Monday Morning in the Preacher’s Study
First Thoughts about Next Sunday’s Sermon
(or, in this case, Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2015)
John W.B. Hill
Numbers 21.4b-9; Psalm 98.1-6; 1 Corinthians 1.18-24; John 3.13-17
When I was a summer camp counselor, I took the boys from my cabin on a hike through the woods one day. It was very hot, and the mosquitoes were ferocious. It wasn’t long before some of the boys began to wonder aloud whether I knew where I was taking them. Then someone stepped in a hornet’s nest, and many of us got stung. Suddenly they were all convinced that we were lost, and that it was my fault — a minor mutiny.
The metaphor of the serpent in the wilderness which John uses to amplify the message of the cross (and which the lectionary has chosen to reinforce) seems bizarre. Stories of wilderness grumbling about food are frequent in the story of the Exodus, but this version is unique: immediate punishment by snakebite, and a remedy that looks suspiciously like a graven image! There are depths to this story we will never fathom — although the similarity to the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, can hardly be coincidental. The pharmacological wisdom of using a small dose of the poison as the antidote to the poison (as in vaccination) may be part of the answer. But if the people were to be healed they had to ‘face up to’ the thing they feared.
But did everyone get bitten? Or did the few who got bitten trigger a panic amongst the many who were already predisposed to fear the worst? And which was the greater danger: snakebite, or anarchy? (Was Moses perhaps viewed as the real ‘snake’?) These, after all, are some of the social dynamics that come into play in the story of Jesus: resentment about God’s failure to save us in the way we would like, a resentment we project onto any convenient scapegoat; or the unchecked power of an evil that none of us is willing to ‘face up to’ or acknowledge.
So Jesus became our scapegoat. But that does not justify using crucifixes as therapeutic charms. Rather, beholding the cross must be a ‘facing up to’ the reality of our unremitting resort to violence to express our frustrations and our fears. We have to ‘face up to’ what we did to the One who was the world’s best hope. And yet his arms are outstretched in mercy still!
It was in the shock of beholding that loving victim that St Paul awoke to recognize “Christ crucified (a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the gentiles)” as “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Holy Cross Day may be the only Church festival in honour of a holy relic, and a dubious one at that. Yet for all the implausibility of St Helena’s claim to have found a piece of the true cross, this festival nevertheless recognizes the central truth of our history – which is bad news first, but then the very best news of all.
John W. B. Hill, a Council member of APLM, is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, and chair of Liturgy Canada.
Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Tate Collections, London