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…)

Giggles, Groans, or Mission?

Recently, I preached the same sermon in two different locations. Part of the sermon talked about our changing context due to the constant development of technology and shifts in population growth. To explain this, I read off a bunch of statistics that I found in this video:

What fascinated me was the differences in how each of the two congregation responded. The first church was the Upper Room, the church I’m planting. This group is comprised mostly of young adults living in an urban context. They responded to the statistics in the video mostly by giggling. The second church I preached this sermon in was a suburban church with an average age that’s a bit older. As they heard these statistics, they groaned is disbelief. Some even told me how sad the statistics are.

This got me to asking myself two questions. First, why these differences in reaction? I can think of a few reasons. The Upper Room’s members live in the city, and thus in a significantly more diverse environment than the suburbs of Pittsburgh. The shift in population demographics is right in front of the every day. They’ve also grown up and been educated as this shift has developed, so their educations reflects, at least in part, a preparation for these shifts. The older, suburban congregation has lived without these shifts for some time, maybe they feel as if they’re actually losing something.

The second question I have may be more difficult to answer. What are the consequences to reacting in each of these ways? The title of the sermon I preached was “You Are Stewards of the Gospel,” based on the first half of Ephesians 3. The sermon explained that Paul understood the gospel as something entrusted to him, that God has revealed the mystery of Christ to him not merely for his own benefit, but also so that Paul might proclaim it to others. The sermon challenged the congregation to think of themselves as stewards of the gospel, as people entrusted with the message of Christ so that it may be proclaimed, and then reflected on how we do this in our changing global context. In light of globalization and developed technology, we all ought to adopt a missionary mentality.

The folks in the suburban church may not be prepared for this shift. Their groaning may reflect a refusal to acknowledge these shifts and to respond accordingly. However, I also wonder if those of us who giggle when we hear about these changes are also unprepared. Imagine the missionary work someone like Paul could accomplish in our age of Iphones and Blackberries, when we literally carry the entire world in our pocket. Perhaps our giggling is a sign that we take these changes for granted? Perhaps our education and context has so eased us into this much more connected world that we actually fail to see fully the opportunity that lies before us.

Our present context presents us with opportunities for mission that didn’t exist even 1o years ago. If only the whole church would seize the fullness of these opportunities…