Psalm 121 begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” How often in life do you find yourself in the depths of despair or frustration only to feel a call within yourself to lift up your eyes and search for help? Our emphasis today is on lifting up and looking up, what does it mean for us, how does it take place and what are the benefits.
Moses and the Israelites were taking the long way round to get to the Promised Land, they were bickering and moaning to Moses and against God for taking them away from a life that even though it was unpleasant and hard work, provided them with food and water and a place to rest. They felt that they would probably die in the wilderness and the food they were getting was as bland as I’ve been eating lately! So they were grumbling big time.
So what did God do to fix it? He didn’t remove them from the wilderness, he sent venomous snakes among them and many of the Israelites died! Here is the wrath of God pure and simple, but when Moses prayed to God on behalf of the people God said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and lie.” God provided the antidote and when the people were bitten they looked up and lived.
We could be a little perplexed by this scenario, we heard last week “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” And here is God telling Moses to make a snake from bronze and place it on a pole and get the people to look at it! The thing to realise in this case is that God commanded Moses to make it, and also in the original commandments they were told “You shall not bow down to them or worship them”, they weren’t bowing down and worshipping, they were looking up and being healed and in doing so they were reminded of how God provides for their healing and his power over all things.
Another important point is that God didn’t stop the snakes from biting after Moses prayed, he still allowed the snakes to bite the Israelites, but then provided them with the antidote in the snake lifted up for them to see. God does provide the healing that is needed to bring them from death to life.
Our gospel reading makes the connection for us between the snake being lifted up in the wilderness for the Israelites and the son of man being lifted up. We know in retrospect that Jesus was lifted up on the cross at Calvary, he was hung there for all to see, even if it was only for a short time, he was hung up there. So what is the connection between a slithering and silent killer like a snake and the son of man who came to give his life for our sake? You know the answer to that as well as I do…when the Israelites looked to the snake they were healed, saved from certain death.
Jesus was hung on the cross to save us from our certain death. The healing that takes place through him on the cross takes us from death to new life in him. Our second reading today describes this healing beautifully for us. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live…like the rest we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us , God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”
Just like the Israelites who were bitten by the snakes, we were bitten by sin, through the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve. We are surrounded daily by the slithering silent evil that longs to tempt us away from our focus on Christ and the cross on which he died to bring us healing from that sin.
Each and every one of us struggles with sin on a daily basis, there are events and challenges in the lives of all of us that threaten to swamp us, they feel like quicksand dragging us down feet first, like weeds wrapping around us and trying to trip us, like nets binding us hand and foot. But even someone who is desperately trying to cling onto life can look up and live.
The Israelites looked to the bronze snake on the pole and they lived. We have Christ on the cross to look to and to remind us that in fact we are already healed, and even better than that, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.”
This takes us beyond the cross, we need not only look at the cross, but through the cross, as we see in the screen behind the altar at Croydon, to the wrappings of the empty tomb which represent the resurrection of Christ, in victory over death and then to his ascension into heaven where he does indeed sit at the right hand of the father. From there he prays for us, just like Moses prayed to God the Father on behalf of the Israelites, Jesus is sitting in his place in heaven bringing our needs before God too.
None of this is our doing, as we heard in the opening, from Psalm 121, “our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” And then in our second reading another way of saying it, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
God gave us his son, to be lifted up on the cross, just like Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so that when sin bites us and threatens to bring about our spiritual death, we too have somewhere to look for help, we lift our eyes to the cross, but then through the cross to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, all the while knowing in our heart of hearts that it is by grace that we have been saved, this isn’t something for the future, we have been saved. Look up and live, lift your eyes to the Son of Man who was lifted up for our sake, so that we might be saved.