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the sermon for

the Fourth Sunday in Lent

11 March 2018

Numbers 21:4-9
Love carries a cross not our own!

03112018The World's Fair, that year, was in Knoxville, Tennessee. And since I was right next door, finishing up a year of internship in North Carolina, I figured I'd take a few days off and stop by. And I'm glad I did. It turned out that except for the Fair held in New Orleans the next year, it was the last one hosted by a city here in the United States since. To be honest, though, I don't remember a whole lot about the trip. But I did get this. An olive wood carving from the Holy Land. Jesus crucified not on a cross, but on a tree. It was different. Unique. It's been in my office, since then.

The imagine itself is an old one, going back into the early days of the church. We changed it in the latest hymnal, the cranberry one. But before that, this was the image in the preface for the Sunday of the Passion, for Palm Sunday. In the old Red hymnal and the older Blue one before that, this was the image in the preface for Lent itself...

It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise to you, O Lord, holy Father, through Christ our Lord; who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all...

The image comes from a passage in Deuteronomy [21.23]. "... anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse..." An image that echoes across the New Testament. And this was the first time I'd seen it in flesh-and-blood. But the Preface goes on...

... who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all, that, where death began, there life might be restored, and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome...

The words pull together Eden, on the one hand, and Golgotha, on the other. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained touch! Just as he – the serpent – at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil overcame, so he – the serpent – will be overcome! At this tree! At the cross!

It's what could be called as "poetic justice." What my mom used to call being "hoisted on your own petard!" And it's here, today, in the first reading. The people are in the wilderness, grumbling against God and Moses. So god sends poisonous serpents to punish them. The serpents bit them; the people die. The people repent. Moses prays for the people. "And the Lord says to Moses, 'Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.'"

...that, where death began, there life might be restored,
and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome...

Evil defeated by evil! Hatred conquered by being hated! Death vanquished by dying! That's what this sculpture – what this passage – is about! Death itself is death's undoing! It isn't that god brings into play some equal, opposite. To overwhelm. To overpower. God, simply, allows death to go too far! God permits death to overplay its hand, to overstep its bounds! God dying on a tree ends it all!

The cross overflows with paradoxes! Wounds that heal! Suffering that sets free! And it's all like that bronze snake atop a pole! The very thing that kills makes alive! It's like Luther writes in the Small Catechism. We are redeemed with his holy, precious blood! Purchased and freed with innocent suffering and dying!

Like "they" say, "No pain, no gain! No harm, no foul! No cross, no crown!" But here's the rub... The pain Jesus endures isn't Jesus' pain. It's ours! And the gain Jesus realizes? Well, that gain is ours, as well! The pain? The gain? None of it is for Jesus alone; all is for us! But then, that's what carrying a cross, here in the church, means! No pain, no gain! Not for Jesus, but for us! All for us!

That's what carrying a cross does, here in the church. The cross that was placed on Jesus' back was the cross upon which we were meant to hang! The suffering he bore was our suffering! It wasn't just something he experienced because he was human. The usual aches and pains of life, the normal agonies and anguish of living that comes to us all. Naturally. Automatically. These were his, because he enters into our world! These were his, only because he intervenes in the name of love, of charity, of grace! It's because of that, he does something he never would have to face. How does Isaiah put it? Wounded for our transgressions! Crushed for our iniquities! His punishment made us whole! His bruises heal us! And it's just like that bronze serpent on top of the pole! The one that looked just like all the others, but wasn't! "Who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome!" It looks the same, but the effect is completely opposite! . .

God so loved that god gave Jesus! And Jesus experienced! Jesus endured! Not because he had no other choice, not because he had to, but because that's what loves does. Love hears the sighs! Love sees the tears! And love does! Does, no matter what the cost! Love is conceived by the Spirit and born of a virgin! Love suffers under Pilate! Love is crucified and dies and is buried! Love descends and, three days later, love rises! And we rise with him! This is what love looks like! What tough love really, truly looks like!

It's not the suffering in and of itself that rescues! It's not the pain that redeems! Any more than it's that serpent at the end of the pole! But it's the love! It's the love! The love that submits! The love that contends! The love that endures! For no other reason than it cares for another! Cares with all its heart! Cares with all its mind! With all its strength and being!

... where death began, there life might be restored;
who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome...

And it's not the tree that does it. That accomplishes! That achieves! But it's the love, as well! Love that denies itself, that takes up our cross, that goes to the grave, just for us! All that we, too, can go and do the same! Denying ourselves! Carry our neighbors' cross! So that through our sacrifice and because of our suffering, they, like us, might be saved!

So, you may not have a reminder like this sitting on shelf in your office or at your home. And we may no longer say the words before communion. But this statue, for us, is salvation! This, for us, is how faith appears!

It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise to you, O Lord, holy Father, through Christ our Lord; who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all, that, where death began, there life might be restored, and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome... .

So 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!

 
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