Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – March 8, 2020

John 3:1-17

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

In our psalm for this morning we hear the psalmist say: “I lift my eyes to the hills. Where will my help come from?” Psalm 121 is known as a song of ascents. It was originally sung by spiritual travelers making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, particularly as they entered the Judean hills. This mountainous region was a particularly dangerous part of the journey. It was known for its unpredictable weather and wild animals and bandits and robbers. It was a scary part of the journey. And so they sang this plea, “I lift my eyes to the hills. Where will my help come from?”

As we make our way through our spiritual pilgrimage of Lent, we find ourselves in a scary time. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and the epicenter of this pandemic in the United States is right in our own back yard in King county. It is important that we try to keep perspective about this virus and not give in to the near hysteria being stoked by the media. It is important to be practical rather than panicked. But the fear is obviously out there. Major events and public gatherings in the Seattle area are being cancelled. The University of Washington has moved all their classes online so students don’t need to be gathered together. We see this fear at the national level, as people across the country are hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and as the stock market has been making wild thousand-point swings up and down. We see this fear globally as airlines are cutting flights due to sharp decreases in demand.

We collectively lift our eyes to the medical community for help. The world is lifting its eyes to doctors and medical researchers for containment advice and treatment options and vaccination possibilities. I am certainly keeping an eye on any recommendations coming from the Island County Health Department.

As we lift our eyes to the medical community – which is truly a gift of God, and through whom God is surely at work – we often see a strange symbol associated with them. This symbol is a blue star, and in the middle of the star there is a snake on a pole. I was watching the Today Show while on the treadmill at Thrive this week and they showed this symbol on the screen during their coronavirus coverage. It is a symbol you see on the back of ambulances and on the shoulders of EMTs and on many medical alert bracelets. It is a symbol that represents the medical community in general, and this symbol, at least the part in the middle, bears a striking resemblance to the graphic on the front of your bulletin this morning.

This symbol is known as the staff of Asclepius. Asclepius is a figure from Greek mythology associated with healing and medicine. But how in the world did Asclepius come to associated with this strange image of a snake on a pole? For that you need to go back even further. Many scholars believe that Greek mythology got this symbol from the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. It is widely believed that this symbol was “culturally appropriated” from the Jewish people and their story of Moses in the wilderness.

Moses was leading the people of Israel through their forty-year pilgrimage as they were led out of slavery and through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Out there in the wilderness the people started to grumble against Moses and against God. They started to doubt God’s goodness, thinking God had led them out into the wilderness only to let them die there. They failed to trust in God’s promises to them, that he was with them, that he had a future in store for them. And with their sin came an outbreak much deadlier than any coronavirus. God sent poisonous serpents among them. The snakes bit them, and they began to die. God was showing his people that sin leads to death.

Thankfully this is not the end of the story. God provided a way for his people to be healed. He provided them a way to be saved from death. God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze and hang it on a pole. Then Moses was to lift it up before the people, and all who lifted their eyes and looked upon the serpent on the pole would be healed. They would live. As they lifted their eyes to the symbol of their sin, it became the very means of their salvation.

The Greeks seem to have appropriated this story into their mythology, using the snake on a pole as a symbol for healing. In our gospel reading we hear Jesus appropriating this story for his own purposes, as a way of pointing to the healing he had come to bring.

Nicodemus came to Jesus one night. They sat on a rooftop in the cool evening breeze, talking theology, as rabbis often did. Nicodemus was trying to figure out who Jesus was and what he was up to. He and his fellow Pharisees had established that Jesus was a teacher, but Jesus wanted him to know that he was much more than that. Jesus told Nicodemus that he was the Son of Man who has descended from heaven. The Son of Man is a phrase that means the Messiah, the Savior. Jesus told Nicodemus that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus was more than a teacher. He was more than a prophet.  Jesus had come down from heaven to provide a way out of the global pandemic of sin. Jesus had come to be put on the pole that is the cross, where the symbol of our sin becomes the very means of our salvation. Jesus had come to be lifted up on this pole, so we would lift our eyes to him in faith and live.  As N.T. Wright writes in his commentary on this passage: “Humankind has been smitten with a deadly disease. The only cure is to look at the Son of Man dying on a cross and find life through believing in him.”

We are in our own spiritual pilgrimage through the season of Lent. As we heard on Ash Wednesday, as part of this pilgrimage we are invited into self-examination. We are encouraged to watch closely for the symptoms of this disease of sin in our lives. We are to watch closely for the ways we have grumbled against God, the ways we have failed to believe in God’s goodness and trust in God’s promises, the ways we have failed to walk in faithful obedience to God’s will. This is scary business, at least if you’re doing it right! It is scary because when we start to look at ourselves in this way we see that sin is a disease that we all already have. It isn’t a virus out there that we catch, it is already in each of us.

But Lent is not just about looking at ourselves. It is about lifting our eyes to the cross. It is about lifting our eyes to Jesus, where we find healing and new life. That’s why I like to use the processional cross during the Lenten season. We are training ourselves to lift up our eyes to cross, where we are confronted not only with the reality of our sin, but also the means of our salvation. As Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where will my help come from?” The question posed in this psalm for spiritual pilgrims making their way into the Judean hills is clearly a rhetorical question. We know this because the very next verses say:

 My help comes from the Lord above, who created heaven and earth. He will not let you stumble, he will never fall asleep. The Lord, the protector of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Father watches over you, always close at hand. His shadow will cool you beneath the sun and guard you throughout the night. The Lord will keep you from all evil, protect you for all your days; your going and your coming, from dawn to dusk, today and forevermore.

 It is good to be aware of coronavirus and to take measures to limit its spread.

It is good to be aware of the far deadlier disease of sin and to contend against it with all you’ve got.

But we don’t need to be afraid of any pandemic, whether biological or spiritual, because as we lift our eyes to the hills, we see that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church