Lifted up

Sermon for Lent 4 (22 March 2009)

Numbers 21.4-9
John 3.14-21

A few years ago, the news media treated us to a video of that remarkable politician Pauline Hanson which began: ‘If you are watching this, it means I am dead.’

Of course, Ms Hanson is very much alive. And I think she’s probably satisfied with 20% of the primary vote in yesterday’s election. But my point is that I suspect that what that video came to light, many people didn’t take it seriously. Subsequent events proved them right.

I wonder how many people took Jesus seriously when he said that he would be killed? A few weeks ago, our Gospel Reading had these words (Mark 8.31):

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.

Peter didn’t take him seriously. He ‘took him aside and began to rebuke him’. Subsequent events proved him wrong.

I wonder if Nicodemus took Jesus seriously when he spoke of his death? John’s Gospel uses a different approach, but the meaning was pretty clear:

…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.

Hang on—did I say the meaning of something in John’s Gospel was pretty clear? Perhaps it’s not. I mean, what does John mean, ‘lifted up’? Typically of John, he means more than one thing.

Lifted up—lifted up on the cross, as Moses lifted the bronze serpent on a pole in that very strange Old Testament story.

Lifted up—lifted up high over all, exalted, given the name above all names.

Jesus was lifted on a cross as one of the vilest of the vile. It may have looked something like this.

This is a man in agony, breathing his last breaths. You’ll notice this isn’t like the normal representations of Jesus on the cross. The usual images of the crucifixion that we are used to seeing were first made a couple of centuries after crucifixion had stopped being used. They didn’t know what it looked like, and so they made a guess. Archeological finds suggest that it was something more like this. For me, this image of crucifixion makes it an even more obscene and degrading method of execution, used only for the worst offenders.

Nicodemus would have been shocked to hear Jesus say that he was to be ‘lifted up’ in this way. And even more disturbed to hear that it was to be in some way God’s gift for our salvation, as it was when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. How could God use such a disgusting method to bring life?

But when the Jesus of John’s Gospel says he will be lifted up, he doesn’t just mean on a cross. He will also be exalted, lifted up high above all. But here’s the thing we need to get: Jesus is lifted up high over all on the cross. What do I mean? The cross is Jesus’ throne. It’s where he was crowned king.

That’s why you’ll see representations like this in churches across the world.

This is called Christus Rex, or Christ the King. Christ is reigning from the cross. The cross is where his coronation takes place. The cross has become his throne. And John wants us to understand it this way too.

All the Gospels speak of Jesus as king around his crucifixion. He is accused of making himself king of the Jews. He is dressed in purple, the royal colour, and they pay mock homage to him. A crown is placed on his head—a crown of thorns, which bites deeply into his skin.

But only John has him go to the cross with a royal bearing. Only John has the sign put on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, in Latin and Greek and Aramaic so no one could be mistaken. Only John speaks of the crucifixion as being lifted up.

In John’s Gospel, ‘lifted up’ has a dual meaning. We’re meant to get it both ways:

Jesus is glorified in his suffering. He is reigning on the cross; he didn’t wait till he got off the cross to be King of kings.

Jesus is lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness, to bring us the salvation we need.

Jesus is lifted up as king, to reign from the cross. In the end, he looked like any other condemned criminal on a cross. But faith says this is my King, my Lord, my God. It’s only as we learn to love him in his strickenness and brokenness that we can be truly his disciples; only then can we truly love others who suffer. In truth, Jesus is our key to loving those who suffer.

The meaning of the cross is forever changed by Jesus Christ. It’s still a place of shame, but not the place of his shame; it’s where we see our shame. And it’s where we see our King and our God, both representing us and calling us to follow.

Isaac Watts’ wonderful hymn puts it best:

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

And also,

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Let’s sing it now to Christ our God and King, reigning in his suffering for us. Let us sing to the king who has conquered through love, as our offering of ourselves to him who offered himself for us.

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