A16 LIFTED UP
St. John 3.vv.13-21
~ No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. ~
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life".
Whether or not these are the exact words of Jesus or whether they are the Evangelist's meditation upon Jesus' sacrificial death, we have here a fascinating insight into the significance of Jesus' life and death.
The reference to the "serpent" is most interesting. In the Old Testament we have a reference to the serpent as a cunning creature that tempts and leads mankind into rebellion and sin against God. Somewhat later in the Exodus account in which the making of graven images was strictly prohibited, we have the account referred to in this passage of the Israelites plagued by snake bites in the wilderness and gaining relief by gazing upon the representation of a serpent which Moses held aloft. Jewish Rabbis are at pains to stress that "it was not the serpent that gave life; but as long as it was uplifted, there was belief in him who commanded Moses to act thus" - it was God who healed. How right and sensible were these ancient Rabbis! It is interesting to note that the abhorrence of graven images persisted down through the years and King Hezekiah had a brazen image of "Nehushtan" the serpent destroyed during his religious reform programme. Nevertheless the association of the "healing serpent" persists in the medical profession's insignia.
St. John takes the lifting up of the serpent and applies it as a kind of parable to the "lifting up" of Jesus. As the ancient Jews looked at the serpent and their thoughts turned to God, they received healing; even so all who look up at Jesus will gain eternal life.
We may well wonder whether the lifting up of Jesus refers to the Cross or the Ascension but it hardly matters for the two are inextricably linked and the one could not have happened without the other. The Cross was the way to glory. Had Jesus not been crucified there would have been no glory. The same applies to us. If we choose the easy way, refusing the cross we are called to bear, we lose the glory - "No cross, no crown".
Gazing on Jesus is the first step to belief in God, for Jesus says, "He that hath seen me, has seen the Father". Jesus shows that God loves us, cares for us and wants nothing more than to forgive us. It was not easy for the ancient Jews to believe that, for was not God the one who imposed the Law, who punishes even the children of the sinner, the Judge before whom all are judged, the one who demanded sacrifices and burnt offerings? It took the life and cost the death of Jesus to tell mankind that things were otherwise.
As St. John says, the gift of Jesus is "eternal life". This eternal life leads to wholeness and peace. We gain peace with God; we feel at home with him; we are not estranged from him but reconciled to him. We gain peace with other people, for if we ourselves are forgiven we too can, and must, be forgiving. We gain peace with life, for God can, and wills to, work all things together for good, if we truly love him. We gain peace with ourselves, for we come to terms with our weakness through the grace and power of Christ indwelling us. We gain that peace which passes all understanding - a foretaste of that heaven to which we are called.