Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“’For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have Everlasting Life.’”
John 3:16, no doubt, most all of us here have either heard it recited or we ourselves have committed it to memory at some point in our lives. It just may well be the most recognized and beloved of all Scriptures. It has been said that it is the Gospel in a nutshell. Its assurance has found its way into the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy prayed by the priest just before the words of our Lord commanding His disciples to take, eat and drink (Anaphora).
It is this which we hear on the Sunday before the Holy Cross as a way of getting us ready for the Feast which comes 40 days after our Lord’s Transfiguration. These precious words of hope are part and parcel of a conversation Jesus has with a secret disciple, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, whose journey into the Faith can be traced throughout St. John’s Gospel. Whether or not our Lord actually spoke these famous words or whether they are the thoughts of the Evangelist, as some scholars think, remains to be seen. What we do know is that they are set within the context of that famous conversation that occurred under cover of darkness, a conversation in which our Lord tells the inquiring Pharisee that he – and all who desire to enter the Kingdom of God – must be “born again” or “born anew” by the power from above (Jn. 3:1-12). This is in keeping with the opening chapter of this Gospel when the Evangelist tells us, “But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become sons of God, even to those who believe in His Name, who were born . . . of God” (Jn. 1:12-13). Indeed, to be “born of God” is to be re-born by “’water and . . . the Spirit,’” according to Jesus, which we know is the Mystery of Holy Baptism. Baptism, according to St. John Chrysostom, finds its source in the Cross, in the lifting up of the Son of God, the Son of Man, so that, as St. Mark records our Lord as saying (Who does not pit the Mystery against the Cross or the Cross against the Mystery), “’He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; . . . .’” (Mk. 16:16). “’Verily, verily I say unto thee, unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God’” (Jn. 3:5); “’And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have Eternal Life.’”
In this Gospel, our Lord expresses His looming Crucifixion in terms of an Old Testament event, another “lifting up” story. In St. John’s Gospel, this phrase, “lifted up,” does double duty in that it means not only the lifting up of Jesus upon the Cross, but His glorification by Crucifixion. What is most humiliating becomes, in God’s hands, most exalted. “For he that is hanged is accursed of God,” Moses says (Dt. 21:23) while St. Paul tells us, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree)” (Ga. 3:13). What the Son of God took on as a curse becomes for us (who deserved what He received) the blessing of God (Ga. 3:14)! Or, as the Apostle says elsewhere, “”[L]ooking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hb. 12:2). In the thinking of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the pain and intense Suffering and degradation inflicted upon Him – what St. Paul calls the hostility of sinners – was well worth the salvation He procured for us long held by the devil in the bondage of the fear of death (Hb. 2:15).
“’And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, . . . .’” Our Lord sees in this Old Testament event a “type” of His prophesied lifting up. Types are Old Testament images or figures foreshadowing New Testament realities which are “antitypes,” meaning “instead of the type,” instead of the shadow we have the reality. “’And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness’” (type), “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, . . . .’” (antitype). The story is found in Nm. 21:4-9 as well as in WS 16:5-13. Israel, saved from Pharaoh’s evil clutches, has been making its way through the wilderness which has been a long and arduous journey. God has been conquering their enemies and supplying them with manna, but “the soul of the people was much discouraged,” says the text, so much so that they rebel and become insolent (something not uncommon for Israel despite their manifold blessings). In their hubris, they take it upon themselves and dare to speak against God, says the Scripture, and, if that weren’t evil enough, they spoke against God’s Prophet, Moses. So, their attack is against God and His lightning rod is His Prophet. Though they were provided manna, bread from Heaven or the bread of angels, as it has been called (Ps. 77 :1-72), they allege there is no bread and no water, and they “’loath this light bread.’”
And the Lord answers their unfounded arrogant accusations with a swift rebuke by sending fiery serpents among the people which bit them, so that “many people of Israel died.” They repent and confess their sin to Moses, the Prophet of God, “’We have spoken against the Lord and against thee. Pray unto the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us,’” they implore. So, God in His infinite mercy, through the intercessions of His Prophet, answers their prayer, not by taking the serpents away, but by providing a “sacramental” remedy, an antidote, if you will. He Who had commanded Israel not to make for themselves images to worship (Decalogue), commands Moses to fashion a bronze icon, if you will, of a serpent, place it on a pole, and to erect it in the camp. “’And it shall come to pass that everyone who is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.’” And, thus it was so.
This, Jesus says, is the type. “’And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever [looks upon Him in faith] should not perish, but have Eternal Life.” Why? How is this so? “’For God so loved the [wilderness of] the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish [from the bite of the serpent, that ancient dragon, called the devil], but have Everlasting Life.’” This is the type of our salvation so that we might be continually mindful of God’s goodness (WS 16:5-13). God is a God of mercy Who is ever responsive to His repentant people. He is our good God Who loves mankind. We have joined Adam’s insolent rebellion and we have set ourselves against God in our pride, trusting the word of the evil one over the Word of God. We have been bitten – all of us – by the bite of that ancient serpent. There is not a one of us here who is free of his venom. We all must die (Rm. 3:23; 5:12). Death is the fruit of our arrogant defiance, the wage of our sin, to use St. Paul’s words (Rm. 6:23). God did not slap us back down in anger because we had sinned. Death is a divine judgment inasmuch as when we sever a vine we know the branch will die (Jn. 15:1-8). Death is the result of breaking our ties with the Eternal One Who is Life.
“[B]ut the gift of God is Eternal Life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm. 6:23)! That’s what St. Paul says. “’For God so loved this world . . . For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Just as God did not remove the serpents from the midst of Israel (even though that was their prayer and desire), He did, nonetheless, provide a way of escape for His people who had brought judgment upon themselves. He commanded an icon of a bronze serpent – the very form of death! – to be made and erected. And all who were dying from the bite of the fiery serpents, if they gazed thereon in faith, lived. How much more shall we who look upon the Crucified One lifted up in glory – the co-eternal Son of the Eternal One – Who did not inherit death because He knew no sin, voluntarily receives death, nonetheless, in His flesh so that we, who are dead because of sin, might have life . . . . . His Life? Not just a second chance, mind you, but true and real Life, the Life of the Eternal One, His divine Life, to partake of it by faith as we eat and drink His very Body and Blood. God provides the remedy. He administers the antidote, the “medicine of immortality,” to use St. Ignatius of Antioch’s words.
“’I AM the Living Bread which came down from Heaven,’” says our Lord.
‘If any man eat of this Bread, he shall live forever; and the Bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. . . . Verily, verily I say unto you, unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath Eternal Life, and I will raise him up at the Last Day’ (Jn. 6:51, 53-54).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!