‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up.’ (John 3:14) This, of course, is a reference to an incident that happened on Israel’s Exodus Journey from slavery in Egypt to becoming God’s People in the Promised Land. The Israelites were unhappy with their lot as the trudged along in the desert. So, they complain about their lack of food, and they blamed God and Moses. (C.f.: Genesis 3:12-13) Their situation worsens when they are plagued by an outbreak of poisonous snakes, whose bite brings death and many die. The people interpret this plague as a punishment from God for speaking against God. So they beg Moses to intercede for them with God. God tells Moses to make an image of a fiery serpent and put it on a pole — any who are bitten only have to look upon the image to find healing. (Numbers 21:8-9)

Well, if we go back to those primeval stories in the Book of Genesis, and to the story of The Fall (Genesis 3), we can see, to use its imagery, that we have all been bitten by the snake … and because of it we are all going to die. (Genesis 3:19) But, as we trudge on, today’s Gospel tells us that we, too, only need to look on the Son of Man lifted up, on the crucified Jesus, to be saved and healed. This, of course, begs the question: Saved from what, and what does it mean to be healed?

In the story of The Fall, what brought calamity on us humans was our failure to live according to God’s rules; we rebelled, following our own desires, doing what we thought would be most pleasing to ourselves … and as we still do! For this we were pushed out of the idyllic world with no way back, into a world of hardship, suffering and toil, of ongoing struggle till at last we lie-down and die. And not only that: the companionship we once enjoyed has been corrupted, degenerating into varying kinds of power-relationships where the strong lord it over the weak, and where brother betrays brother. (C.f.: Matthew 20:25; Genesis 4:8; John 18:5; Luke 22;48) This is our ‘World’ — which Jesus describes in today’s Gospel as that place where ‘humans demonstrate their love for darkness more than light, because in the darkness their evil deeds are concealed. Indeed, they hate the light and try to hide from it, for fear that what they do will be exposed.’ (John 3:19-20) This is OUR World! One only has to think, for instance, of the Robodebts, which a callous Government inflicted on our most vulnerable though they knew it was wrong. Or where usurious banks and rapacious landlords toss people out on the streets though they know that in today’s housing crisis there is nowhere for them to go. Or where hopeless and helpless refugees are incarcerated in places where no one can see the terrible things we do to them and seemingly just because we can. Or where greedy supermarkets gouge the prices of foodstuffs though they know people are struggling to feed their families. And where many of us who, when we come across one of these unfortunates, look the other way and hurry on, while thinking to ourselves, “Thank God, I’m not like that!” and assuaging our guilt by telling ourselves that, somehow, they deserve it. And this is without going into things that we individually do … like, say, domestic violence related stuff. (C.f.: Luke 18:11; Matthew 25:35) This is our world, and we are complicit in it at least in our silence. “What can we do?” people say. Well, we could at least recognise that we do need saving from our lot.

The Good News is that, though we may have given up on God, God hasn’t given up on us. Into this ‘World’ God has sent his only Son ‘so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. (John 3:16) St John tells us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In some senses, God doesn’t care what we’ve done; he’s only interested in getting us to change our way, to turn away from all these evil things that we might live in a better world. (C.f.: Isaiah 65:17-18) And the only way we can do this, as today’s Gospel has it, is by turning to look on the Son of Man lifted up … on the cross, there to see what we have done, there to recognise our own inability to stop doing all these horrible things, there to admit with St Paul, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing,” and so, there to pray with the tax collector of St Luke’s Gospel, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13. C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:41) And as we look on him up there, to see the great love that put him there. (John 3:16) For, again with St Paul, what we can see there and note is that while ‘no one will die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might dare to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:7-8. C.f.: John 3:16) And in seeing this great love God has … for me (as I am, sinner that I am), to let this great love draw us (John 12:32), from all these evil things, to God and to one another in love. (John 3:16) It’s not that we won’t fall back again, but that when we do, we turn again to look on the Son of Man lifted up, looking again at what we’ve done, and knowing once more how greatly love we are, getting back up again to have another go at walking in ‘newness of life,’ which is Christ’s gift to us. (Romans 6:4. C.f.: John 3:21) In this way we will open ourselves to receiving that Spirit of Christ, which will enable to go about doing the good we want to do and becoming a brother to Christ, a co-heir with him to the Kingdom, a son/daughter of God. (John 20:21; Acts 10:38; Romans 8:29; Galatians 4:6; 1John 3:1-2; Rule of St Benedict Prologue:49-50; 4:41-43; 7:67- 70) His Spirit will come upon us; this is the promise. (C.f.: John 14:16; 16:7; Hebrews 6:17- 20) But until then, we just need to keep looking on him whom we have lifted up, keep on coming out into the light. (John 3:21; 19:37. C.f.: 3:1-2; 7:50-51; 19:38-42) And we can join with likeminded others, going on together, supporting one another in our weaknesses, and in this way come altogether into the Kingdom. (Galatians 6:1ff; Rule of St Benedict 72:5, 12)

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO