Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 11 March 2018.
A mother looks at her newborn baby and must wonder what the future holds.
How will personality develop? What kind of occupation and family life? What interests and past-times, tastes in the arts, views in politics and current affairs?
And then there would be the questions about the times that the child would face: peace or war, plenty or famine, stability or confusion and tension?
As he was leading the children of Israel through the wildernesses of Sinai, Moses must have wondered something very similar, when their faith and sense of calling had not fully developed and so they turned against him when beset by any setback or challenge.
Moses must have been very full of the frailty of life even as he continued to trust in God to direct them and provide for them. Each event threatening his own life, as he would withdraw into anguished prayer for the people, knowing that his own life may yet hang by a thread.
It is easy to read the story of the Exodus with the hindsight of the entry of the people into the Promised Land and their subsequent conquest of it. It is easy to see it all from the comfort of our own homes – although I am not sure if I could really describe the pews of All Saints of being comfortable.
But this is the setting where Moses did something to look far into the future but without knowing it. The snakes of the desert had invaded the camp bringing fear of death in their wake.
And so Moses did something different: rather than destroy them all, he overcame them and their power. Instead of eradicating them and driving them from the peoples’ fears he took one and made the people face them.
What had become a symbol of death was to be confronted and used to offer life. Its power over the people was to be struck down, and they were to look at it with hope and with confidence.
They would see it for what it was and yet they would also find in it an agency for their own healing. And yes, that agency would come from God who would move to heal them.
And this is the image that Jesus was using when instructing Nicodemus, who had come to Him amid the shadows of the night and to avoid being observed.
Only this time it was to be personal. Jesus was identifying Himself directly with that same serpent. He had been confronted by the temptations of Satan while meditating in the wilderness, and had been sorely tempted to pursue His ministry in a way that did not lead to the cross.
Now He was appropriating that same cross, and He was personally becoming that same figure of horror and of death, that Moses had known those years ago during the Exodus.
Jesus was indeed claiming the cross – an image of utter horror – in order to gain a far greater victory. He would become that snake just as those people who turned to Him in faith would find healing and life in the same image.
But Jesus was looking far beyond Himself and indeed the cross in order to see the new dispensation that God had always intended.
The stakes were more than personal survival and extended into the deepest counsels of God. They were about life beyond life; they were about the fullness of the righteousness of God and the power to forgive sins.
They involved new life and new ways of being and relating. Faith known and lived in new dimensions, and apart from a tyranny of works which in themselves could never be enough.
What Jesus had said to Nicodemus, to his almost total puzzlement, Paul put to the church in Ephesus.
What had been normal was now to be changed. The dispensation of guilt and inadequacy, of living in fear of judgment and yet being held fast by their own sins and appetites, was now to give way to something far more wonderful.
The people did not have to be so held. They did not have to live in the fear of death and of an eternity marked by condemnation and the knowledge of having come short.
This time there was to be life where death had ruled, and peace and plenty – the shalom of God – to endure for eternity. What they were never going to be able to earn they would be able to receive as a gift and a blessing.
And so yes, the future may indeed look threatening and the times uncertain, when even the streets of a Middle-England town are stalked by a dark and nameless fear.
When enemies strike down their opponents and gloat that nobody is safe, almost inviting a weak and token retaliation.
Yet this is the time to behold the Glory of the Lord and to rejoice in His salvation. It is a time when like Habakkuk, we see the failed harvests and the miscarried livestock:
“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.”