Sermon: The powerlessness and ugliness of God in Jesus

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Fourth Sunday of Lent, 14th of March, 2021

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Last week the Revised Common Lectionary gave us four wonderful readings, on any one of which I would be happy to preach. I love weeks like that, when my only problem is choosing which of the deeply meaningful Bible passages to focus on, and keeping myself to fifteen minutes. This week, however, is not one of those weeks. This week, we have the bronze serpent in the wilderness. If you, listening to today’s readings, thought, ‘Ah, yes, the bronze serpent in the wilderness! I know what that means,’ then you are more intelligent than I.  Today’s gospel reading does contain one of the most well-known and fundamental verses in the entire Bible, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,’ but only after one of Jesus’ most enigmatic sayings: ‘And just 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.’

Since the lectionary knows that we are probably not going to remember Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness, it gives us that story as our first reading, but I do not think that this contextualisation of Jesus’ statement really helps. The story of the serpent is that, as is their usual practice during the Exodus, the people of Israel are whinging in the wilderness. God responds by chastising them with poisonous snakes. The people repent; God forgives them; and ‘Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live’. That is the story to which Jesus is referring, but it still leaves us with the puzzling question: in what way is Jesus like a serpent of bronze on a pole?


Taken at St Marks Church, Gillingham, by Mike Young,  

Today’s gospel reading is part of the conversation Jesus had with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to visit Jesus in the dark of night. Nicodemus was the teacher of Israel who could not understand how one could be born again, and who mocked the idea of an adult re-entering the womb. In this, his first appearance in the Gospel, Nicodemus does not make a particularly good impression. But later Nicodemus argues before the temple police, the priests, and the Pharisees for Jesus to get a fair hearing, so vehemently that he is accused of also coming from Galilee. (John 7:51-2) Finally Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’ burial, when he brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19:39) Nicodemus’ story is an encouraging one of growth in courage and faith, and it is to him that Jesus is speaking in today’s reading. Nicodemus is one of the people who have been impressed by Jesus’ miracles; he says, ‘no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’. It is in response to this faith by signs that Jesus talks about the only sign that will be given, his lifting up. Jesus, the one who descended from heaven, will ascend again, but his ascension will be on the cross, on an instrument of torture and death. It’s only those who can see the birth of new life on a device of death who will become ‘those who believe’.

This is, of course, the foolishness and offensiveness of Christianity – Christ crucified. How can a man whose life will end in judicial execution claim to be the one who comes from heaven? How can God’s love be seen in the torture of his beloved Son? How can John proclaim that Jesus’ scandalous death glorifies both himself and God? It is the cross’s strange conjunction of humiliation and glory that may possibly explain how Jesus can be compared to a bronze serpent.

Some commentators have argued that Jesus and the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses are opposites. Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, argued that Jesus should be contrasted with the snake; the serpent is dead and so its power to kill others is killed; Jesus is killed and his power to save the lives of others is born. But Augustine disagreed. He argued that the serpent and Jesus should be compared; a serpent on a pole is gazed at so that serpents have no power; a death on a cross is gazed at so that death will have no power. The death of Jesus on the cross ends death, just as the bronze serpent on the pole ends the ability of snakes to kill. The only difference is that the bronze serpent gives temporary life, while Jesus on the cross gives eternal life.

But it was Martin Luther who went most deeply into the relationship between Jesus and the serpent. Luther argues that both are disgusting, offensive, scandalous. He imagines the people bitten by poisonous serpents looking at a bronze serpent on a stick and saying, ‘We are so terrified that we cannot stand the sight of them! If only you would, instead, give us a drink, a cooling plaster, a cooling drink, to take away the venom and the fever! … How can that dead and lifeless object up there benefit us?’[1] Exactly the same things can be said of Jesus on the cross. One of my favourite Good Friday hymns, by Brian Wren, starts ‘Here hangs a man discarded / a scarecrow hoisted high / a nonsense pointing nowhere / to all who hurry by’ (TIS 356). People bitten by serpents were confronted by another serpent; those of us who want to follow Jesus are confronted by a victim of torture, ‘a clown of sorrows’. We do not like looking at the ugly, and the crucifixion is profoundly ugly. But then birth, too, is ugly. And the ugly death of Jesus on the cross enables us to be born again, born from above.

Fascinatingly, the second book of Kings tells us that the bronze serpent that Moses created became an idol. When Hezekiah became king, we’re told,

he removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. (2 Kings 18:1-5)

The bronze serpent that God had used to save had become a replacement for God. And, of course, the same thing has happened to the cross. Jesus was crucified on an instrument of torture made of two random pieces of wood, and Christians throughout history have taken that instrument of torture and made it pretty. (I am wearing a plain but attractive silver cross at this very moment.) But the idolatry does not exist in making literal crosses pretty, it is making Jesus pretty. It is ignoring the horror and scandal of his death and focusing only on his resurrection. It is refusing to see that in Jesus God came to us in powerlessness, and instead proclaiming only a God of power and might.

In John’s gospel Jesus’ death on the cross is also his glorification, and the two, crucifixion and resurrection, need to be held together. This is why after the light-filled theophany of the Transfiguration Jesus tells his closest disciples not to tell anyone about it until after his death. His glory cannot be separated from the horror of his death. Jesus is the Son of Man who is lifted up, but he is lifted up through the crucifixion. In Jesus we see the ‘Crucified God’ and so, as the theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written:

There is no suffering which in this history of God is not God’s suffering; no death which has not been God’s death in the history on Golgotha. Therefore there is no life, no fortune and no joy which has not been integrated by his history into eternal life, the eternal joy of God.[2]

And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison in 1944, ‘The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help’.[3] If we ignore the crucifixion’s horror we lose that solidarity between God and suffering humanity. If we make Jesus too attractive and powerful, we might think that ugly, suffering human beings are not part of the world that God so loves.

Maybe we should occasionally think of Jesus as a bronze serpent, both terrifying and apparently useless. We are in Lent, heading towards the crucifixion, towards the cross that is both humiliation and glorification; death and life; ugliness and the greatest beauty. The cross turns our ways of seeing the world upside down. God becomes powerless to defeat death; human suffering is taken up into the life of God. Considering that topsy-turviness, why should Jesus not compare himself to a metal snake stuck on a pole in the desert?

[1] Quoted in Ronald F. Marshall, ‘Our Serpent of Salvation: The Offense of Jesus in John’s Gospel’ Word & World (2001), p. 388.

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, (London: SCM Press, 1974) p. 255.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Letter to Eberhard Bethge, 16 July 1944’ in Letters and Papers from Prison, (London: SCM Press, 2002), p. 134.

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