Tag Archives: crucifixion

7 July – On being a better sinner

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Pentecost 4

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 30
Matthew 2:7-15

In a sentence:
The true meaning and catastrophe of sin is known only to faith

I’d like to begin this morning with the observation that most of you are lousy sinners. By this I mean that you – and I with you – don’t sin very well. And this is a serious shortcoming for us all because it is the poverty of the quality of our sinning which is the source of our continuing fears and uncertainties in faith. The more accomplished our sin, the deeper will be our faith.

As a way into justifying why this might be the case, we let’s consider the relationship between our readings from Hosea and Matthew this morning. Those passages are linked by Matthew’s assessment of the Holy Family’s return from Egypt after taking refuge there from Herod. This looks like prophecy and fulfilment: while Hosea was in fact looking back to the Exodus, Matthew’s borrows ‘out of Egypt I called my son’ and makes it appear as if Hosea is looking forward: here is an old prophecy about Jesus, now fulfilled.

But Matthew’s borrowing from Hosea is much more significant than this; in fact, it is so significant as to change our reading of Hosea – and of ourselves – altogether. For Matthew does not claim a prophecy to be fulfilled in Jesus. Rather, he identifies what is called, technically, a ‘type’ in the Exodus from Egypt and links it to Jesus, the ‘antitype’. An antitype is an overlay of an event or person on an earlier one – on the type. This links the two in mutual interpretation, although ‘skewed’ towards the later. The type doesn’t look forward to the antitype, the first thing to the last, like a prophecy. The relationship only appears when the antitype, the last thing, appears. The Bible is full of this method of self-interpretation.

Matthew’s use of Hosea in this way enables him to cast Jesus as a kind of new Israel. Matthew also describes Herod’s killing of the Innocents, reflecting Pharaoh’s killing of the young boys in Egypt prior to the Exodus, and his portrayal of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount casts Jesus as a new Moses. ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ sends a signal about the nature and scope of what we meet in Jesus: here is the history of Israel in the process of being recapitulated.

But it is not merely a re-occurrence of what once happened. The antitype is the true reality of which the earlier type was a shadow. Or we might say that the type – the earlier event – is a memory of what has not yet happened.

This is easier to illustrate than to describe. Hosea 11 gives an account of the coming into covenant of God and Israel, then Israel’s turning away, the punishment, God’s longing for restoration and a promised reconciliation. Matthew’s casting of Jesus as Israel invites a comparison here: the intimate relationship between parent and child (the Father-Son relationship), a turning away and punishment (Good Friday), the longing of God for a restoration of the relationship (Easter Saturday), and the restoration itself (Easter Day). The life of Jesus from incarnation to the resurrection repeats the history of Israel as Hosea describes it.

But in a typological reading – the dynamic of type and antitype – Jesus’ experience from incarnation to resurrection is not an echo of Hosea’s account of Israel. Rather, Hosea’s account is an echo, or a memory, of what happens to Jesus.

That requires a bit of reflection because we are used to thinking of all which precedes Jesus as pointing to him, building up to him, so that what is remembered is how we got to that point. And perhaps there remains a sense in which this is so.

But the crucial point is this: while this section of Hosea is important for understanding who Jesus is, it is not as mere ‘illustration’ that Hosea relates to Jesus. Hosea’s preaching does not give us the clue to Jesus. Hosea relates to Jesus as a reflection of him, as a memory of him, now revealed as such because the truth of Jesus himself has been revealed. Jesus, then, gives us the clue to Hosea’s preaching. The rejection of God by Israel described in Hosea is the crucifixion of Jesus. The promised restoration is the resurrection of Jesus. Incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are the meaning of what Hosea describes, accuses of and promises.

This is not mere theological trickery. The consequences of this way of thinking are, in fact, quite stunning – and now we come to why believing more profoundly makes better sinners of us.

We noted last week in Hosea’s 2750 year old text – and we experience every day of our lives here and now – that the promised restoration or resurrection by God has not occurred. This is to say that we and Hosea’s original audience reflect or echo the restoration and resurrection in Jesus imperfectly. It has happened for him but not yet fully for us. But this is also to say that our rejection of God has not properly occurred, that we also echo the crucifixion imperfectly.

Put differently, there is a sense in which we are not restored because we have not yet sinned well enough. This is clearly wrong… but we’ll stick with it for a moment to see whether it might still get us to where we need to go. To say that we have not yet sinned well enough is not to say that we haven’t – between us – managed to commit every sin which can be committed; we seem to have that covered. Committing sins is not problem but recognising what we do wrong as sin is a problem. That is, we do not really know ourselves as sinners. It is easy to know a moral failure, but moral failure is only half-sin. A half-sinner will only be half-reconciled to God, and so feel that the good, restorative things promised are still ‘not yet’.

If this is the case, what is required here is not a deeper ‘wallowing’ in sin or a talking-up of the sinfulness of human being. The understanding of sin is not a matter of heaping something up. The clue is found, again, in Jesus. Israel’s problem is that when it hears Hosea declare, ‘out of Egypt I called my son’, the people don’t really understand that it is them he refers to. The catastrophe is in the failure to be ‘son’ – child – to this divine mother, father – the failure to thrive in the peace of being lifted to this divine cheek and the failure to die after wriggling out of that embrace. What is lost is so central to their – and our – being that, once lost, it is no longer understood.

By contrast, on every page of the New Testament Jesus is the one who definitively hears and responds to the address ‘son.’ All that he is and does springs from that address and answers it. In crucifying this one, Israel denies the true form of sonship, the true form of intimate relationship with God. The sin of Israel, then, has no proper reference point for Israel itself. It is ‘mere’ sin, ‘mere’ distance from God. The only thing which can give sin its quality as sin – which can make us ‘high quality’ sinners rather than lousy ones – is a renewed experience of the intimacy with God. In the great parable, the prodigal son forgets what it means to be a son and imagines he is a servant (and the older brother makes the same mistake). This is the prodigal’s true sin, to which the waiting father answers ‘not servant, but son’. It is the light of such a restoration which reveals sin for what it was and will be if we allow ourselves that option again. Salvation makes real sinners of us – if redeemed sinners.

It is for this reason that the only real sin is the destruction in crucifixion of the Son of God as a son, as the child of God; every other sin is just a ‘memory’ or an ‘echo’ of this – not quite the real deal even if we can discern the pattern in it. And it is for this reason that the only thing which will deal with sin is the return of the Son, the return of such intimacy with God.

And so Jesus is raised, that the Son might be once more and that we might see and know and understand.

And so we break bread and bless a cup, and take to eat and drink, that together we might be that Son in our own re-Spirited flesh-and-blood life together.

Out of Egypt God calls us, to discover ourselves to be daughters and sons in the Son, to know our sin – and to know it behind us – and to rejoice.

By the grace of God, may such knowledge and joy be ever more deepened in all God’s people. Amen.

11 March – Snake therapy

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Lent 4

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107
John 3:14-21

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

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”.

For obvious reasons most of us don’t like snakes. We’re not the first to have this reaction. Our forebears in the faith first had to contend with snakes in their wilderness wanderings. We hear that they were rebellious with their lot: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” There is no food, no water. Then the story goes: the Lord sent poisonous serpents among them, and they bit the people and many died. Moses got the job of getting rid of them by making a bronze serpent, putting it on a pole, so that whenever a person was bitten they would look at the bronze serpent and live.

What do we make of that? Well, the story comes from a very early source in which magic and magical cures are prominent. But the form in which we have the story shows that it is now used to emphasize the capacity of a beleaguered people to discover a trust in Yahweh despite all appearances.

It is worth knowing not only that the snake was a well known reptile of the wilderness, but was, in fact, worshipped by many of the Hebrews’ neighbouring tribes. The crucial thing to recognise, however, is that, unlike for us, the snake represented not only evil and destruction but also healing and hope. This symbol of the healing snake is still alive for us in what you might recall as the physician’s symbol – once shown on a car’s number plate – which shows the snake entwined around the wand of Esclepius, the god of healing. The symbol of the snake was also associated with the Greek god Hermes, the messenger god, who for the Romans became the god Mercury. A doctor in our not so distant past, who making home visits driving a Ford Mercury, was literally a god of healing!

To recognise this double significance of the snake is crucial, because only on this basis will we understand the gospel today: “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 point is that Jesus now takes the place of the serpent. When the Gospel of John uses the phrase “lifted up” that is a synonym in the first place for the Cross. Somewhere else Jesus says: “I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all people to me “. Hearing this it is almost certain that we will assume that this being lifted up refers to his resurrection or ascension.  But for John being “lifted up” carries the powerful image of an immobile – but at the same time of a consenting – Christ, arms and feet pinned to the Cross, passively crucified, physically lifted off the ground by the imperial forces of Caesar with the connivance of the Jewish religious authorities. Immobile, but glorious in his immobility crying: “It is accomplished”.

So this “lifting up” carries the same twofold significance as does the bronze serpent. The man on the Cross, like the raised up serpent, represents not only evil and destruction, but also healing and restoration.  Jesus is bitten by human poison, yet is at the same time the antidote of that poison.

However, though the texts appear to be similar, there is yet this significant difference. The ancient healing of the serpent benefitted only the immediate Hebrews, whereas the healing effected by the raising up of the Son of man is to be universal.  This we are promised in the “whoever”: “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”, or perhaps the even better translation,” whoever believes may have eternal life in him”. The Hebrews had only to look at the bronze serpent to experience healing. The “whoever” – you, me, anyone – must also see, see now not with the eyes of the body since that is not possible because the lifting up of the physical cross is an event long lost in the mists of time. But we, too, must see – see with theological eyes. For John, this “lifting up” on the Cross is not for such eyes something that happened a long time ago in a far different place. Rather, the eyes of faith see the origin of the “lifting up” in the eternal love of God for his creation, and its intention as the healing of all who believe. For John, “to see” is in this sense “to believe”, and “to believe” is “to see” – really see in the very depths of what is happening here and now. What matters is what is happening in the present act of believing, not what happened however long ago.

How significant this insistence on the present is when we reckon with the fact that most people imagine that faith is about whether or not they can believe in the so-called facts of a long departed event. How can we get people to see this difference? In the final analysis, it is the basic task of mission today, yet it seems to be the hardest task of all. For our culture is mesmerised by the claim of facts, and as far as it understands Christian faith, past facts, once to believe them, increasingly to deny them.

This is why today’s text is so important. It could be as revolutionary in the 21st century as it was in the 2nd. What it offers is a gift that is open- ended. For the “whoever” is not merely someone else – it is held out again and again to contradict whoever has assumed that the decision of faith is something always to be settled once and for all. The “whoever” stands as a permanent potential destruction of the assumed gulf between insiders and outsiders. It calls in question all who have replaced the act of faith with a settled “belief”, whether that be positive or negative. That is to say, it calls in question all who are happier with the noun “belief” rather than the verb “to believe”. The gospel is always about verbs, not nouns. Nouns, you recall, describe a state or condition; verbs speak of action, always holding out a prospect of new possibilities.

Such we have here – whoever “believes”, not whoever “has” belief. We hear from time to time of someone who has, as the saying goes,
“lost their faith”.  What that really means is that they never had faith in the first place, since faith is something that, by the definition of the gospel, is not possible to lose. It simply ceases to inform one’s life.

Arguably the promise of this “whoever believes”, compared with the conventional view of belief as a noun, is responsible for so many indifferent, sad or angry people on the boundary. But it also might reassure anxious people at the very centre who, for example, unhappy with Creeds, are not quite sure if their belief is justified.

So it is salutary to have this text before us in Lent – this time of penitence and reflection. It brings the truth of God and the truth of our lives into a living union. “Who God is” is taken care of in the lifting up of the Son of man, in his own body imbibing our poison and achieving our healing. “Who we are” is taken care of in the “whoever” which invites us to this exchange in the always renewed act of faith, transforming the perishing, often poisoned, experience of our existence into a permanent offer of abundant life which nothing can harm.

So – have a renewed respect for snakes!