Numbers 21: 4-9; Ephesians 2: 1-10
******** United Church of Christ
March 26, 2006
Click on the link below, scroll down until you find the "River City Men's Chorus", click on "Hospodi Pomilui", and listen:
This chant, “Hospodi Pomilui”, written by Russian composer Lvovsky in the 19th c., is sung in Russian Orthodox churches in worship on the Eve of Holy Rood or Holy Cross. It means “Lord, have mercy” and the words are sung seventy-five times, reminiscent of the scripture when Jesus tells his disciples that they must forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times or seven times seventy. In the service the bishop stands in the center of the church, holding the cross above his head. As he lowers the cross, the choir sings in decreasing volume, to the point of pianissimo—as the cross touches the floor. Then the cross is raised again and the choir rises in a crescendo of triumph.
Christians venerate the crucifix and the empty cross as potent reminders of God’s action to save us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the gospel of John Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, first on a cross, then from the dead. As a bronze serpent on a pole was lifted up so that those who looked upon it might be healed, so we who look upon Jesus lifted up on the cross might also be saved.
The story of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness and Moses lifting up the bronze serpent is given to us to remind us that sin, rebellion against God, has its consequences. The Israelites connect the appearance of the poisonous snakes with their rebellion, that this is God’s punishment for their sin.
We in our modern world rankle severely at the thought that anything dealt to us from nature is God’s punishment for human sin. In a warranty I recently viewed, the words “acts of God” had been changed to “acts of nature”. Most notably, the rantings of Pat Robertson over the recent hurricanes have provoked others to declare a more merciful view of the Almighty: God does not punish some sins but let others slide. God does not use nature as a tool of punishment.
Yet we would be fools if we did not acknowledge that sin has its penalties. We all suffer the consequences of the collective sin of humankind. Those snakes may not have been sent by God but in the appearance of them and the subsequent suffering they caused, the people recognized their sin and repented. When we are in the face of suffering, it is difficult to for us to recognize that we need to repent of our sin, our rebellion against God, even if it is not connected to our present circumstance, and admit we need saving.
“Saved” has become a dirty word in our mainline Protestant lexicon. We are put off by the question “Are you saved?” and would never dream of asking it of anyone else. I once read a plaque that gave the answer to that question: “Yes, and I know what day it was and what time: it was a Friday, at about 3:00 in the afternoon.” Such knowing proclamations about being saved rank right up there with altar calls and giving personal testimony and witness about the saving power of Jesus. Christians who say they’ve been saved can sometimes come across as though they’ve got all the answers to life’s problems and yours too, thank you very much. Instead of drawing us into a new dimension of the Christian life, this attitude usually repels us.
There’s darkly-humorous movie entitled “Saved”, about the goings-on in a conservative Christian parochial school. One of the high school girls begins to see through the veneer of the faith of her friends to the intolerance that lies beneath it when she finds she is pregnant by her now-declared homosexual boyfriend. On one particularly depressing day she and her mother are sitting in a walk-in closet, of all places, eating Hostess snowballs and other junk food. Her mother tries to scrounge some morsel of her own faith for her daughter and says, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” To which the daughter replies gloomily, “Yeah, so we can have something to jump out of.”
Being saved doesn’t mean we won’t suffer and have hard, perhaps really bad, times. Neither faith nor that bronze serpent on a pole nor Jesus on the cross is a panacea for life’s ills and tragedies. Instead they proclaim a very real, very hard truth that has the power to save us: that in sin we are dead without God; spiritually dead and physically dead.
In the letter to the Ephesians we hear “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” The Christian formula we have always heard: Jesus died to save us from our sins. But if God is so forgiving, so full of grace, then why did Jesus die? And how then are we saved from death by Jesus on the cross?
The theological term for payment of trespasses and sins is atonement or payment for injury, like one of those lawsuit firms you see advertised on TV almost any given day. We’ve been taught that sins must be paid for, especially those sins that have been done unto us. “Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sins”. In the Lenten book I recommended, If Grace Is True, it states: “The forgiveness of sin [doesn’t] require the death of Jesus; it only [requires] God’s resolve to forgive. Grace isn’t about Jesus’ paying for our debts. It’s about God’s removing our transgressions, as far is the east from the west.”
Jesus did not have to die; it was not God’s will. God’s will, God’s desire is for all of us to be in the kingdom of God—that place of grace, peace, justice, and love for all of God’s children. Jesus dying on the cross is a graphic reminder of humankind’s resistance to grace and our defiance to being saved from our tendency toward self-absorption, self-hatred, self-pity, fear, pride, prejudice, shame, anger, and plain old stubbornness—ways that lead to death, spiritually and physically. When we look upon Jesus on the cross, we are reminded of the cost of living a life of God’s grace in an ungracious world. We are literally saved from ourselves. In the empty cross we realize that it is by God’s grace that we are made alive together with Christ.
In some Greek Orthodox churches there is an amazing mural of the resurrection painted on the right-hand wall of the sanctuary. In this 15’ high x 25’ long picture Jesus is standing in triumph, one foot on top of a shattered, ancient coffin lid, the other foot on or near the chains, lock, and keys that were on the coffin. With each hand he is pulling an old man and an old woman from their graves. When Jesus was raised from the dead, he also raised Adam and Eve from death, as a symbol of his power over sin and death for all time, for all people.
Imagine every Sunday, coming into church, and being constantly reminded that Jesus saved us and continues to save us each day of our lives.
Recently I saw the movie “Walk the Line” about the life of Johnny Cash. In one scene he is recording his famous live album at Folsom Prison. During a break in the show, the warden asks Johnny if he would mind not singing any more of those songs that remind the men that they are in prison. Mr. Cash retorted, “What, you think they’ve forgot?” We don’t have many songs in our particular Protestant tradition that remind us that we are in a prison of sin and that we need to be saved from that. “Amazing Grace” and “Just As I Am” come to mind, songs that are often used with altar calls in other churches.
But this is why we have the cross and hymns about the cross, to remind us that we need saving, that without God’s grace, we are dead. And so we cry out to God, seventy-five times, seven times seventy, “Lord, have mercy”, not because God requires us to do so, but to train our hearts and minds toward the Lord of mercy rather than toward the ways of death and sin. We’d like to think we don’t need saving, that someone who needs to be rescued by God has to be at the end of their rope, at the bottom, the absolute lowest of human existence: a drug addict, an alcoholic, a violent, angry person, someone who is prejudiced, arrogant, driven by greed, a sex offender, a criminal.
In the story of the prodigal son the father explains to the petulant, older son that he thought his younger son was dead, now he is alive. We’d like to think we’re the older son, the righteous one who’s always done what’s been expected. But we are not saved by our own merit nor by what we think are our righteous works. If God’s grace is for everyone, including the lowest of human existence, then it is also for us. We all need to be saved from our ways of living that lead to death. We all need to be made alive, and why? So that we may be what “[God] made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
So, are you saved, ******** United Church of Christ? What are the ways of living that lead to death that you continue to need to be saved from? What self-imposed prison still contains you? Who do you have more difficulty forgiving, another or yourself? What does the cross of Jesus mean to you? What are the good works that God prepared for you to be your way of life?
Thanks be to God, that even though while we were dead through our trespasses, God loved us and by grace made us alive with Christ—and continues to save us from destruction and lead us toward life. Amen.