The Lord said, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. And 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 begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
In the garden of Eden, one day Eve was walking through the forest. The snake begins to talk to her. The snake tells Eve that God is dishonest. God has tricked Eve into not eating the fruit. God has powers that Eve needs. The snake tells Eve to grab the fruit, to get the powers that she needs. Eve grabs the fruit out of fear that she is inferior to God. Fear causes her to feel suffering. And suffering causes her to disobey God. And disobedience to God brings death.
Another story about fear and snakes. The children of Israel escape from Egypt and cross the Red Sea. And they walk for a few weeks and come to a place where they have no water. And they begin to grumble and complain. They start to say that Moses is evil. Moses took them out of Egypt and think that they are going to die now. They are afraid.
The tongues of these bitter complaining people are venomous. They begin to plot to kill Moses and choose a different leader. It’s not even Moses’ fault that they don’t have water. He is just leading them where God has told them to go. So God sends venomous snakes to bite the people. The people have venomous tongues so they get bit by venomous tongues.
The people feared the suffering of dying of thirst. They did not trust God. So their suffering cause them to disobey, and disobedience resulted in death (for many of them).
Fear, Suffering, Disobedience, Death
God told Moses to make a statue of a snake lifted up on a stick. And if anyone got bitten by a snake all they had to do was to look at the snake and be healed. It was a sophisticated way of rubbing their noses in it. You got bitten with venom because your tongue was full of venom. Now shut up and go about your business. The snake was a visual representation of the consequences of their sins.
Jesus tells us in the gospel today that when he is crucified he will be like the snake on the pole. We look at Jesus on the cross and see the consequence of our sins. Because of sins just like my sins, people did such a terrible thing as to kill the Son of God. People like me do bad things and death happens. Injustice happens. People like me are so invested in sin that they will do anything to silence the person who tells the truth about their sinfulness.
Because of my sin, people suffer like Jesus suffered. Because of my sin, there is injustice like the injustice Jesus suffered. Because of my sin there is death.
When you and I look at the cross it is like looking at the snake: we must reckon with the reality of our sins and our failures. What does it cost my children that I am a sinful? That I have not changed my ways? What does it cost my friends that I am selfish? That I do not look honestly at my own selfish bad habits? What does it cost the people I love that I am indifferent, full of pride and ego?
When Jesus looks at our miserable state he says, “I will go live among them, I will live a life of love and service and speak the truth. I will teach them the way to eternal life. I will preach repentance from sins. I will confront wrongdoers.”
Jesus says, “I know that the price I will pay for doing this is that they will kill me. I know that everyone will abandon me.”
Jesus says, “I am willing to endure that because I want to save them.” Jesus says, “I want to teach my people how to live a life of godliness and righteousness. Even if it costs me so much pain. I want to give them the gift of a good example. I want to give them the gift of a new birth. I want to give them the gift of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus looks at the snake which represents the consequences and the mess and the misery of the sinful state of man. Jesus says, “I will let the snake bite me because that will give life to others.”
Instead of fearing death and grabbing for something to protect him from death, Jesus embraces death. Jesus trusts his Father. Jesus understands that embracing death will lead to eternal life.
There is another snake in the bible. When God told Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt He sent Moses and his brother Aaron to the court of Pharaoh. God told Aaron to perform a sign that would show Pharaoh that the God of the Israelites was to be feared. Aaron threw down his rod on the ground and it became a snake.
Aaron and Moses probably thought that this sign was pretty impressive. In their minds, it was basically magic. But Pharaoh and his people were not impressed at all. They said, “we can do that trick too.” I guess your God is not that impressive after all.” But Aaron’s snake ate up the other snake. Death swallowed death.
What none of them realized is that the greatest power in the universe is the power of Jesus love. Eve did not realize this when she grabbed the fruit in order to get the powers of God. The power of God would have been to abstain.
Self-control and trust in God is the greatest power. The great power of God is the gratitude of Jesus and his devotion to his Father. Jesus thanks his Father before he dies. He gives as he is dying, and says, “into your hands I commit my spirit,” as a gift of gratitude. The greatest power that exists is the love which emanated from Jesus as allowed himself to be killed. Jesus’ willingness to die serves as an example and inspiration and a pattern for our lives. Jesus’ willingness to die interrupts the process of our decay into misery and death. Jesus’ willingness to die interrupts our sins because we learn righteousness. It interrupts our fear of death and our constant grabbing after what we think we need. And it teaches us to stop causing other people’s suffering.
Death swallows up death. Willingness to die swallows up the life-destroying and sinful way of life. Death swallowing up death means that when I too am willing to forego what my suffering makes me want to do I begin to lead a life-giving existence.
How are you going to swallow death by death? Take an honest look at your own pride and indifference. Look at the snake. Look at the cross. Look at the truth of your sin. Look at the truth of what your sin does to other people. The love and forgiveness and mercy of Jesus Christ helps you begin to walk a different path.
Gratitude is hard to catch and easy to lose. Be careful not to lose it. And if you don’t have it (and most of us are very ungrateful) you should take a sober account of the cost that will be involved in rediscovering gratitude.
Gratitude quenches the flames of anger and rage and self-pity. Our consumerist, affluent, materialistic society has forgotten gratitude entirely. It sees the notion of gratitude as oppressive and unjust. We have no gratitude and we have no shame for our ungratefulness. We make demands. We have opinions. We don’t know how to give and be patient because we don’t have even an ounce of gratitude.
The one who is grateful is free to be generous. The grateful one is free to have forbearance. All things have been granted to the one who is grateful and he knows it. He doesn’t need to grab.
Read the Troparion of the Forefeast of the Elevation of the Cross: We offer in supplication the life-creating Cross of Your goodness, O Lord, which You have granted to us although we are unworthy. Through the Theotokos, save all Orthodox Christians, O only Lover of man!
We are invited to be grateful. You granted this to us though we were unworthy.
Gratitude is true hope. Gratitude helps you have the courage to accept the truth of sin and to still want change. Without gratitude the truth of sin is bad news. Gratitude turns it into good news.
When you accept the truth of death, in gratitude, when you accept the calling to carry your cross and thank God for it, you become willing to endure challenges to your pride. You become willing to care. You become willing to forego the immediate pleasure of sin. And you destroy death by embracing the love that Jesus enacted when he was willing to die for us.
By grabbing after the fruit we bring death not only to ourselves but to others. By following Jesus we bring not only life to ourselves but to others. Your daily repentance can save other people.
Hurry up. Wake up and start to walk with Jesus. Take it seriously. Coming to church and learning and confessing sins is not about you only. Each person here does not live in their own personal private spiritual bubble. We are only saved together. For the sake of your children and the people you love, receive the eternal life that is being offered. Receive the power of God to learn righteousness.