and Moses. God responds by sending fiery serpents among the people. Sounds a bit harsh. As I was working with the Hebrew text, I noticed something. The preposition is the same in both actions (even though we translate them differently in English). The people speak against God and Moses. God sends fiery serpents against the people. (this is usually translated “among the people”). Perhaps rather than questioning the justice of God’s decision, we would do better to begin with the assumption that God is just, and that this punishment fits the crime. Perhaps the bite of a fiery serpent really is the equivalent of being spoken against. The potential lesson: our words are powerful, and can do more damage than we think.

What do you think? What strikes you in these passages? If you were (or are) preaching any of these passages, what would you focus on? (I’ll try to keep updating this through the week…)

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