Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 9, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.
The Bronze Serpent is a strange and interesting thing. In Hebrew it has a name, “Nehushtan,” which means “a brazen thing, a mere piece of brass.” It is a derogatory name. Even though Moses made it at the instruction of God, as scripture says, it became an object of derision, so much so that, King Hezekiah had it destroyed in his iconoclastic reform It had become an object of worship, an idol to which people burned incense.
In today’s reading, this despised icon of healing becomes a mirror image for the Crucified Lord.
And 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.
The Lord who heals was also an object of derision. Think of the Suffering Servant prophecy in Isaiah (53):
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
When we think of God, do we first think of the Suffering Servant? It is far more comforting for many to think God as powerful and even vengeful. Who wants to worship a weak deity? But we are no longer in the Bronze Age where each tribe had its competing god. “My god is better than yours,” is an attitude that shows up in the Old Testament. Think of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Since we now know that Jesus reveals the truth about him, we no longer need to compete. There is only one God and He is Trinity, He is love, He is humble and meek, and in no need of defense.
God is the One who becomes a helpless child and who is led like a sheep to the slaughter, who opens not his mouth when he is falsely accused. Not only does he not smite his enemies (or ours), he allows them to smite him. And not only does he not smite them, he instructs those who follow him to do the same. “Turn the other cheek” and bless “those who despitefully use you.”
The Cross is the epitome of this truth. Christ utterly humiliated, stripped naked, tortured, nailed on the Cross for you and me and all of humanity without regard for race, color, creed, gender, or orientation. The despised and rejected one, the New Bronze Serpent, heals humanity from a Cross.
And God, as we know through Jesus, is to be found in those places we do not think he should be and with people we think are socially unacceptable. He broke all the norms of social propriety for the sake of human beings caught in the vise of the empire and of the religious elite and moral police. The Lord’s platform, if you will, was people, not power and certainly not the preservation of the status quo. Christ upended everything! Christianity is inherently iconoclastic in regards to earthly power structures and when we forget that, we lose the Gospel.
Jesus was a people person, a sure sign of his divinity, for God is a people God. I remember a comedian from way back in my youth whose name I don’t remember. It was Brother Something or Other. He pretended to be a preacher and he was very funny. One thing he said was, “God must love common people because he made so many of them.” I found out later that he was quoting Abraham Lincoln! The truth is God loves uncommon people, too, and different people, and even weird people, even if we don’t. For his “antisocial” behavior, among other things, the Lord was called insane and by his own family.
The Gospel message is practically Orwellian. Have you noticed? Humility is power. Death is life. Weakness is strength.
Fr. Thomas Hopko writes this, “The scripture is very clear. If you want to find yourself, lose yourself; if you want to fulfill yourself, empty yourself; if you want to be great, be the least, if you want to be rich, become poor. If you want to rule, become a servant…really, Orthodoxy is paradoxy. That’s just what it is.”
True Christianity is edgy and radical. The Cross, writes Paul, is scandalous. The world could not bear the presence of Christ for long. He was a threat to the status quo and he still is. That is why the Church is never more alive than when She is despised and rejected as he was – never more faithful and true to the Gospel than when She speaks truth to power.
I want to add that a requirement for being persecuted for righteousness sake is that we are actually persecuted for being righteous and not just stubborn. If we are being persecuted, as Jesus was, because we love and are humble and meek, that it what it means. There is a popular misconception these days. The early martyrs sang joyfully as they were led to their deaths and today’s Christians act like children who moan and cry at any perceived wrong. “Oh, they don’t like us or agree with us! Let’s take them to court and sue!” Ridiculous! That is not the behavior of the righteousness, but of spoiled children.
The Cross is our faith. God is the Suffering, Dying Servant. He is the God of suffering, despised, rejected, and dying people. He is the One who turns the other cheek. He is the one who reconciles in Himself all the joys and suffering of human life. Christ Jesus, writes St. Paul to the Ephesians, “recapitulated all things in Himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10)
Salvation is not a demand for perfection, an invitation to power or fame, nor has it anything to do with the norms of respectable society and hyper-morality. Salvation is about entering into the reconciliation Jesus effected for all people for all time on the Cross. We venerate the Cross not only because it is the instrument of our salvation, but also because it is our Way of Life.
We gain by losing, we live by dying, we possess nothing, we let go of everything. The craving for power that always threatens to infect the Church and even now is overwhelming the last vestiges of the Gospel in evangelical circles, is a most insidious temptation. It is the spirit of anti-Christ, the exact opposite of the One who humbled Himself to become man and die on the Cross.
If we do not remember the Cross and the Savior, what he stood for and what the Cross represents, then we will certainly lose our ability to share the Gospel in our time and to even say that we are Christians.
~St. Mary Orthodox Church, Central Square, Cambridge, MA, https://www.stmaryorthodoxchurch.org/orthodoxy/sermons/2018/the-cross-tells-us.