Jesus, in the Gospel of John, refers three times to his being lifted up. This is a reference to how he would die, nailed to a cross for all to see. It was an ignominious and painful death and yet it was to bring about something glorious. Christ’s death cures us of the effects of the sin that runs through our lives. Jesus compared this to the effect of the bronze serpent which Moses placed on a pole to heal all those bitten by snakes in the wilderness as the Israelites wandered on their way to the Promised Land.
I gave a reflection on this on Tuesday at the 3pm service. The readings were Psalm 102:1-3, 16-23, Numbers 21:4-9, John 8:21-30.
There was a time when it was believed that science would solve everything and usher in a golden age. Rationality was the correct approach to life and old fashioned ideas, old wives tales, weird and wonderful ancient practices were most definitely out. Now that trend is reversing. We’ve seen that science can do a great deal but can also make a lot of big mistakes. Things have become too impersonal and clinical. Gradually old ideas are being re-examined for the wisdom that is there, gathered often over centuries of experience.
Many alternative or complementary medical practices are now coming back into favour. Acupuncture is used for many purposes, relieving pain, helping people to conquer addictions and so on. Many people find relief by going to a chiropractor or osteopath. Recently my sister took her dog to a chiropractor – I was amazed. Another complementary treatment is homeopathy. It works by giving the sufferer an extremely dilute form of something to trigger their own healing system. The substance given to bring about a cure is similar to the substance that caused the illness. ‘Like is used to cure like’ is the principle here. No one quite knows how homeopathy works but there are some theories coming from quantum physics that may eventually help explain it.
Homeopathy has only been around for about 200 years but the story we have from the book of Numbers is very similar in approach. The people of Israel were complaining to Moses, which is nothing new of course. God responded by sending snakes which bit the people and caused many of them to die. This seemed to bring the people to their senses and, recognising their sin, they asked Moses to arrange for the snakes to be removed. Instead of removing the snakes, God arranged a homeopathic remedy for the people. Moses was told to make a serpent and to put it on a pole. If a person was bitten he or she could go and gaze on the bronze serpent and be cured. In gazing on the same problem as they were suffering from they became able to withstand the poison from the snakes.
In the book of John Jesus identifies himself with the bronze snake that was lifted up on the pole. Three times he refers to being lifted up. The first instance is in John 3:14-15: ‘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.’ Jesus draws a parallel between the homeopathic effect of the serpent and the effect his lifting up will have.
St Paul tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse…by being cursed himself” (Galatians 3:13); and “God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the very goodness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Here we can see the homeopathic image. Jesus, the sinless one is made sin on the cross. He is lifted up on the cross for all to see and as we look on him we gain eternal life.
Three times in today’s passage from John, Jesus told the people that they would die in their sin. It was obviously a message he really wanted to get across to them. It was very important for them to understand. Just as the poison of the snake bites was running in the bloodstream of the Israelites in the desert, the poison of sin runs in our lives. The Israelites looked on the bronze snake and were restored to physical life. Sin leads to death, but gazing on Jesus, accepting salvation, gives us eternal life. We are restored to full health spiritually.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the symbol for medicine and healing, the serpent entwined round a rod. This is the rod of Asclepius, a Greek god who was the son of Apollo. The symbol may have come about as the snake and the staff are associated with Asclepius. However, long before that we have the same picture from the book of Numbers. This ancient symbol is still in use after so many years, speaking to us of physical health and healing.
As Christians we have the symbol of the cross, 2000 years old and a sign, to those who will take notice, of spiritual health and healing. Jesus said that when he was lifted up the people would know he was the one sent from God.
In the third reference to his lifting up, in John 12:32 Jesus says: ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’
Soon, the cross will assume a high profile in the life of the Church as we mark Holy Week. Jesus still draws people to gaze on him, lifted up to be crucified, and he offers them life. Let’s pray that many come to believe this year, through our ministry here in the Cathedral in SL and through Christian witnesses throughout the world.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor