The Bronze Serpent

holy-week-filtered

by Fr. Joe Lawrence

Numbers 21:4-9

So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Numbers 21:9

Biblical “typology” is the practice of reading a passage of the Bible, often from the Old Testament, that is about one thing and realizing that it is also about something else. To take a clear example: Genesis 22 is about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on mountain named Moriah. But for Christians this passage is also about the God’s willingness to give his only Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for us and our salvation on another mountain named Golgotha. The sacrifice of Isaac is a “type,” a rough sketch, of the later and greater reality of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I find that my heart never fails to grow strangely warm when I catch a glimpse of my Savior, Jesus Christ, playing on the words of the Old Testament.

I caught another sight of him in Numbers 21:4-9, an admittedly unusual passage of Holy Scripture.

As the story goes, Moses is leading the people in a roundabout way through the desert, and the people once again grow impatient and start grumbling. From their perspective, the chips are down, they’re on the verge of dehydration and starvation, they’ve lost all confidence in Moses’ ability to lead, and worst of all, God has let them down. So, they complain against Moses, and against God, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” This kindles God’s wrath, and he afflicts them with deadly, venomous snakes. Under the heavy hand of God’s judgment the people repent:  “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” Moses prays, and he is told to make a bronze snake and hoist it up on a pole so that anyone who was bitten can look upon it and live. As the people looked upon the very symbol of their affliction (i.e. a snake) they found healing. By looking at the curse, the curse was reversed. The many snakes killed with their venom, but the one snake that was lifted up took that venom away and gave life.

I’m not alone in seeing Jesus Christ in this passage. Jesus himself says it, too. He told Nicodemus one night, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The snake that Moses hoisted up for the people to look upon and be saved, this is a “type” of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus himself says this!

Here is what St. Augustine says:

“What is the serpent lifted up? The Lord’s death on the cross. For as a death came by the serpent, it was now figured by the image of the serpent. The serpent’s bite was deadly, the Lord’s death is life-giving. A serpent is gazed on that the serpent may have no power. What is this? A death is gazed on, that death may have no power.”

A snake was lifted up to destroy the power of the snakes; Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die, and by his death he destroyed the power of death. By looking at the curse (the death of Christ), the curse is reversed.

This is precisely what we come to do in Holy Week. To gather and set our eyes upon the cross of Jesus Christ, by which he conquered the power of death. For “the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Once again, I’ve caught a glimpse of my Savior, and my heart is strangely warmed.

Fr. Joe ministers at Trinity Anglican Church

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Greater Glory

Lent IV

by Fr. Joe Lawrence

John 9

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2

A whole book of the Bible, the book of Job, is devoted to undermining the simplistic notion that our circumstances are a reliable indicator of God’s attitude toward us. In other words, if we are healthy and wealthy, and flourishing in life, then it must be that God is pleased with us and is rewarding our good behavior. On the other hand, if we’re struggling or suffering, it must be that we’ve done something wrong, something to displease God. The book of Job says a resounding “No!” to his sort of thinking. While it’s true that we live in a fallen world and that as sinful members of that world we bear the consequences of sin’s legacy of brokenness, we can’t box God into a neat and tidy formula such as righteousness=blessing or sin=suffering. We can’t, in other words, look at our bank account for insight into God’s good pleasure with us (or lack thereof).

Though they had read the book of Job, Jesus’ disciples somehow forgot all this and slipped into the prevalent thinking of day. They asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The idea was that since sin=suffering, this man’s congenital blindness must be the result of his parents’ wrongdoing or his own. Regarding the latter possibility, it could be that he sinned in utero or maybe God foreknew his sin in later life and punished him in advance. The very absurdity of these suggestions indicates how powerfully rooted the neat and tidy formulas had become in the minds of many.

Jesus thinks differently.  “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents,” Jesus said, “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus refuses to identify the origin of suffering; he’s more concerned with the end of suffering. The man’s blindness is an occasion for the display of the glory of God that brings healing and restoration. This is what Jesus does, isn’t it? He takes the brokenness of our lives and turns it to his glory.

So, Jesus takes a bit of dirt, which reminds of the dirt from which God formed Adam. Could it be that this is a work of new creation? Well, Jesus takes the dirt and makes mud and puts it on the man’s eyes, and he tells him to go wash up in the Pool of Siloam, which reminds us, perhaps, of the renewing waters of baptism. And the man is healed. Years of suffering have met the transformative power of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus does.

There is no getting around the difficulty of suffering. The Bible never seeks to minimize it. The Bible doesn’t seek to explain away the mystery of suffering with a formula like sin=suffering : righteousness=blessing. What the Bible teaches us is that Jesus Christ, without minimizing the harsh reality of suffering, nevertheless overwhelms our suffering with the greater power of his glory.

This is our hope in life in this dark world. Suffering is a mode of life in this fallen world of ours. But suffering is also not the end of the story. It’s the occasion for the overpowering display of God’s glory. Paul puts suffering and glory in the balance and concludes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). This, too, is our hope.
Fr. Joe ministers at Trinity Anglican Church

Flickering Faith

Lenten-activities

by Fr. Joe Lawrence

John 4:27—end

The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household.    John 4:53

Jesus loves to see in us a great and mighty faith, a faith that confidently overcomes every challenge and assault, a faith unmixed with doubt. Biblical examples abound. When the Gentile centurion told Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” Jesus was astonished (better translated, ‘shocked and amazed’) at his faith (Matthew 8:5-13). Nowhere in all of Israel had he found such faith. When the woman with the flow of blood crept up to Jesus thinking to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed,” Jesus extolled her mighty faith. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you” (Matthew 9:18-26). When the cheeky Canaanite woman told Jesus that even the dogs eat the crumbs under the master’s table, Jesus, again astonished, answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (Matthew 15:21-28).

Jesus loves to see in us a great and mighty faith, but he’s more than willing to work with a weak and trembling faith. Isaiah was speaking of Jesus when he said, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). In other words, Jesus doesn’t trample on the weak and hurting, telling them that if they had more faith, they wouldn’t be suffering. He doesn’t snuff out a flickering faith; he fans it into a flame. When we come to him saying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24), he takes the little faith we can muster, and he blesses and multiplies it. Jesus meant it, therefore, when he said that faith like the grain of a mustard seed could move mountains (Matthew 17:20).

The royal official comes to Jesus with faith—but a weak faith. This is understandable: his son is ill, close to the point of death. Jesus uses the opportunity to chastise the crowds about a faithless desire for a show: “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe.” The official undeterred by this speaks simply as a father with a struggling faith, “Lord, come down before my child dies.” Jesus tells him to go; the deed is done.

At this moment, the man’s faith springs into action. He takes Jesus at his word and departs. We have to stop and imagine how difficult it would be to depart. If my son were sick, nearly to the point of death, I would want some sort of sign or verification to confirm the word of Jesus. I’d want Jesus himself to come and do the healing so that I’d know that it was done right. Trust, but verify. The man simply trusts.

On his way home he gets word that his son was healed. On a hunch he asks, “When did it happen?” “Oh, the fever left him at 1 in the afternoon,” comes the reply. “The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ And he himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:53).

Do you see how Jesus takes this desperate father’s flickering faith and fans it into a flame? Yes, Jesus loves to see in us a great and mighty faith, but he’s more than willing to work with a weak and trembling faith.

Fr. Joe ministers at Trinity Anglican Church

I Myself Will Go

ash-cross

by Fr. Joe Lawrence

Genesis 45:16—46:7

“I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.” Genesis 46:4

Jacob must have been hesitating to go down into Egypt. We know this because God appeared to him in a vision telling him, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.” At this point in the story, Jacob and his sons have discovered that the once-dead Joseph (or so they thought), is now alive and lord over all Egypt, and he’s extending a saving hand to his dying family. Joseph has invited them to come into Egypt to survive the devastations of the famine that had swept through the whole known world. But Jacob hesitates to go down there.  I think I can understand why. Even though he was something of a nomad, as were his father, Isaac, and his father’s father, Abraham, nevertheless, he had put down roots there in that land which would be known as “Israel” one day. There is more, however, to Jacob’s hesitation than worry about uprooting his life and his family from the familiar. He would be leaving the Land of Promise—the land God had promised to his people, the land where a tribe of nomads would become a great nation called into existence by the living God—and he’d be heading into Egypt, which we later discover is the land of slavery, the house of bondage.

Without the Land the dream dies. The Land was central to all the promises God had made to his people. And if this is the case, wouldn’t going down into Egypt seem to threaten the promises of God? Why does God ask Jacob to put himself and the promises of God in such a vulnerable, dangerous position? Why does God lead Jacob into Egypt?

For that matter, why did God give Joseph a great dream but then allow him to be sold into slavery by his own brothers? Why would God anoint David to be king and then have Saul chase him down with murderous threats? Why would God put his love on the people of Israel and then have them hauled off into exile? Why would the Shepherd of Psalm 23 send his flock on a walk through the valley of the shadow of death? Why would God lead his faithful to the martyr’s stake? Why would God not preserve us from anxiety or depression or grief or suffering, but allow us to walk right through them? Why would God promise us life (John 11:25-26) and then allow each and every one of us, and each of those we love, to die? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?

We’re not given a perfectly satisfying answer to this (and, yes, it is a single) question in either this passage or anywhere in the Bible. But here is what this passage does say: “I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.” Jacob and the people of God are being beckoned to danger and to suffering, but God will be with them; and their suffering will not be the final word, for God will bring them up again. This may not be completely satisfying, but it’s the (yes, single) answer that is given.

We too are beckoned to suffering in some form or another, and we are beckoned likewise to our death. But God will be with us, and our suffering and death will not be the final word. God will raise us up again. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.

Isn’t it obvious? Doesn’t this verse scream out the name of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One? Isn’t Jesus the One who has gone down with us into the suffering of death? And isn’t he the One who has taken up life again so that he can bring us up again? Isn’t this verse really, after all, about Jesus, his Cross and his Resurrection?

Indeed, this is God’s answer to that single, all-important question, “Why, God…?”

Well, on second thought, I suppose there is something satisfying about that.

Fr. Joe ministers at Trinity Anglican Church

I Will Give You Myself

Advent 2017

December 20

Mark 8:11–9:1

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:35

Poor Simon Peter. One moment he is basking in the glory of having identified the true identity of his master Jesus (“You are the Christ!”), and the next moment he is being rebuked for rejecting the Cross of the Messiah (“Get behind me, Satan!”). Nevertheless, we could possibly thank Peter. For what follows Peter’s rebuke is the most majestic and powerful teaching about the meaning of the Cross in the Christian life from the lips of Jesus himself.

Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Christian life is no walk in the park. It’s not a pleasant stroll “in the Garden,” as the old hymn has it. One day, yes, we will walk again with the Lord in “the cool of the day,” unburdened with the sin that weighs us down, our vision unclouded by the dust of sin. But the path to the Garden leads us by way of Golgotha. Whoever would come up after Jesus to the Father’s house must first shed the old self that is enthralled to sin, in bondage to Self.

No half measures will do. An outward show may impress the world, but God sees the heart. He sees who we really are and concludes: death to self is the only way.

But isn’t this too hard? Isn’t Jesus’ yoke easy, his burden light?  C.S. Lewis explains in that masterpiece Mere Christianity:

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier [than that of the world]. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over  the whole natural self, all the desires which you think are innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

Ah yes, this is hard, but what we get in return for our own selves is God’s own self—his life, his power and his presence working within us. This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is easy, his burden light.

What would you give to gain God? I think I’d give my very life. God promises I’ll get it back. But I’ve got a hunch that I won’t miss it much. I’ll be too busy enjoying the love of God without the dust of sin clouding my eyes.

Afflicting the Comfortable

Advent 2017

December 15

Mark 6:14-29

John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.

It has been said that good preaching often comforts the afflicted but must sometimes afflict the comfortable. We fallen and sinful human beings find it all too easy to get cozy in our sins. When this happens what we need is not the warm, comforting voice of love but rather love’s loud voice of judgment. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the most gracious thing God can do for us sometimes is to let experience his judgment. For this can rouse out of our sins and set us on the path of grace and holiness once more. Sometimes we need to encounter the voice of judgment, if we ever have a chance at hearing rightly the voice of mercy.

Kendall Harmon tells of Susan Howatch, who wrote fat, racy novels in the 1970s. She had it all—fame and fortune. She was “on a roll” until something happened that caused her life to fall apart. Her marriage came unglued, and then her thirteen year old daughter informed her that she would rather live with her father. Susan was stunned. She reflected later on, “It made me think about everything. I felt a complete failure as a mother. Religious conversions come in all shapes and sizes and mine was not a Road to Damascus, but a cumulative effect…It as the most alienating, destabilizing experience. All the things I thought important, like money and success, weren’t important at all. God had stripped me of everything.”

What happened to Susan Howatch? Kendall Harmon explains, “Susan met Jesus Christ in judgment, and it was the greatest blessing in her life. She reoriented her life with a new foundation and is now an even more successful novelist.” Susan heard the voice of judgment and then the voice of grace and mercy.

John the Baptist has been calling out with the voice of judgment to Herod and Herodias who are in an illicit marriage. While Herod is somewhat perplexed by the voice of judgment, he longs to hear more. But Herodias despises this voice and seeks to silence it—by murder, if necessary. She prevails, but in doing so she loses. For by silencing the voice of judgment, she will never hear the voice of grace and mercy, like Susan Howatch did. John afflicted the comfortable, but because this was not received, Jesus couldn’t comfort the afflicted.

We, too, often try to silence the wholesome voice of judgment. We ignore it. We avoid troublesome passages of Scripture. We tune out a sermon that strikes too close to home. We tell ourselves that God isn’t concerned with our “small sins”. We compare ourselves with “worse sinners.” We ignore the guilt until the feeling of guilt goes away.

Don’t do this! Listen to the voice of God, whether it comforts or afflicts. If it afflicts, you can be sure that even so it is the voice of love which is seeking to bring you, by and by, to the place of comfort, even if by an arduous path.

 

 

God Is Able

Advent 2017

December 11

Mark 4:21-end

 “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.  He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” Mark 4:26-27

Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons is about the courage, the integrity, and finally, the execution of Sir Thomas More, who was caught in the political machinations of England under Henry VIII. The king wanted an heir to the throne, and in that political climate it was everybody’s problem. Cardinal Wolsey complains:

Wolsey: Then the King needs a son; I repeat, what are you going to do about it?

More: I pray for it daily.

Wolsey: God’s death, he means it…You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To govern the country by prayers?

More: Yes, I should.

Most of us feel differently than Sir Thomas More. We think it’s well and good to pray, but surely we should supplement our prayers by helping God get things done.

The little parable of Mark 4:26-29—one of the shortest of Jesus’ parables—clarifies most incisively who really gets things done in the Kingdom of God. A farmer scatters seed on the ground. He sleeps. He rises. He attends to other matters on the farm. Meanwhile, the ground of itself produces the growth of his crops. He’s not responsible for the abundance. He doesn’t even know how it works. When the harvest is ready the farmer goes to work again.

This parable presents us with a man who has his work to do, and he does it. He also knows that there is work that must be done but not by him. The farmer plants and he harvests, but if he tries to make the seeds grow, he’ll be getting in the way.

God is the one who gets things done in his Kingdom. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do. The farmer, after all, plants the seeds and brings in the harvest. This is hard—back-breaking—work. But the point is that the farmer’s activity has to give way eventually to the work that only God can do: make things grow.

There are a number of things only God can do, a primary one being the changing of hearts. Only God can change your neighbor’s heart. If you try, you’ll only get in the way and probably ruin a relationship. Only God can change your heart. If you try, you’ll only change your behavior at best; at worst, you’ll fall deeper into pride.

But God can do it. That is why we pray—because we know God is able where we are not.

Do you believe this? Do you pray with this kind of confidence? Or do you try to supplement your prayers by helping God do his job?