Sermon: Sunday 14 September 2014
Holy Cross Day
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
‘As Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’
I remember going on a game drive in the Eastern Cape of South Africa with Thabo Makgoba, who is now the Archbishop of Cape Town. There was about half a dozen of us but I was the only Westerner. We were heading towards a watering hole as the light began to fade in the hope of seeing some of the big 5. The jeep suddenly came to a stop as up ahead of us our way was blocked by the most vivid flash of slithering bright green snake. It was a green mamba. It is one of the most venomous snakes, with a single bite being able to kill several human beings. My first degree was in Zoology so I knew a bit about the snake and I was fascinated and a bit terrified, especially as the snake turned direction and started coming towards the vehicle. I used to help to look after our giant python in the University Department so I’m not snake phobic but green mambas are a whole different thing! I knew that many snake bites in South Africa occur by snakes getting into vehicles and then the snake gets frightened. There was a wildly animated conversation going on with my companion Africans. I knew many of them were irrationally fearful of snakes so that was my assumption in their heated debates. But I checked it out with Thabo. He said I couldn’t be more wrong. They were debating whether or not it was best cooked with garlic or chili!
Within human culture and conversation, snakes carry a lot of symbol and meaning. Certainly, from a Western Christian tradition we can look to the Garden of Eden with the beguiling of the humans in the first story of creation. I spent my summer holiday in Malta where St Paul was shipwrecked and there it is said that he cast out the snakes just like St Patrick is said to have done in Ireland. Here we find stories about how the divine is called upon to deal with the danger that many of us conjure when we think of snakes.
Our reading from the Old Testament, from Numbers 21, would probably not be that well known had John not taken this motif as yet another way to describe the events of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The story tells of the wilderness grumblings and wilderness wanderings of God’s people around Edom. They are losing heart and not able to fully trust the hopeful promises of God that they really are heading for liberation. It feels as if it would have been better to stay down in Egypt where the food was better and the snakes were more under control. The wilderness or the desert is literally shifting sands. Judaism has a tradition of iconoclasm – remember idols and images are seen to be an abomination to God. Later those instincts of the people to build a golden calf will lead to judgment and disaster and a demand for it to be melted down. Here, we see something very unexpected. The people make an image of a poisonous snake, raise it up on a pole and when they look at that bronze sculpture, they find healing after their snake bites. We learn too from the Old Testament that this isn’t a flash in the pan practice. Only much later in the reign of King Hezekiah does this stop.
We hear these stories on Holy Cross Day. This day in the Christian calendar has origins in the 4th century when Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, excavated the city of Jerusalem which had been destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans. This resulted in the building of the church which still stands in Jerusalem as the traditional site of the crucifixion and resurrection – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Millions of Christians in our world, especially those shaped by a more middle Eastern or African imagination look to these physical traces of the story of Jesus as a vivid and converting testament to God’s grace. Indeed, this tradition is woven deeply into the story of our spirituality in this city. In 1353, near to what we know as the Magazine, the Church of the Annunciation was founded by Henry 4th Earl of Lancaster. The king of France had given him a relic of the Crown of Thorns which was placed on the church’s high altar and so Leicester became a place of pilgrimage because we had a tangible thing with some provenance to take us close to the events of the first Good Friday which Christians still believe changed the world and history for ever. As John puts so memorably – ‘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’ (3:16).
So what is going on when a bronze serpent is raised on a pole and a Palestinian carpenter known for divine speech, power and authority is unjustly crucified raised on another wooden pole? In both cases those who look and see and trust find healing and salvation.
This is intriguing and I think we need to wonder about at least two things. Firstly and put at its simplest, we see that the cure for snakes has to be a snake and the cure for us humans has to be a human. There is a connection which has to be established between the problem and the solution. In Christian spirituality that is about God identifying with us not just pretending to do that with some kind of smoke and mirror trick but really doing it in glorious yet vulnerable human flesh. God knows his creation and knows the cure we need. Out of saving love, God risks God’s very self to come close to us. It is the Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer in his Letters from Prison, facing his own gallows for resisting the Nazis, who says ‘only a suffering God can help’. The cross is raised. Here Cathedral Gardens is littered with light fittings deliberately designed as broken crosses lifted up in our midst.
Secondly, note that God’s people raised up in their midst the very thing that seemed to cause them most fear. This was true in the desert and in Jerusalem. I’ve been thinking about Northern Ireland following Ian Paisley’s death and the business of raising flags and emblems which purport to be badges of belonging but often actually are symbols of greatest fears lifted high. Think of English Town halls flying the Scottish saltire this week as fears about the potential reshaping of the United Kingdom start to be addressed.
The Israelites raised up the snake because their friends were dying and being bitten and somehow all their other moans and all their deepest fears could begin to be caught up in the image of the snake. By placing it on a pole, they named it, saw it for what it was and yet found a way of dealing with it which didn’t completely overwhelm them. They needed a long pole to drag it from among them up and out for all to see and relate to. Similarly with Jesus, his presence was often destabilising as he named the injustice, as he demonstrated the extent of mercy and forgiveness and as he refused to be bound by limits which obscured the extent or the grace of God. Sometimes goodness is a more fearful thing to live with than badness. So he is lifted up on the cross to become our healing.
So with what John’s gospel says. ‘As Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (3:14). We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you for by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
© The Very Revd David Monteith