Lift High The Cross

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2006 at 8:23 pm

Good morning. When I was in my mid-twenties, I knew something about me wasn’t right. I was sad and depressed a lot of the time, and I was anxious and fearful about many things. I was intelligent and had a good education, but I felt lost, and I couldn’t decide what to do with my life. I had some good friendships, but my romantic relationships were, how should I say, less than satisfactory, characterized much more by need than by love. I started having panic attacks. I had absolutely no idea what was the matter with me. All I knew was that I was one messed up dude.

Then, one day I was in a book store, and I happened to pick up a book called “Co-Dependent No More.” As I began to browse this book a gigantic light turned on in my life. I had grown up with an alcoholic mother, and I knew this must have affected me somehow, but I had no idea how. As I began to read Co-Dependent No More, everything about my life began to make sense. The portrait the author painted about the psychological baggage that children of alcoholics carry described me perfectly. This book was a mirror that clearly showed me who I was. Now I knew why I was messed up. Now I knew why I had boundary issues, and why I was taking care of people all the time. Now I knew I wasn’t crazy. Now I knew there was hope. Picking up that book that day changed the course of my life.

During the season of Lent, the church provides us with many mirrors that show us who we really are. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a mirror that show us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. The stations of the cross are a mirror that show us that our earthly journey is often a journey of sorrows and death. The stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday is a mirror showing us that one day we too will be stripped of all that we are. When we look into the mirror of Lent, we see ourselves.

Our Lenten readings this morning tell us about a very special mirror in which we can clearly and honestly see our reflection. Like the book I picked up in the bookstore, looking into this mirror can change our lives.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all people to himself. In John chapter three, Jesus says something very similar. He says that just as Moses lifted up the snake in desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. The story of Moses lifting up the snake in the desert gives us some powerful clues to how Jesus’ death will bring healing to the world.

In the book of Numbers, chapter twenty-one, God’s people are having a very rough time. They are wandering in the desert, and they are not happy campers. In verse five they spoke against God and Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in this desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!! In other words, “why aren’t we there yet!!”

Well, Yahweh didn’t like their attitude, so He sent venomous snakes among them. The snakes bit the people, and many of them died. Why did God do this? God was teaching His people that the face you present to the world is the face the world presents to you. In other words, the world mirrors our attitude.

We know what principle this is like. If we approach the world in a suspicious and paranoid way, then the world is always a conspiracy of people trying to get us. If we approach the world as victims, then the world always finds a way to victimize us. And if we approach the world like snakes, with biting anger and bitterness, then the world always finds a way to bite us right back. This is what was going on with God’s people in the desert. They were angry. They were bitter. They were venomous against God and Moses. So, in order to teach them that the face we present to the world is the face the world presents to us, God sent them poisonous snakes as a perfect mirror of their attitude.

And the people got it. Sort of. They knew things had gone very wrong, and that they had sinned against God, so they begged Moses to do something. The people realized they were wrong, but they didn’t really know why. So, in the midst of this horrible disaster in the desert, what does Moses do? He walks into the middle of the people, and he doesn’t say a word. All he does is hold up a pole with a bronze snake on it. And the people must have thought, great, here we are dying of snake bites, and all our fearless leader can think to do is hold up a stupid snake on a pole? But you know what? It worked! Everyone who looked on the snake was healed.

Why? Because they realized, for the first time, that the snake was them. The symbol of the snake was a perfect mirror of the bitter, venomous condition of their hearts. When finally they saw themselves clearly in the mirror of the bronze snake, they were healed.
As a psychotherapist, I absolutely love this story. It is so psychologically right on. The right symbol, the right mirror, at just the right time, can be incredibly healing in our lives. When I picked up Co-Dependent No More in the bookstore, I was in the same condition as the people of God in the desert. I didn’t know the true condition of my heart, and the world had been beating me up real good. But at just the right moment, when I was ready to see it, that book showed me who I was. And I began to be healed.

Now, Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that all who believe in Him might have eternal life. What does this mean? It means that Jesus is the perfect mirror, and when we look into God’s perfect mirror, we see ourselves, and we are healed. That’s big stuff. That’s the whole gospel right there.

What do we see when we look into the perfect mirror of Jesus? First, we see Jesus’ divinity. Teilhard de Chardin, the great Roman Catholic theologian, says that we need very much for Jesus to be fully human. But Teilhard says, even more, we need Jesus to be God. Humanity yearns for someone who transcends both humanity and mortality, someone we can hope in and worship, someone who is the fulfillment of our highest aspirations. Jesus perfectly reflects, and fulfills, our deepest yearnings, hopes, and dreams.

When we look into Jesus we see a perfection reflection of God. In Hebrews chapter one, verse three, the author says that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being. The Greek word for exact representation means something that bears the exact imprint, or the exact stamp, of the original.

In the Roman world when a government official sent a document to another official, he placed his personal stamp on wax that sealed the document. The imprint in the wax bore the exact representation and the exact imprint of the original. Jesus is the exact imprint, the exact representation of the Father. In perfectly reflecting God’s being, Jesus, when He is lifted up, shows us what we have been longing for our whole lives. In clearly seeing both God, and ourselves, we are healed.

Next, when we see Jesus lifted up, we see His lifelong struggle against evil. Jesus said now is the time for the prince of this world, the devil, to be driven out. Jesus battled evil from the very beginning. Shortly after He was born Herod tried to kill Him. As Jesus began His ministry He was tempted by the devil in the desert. Several times the crowds and Pharisees tried to stone Him. One of His best friends, Peter, was used by the devil to try to undermine Jesus’ need to suffer and die. Another friend of Jesus, Judas, betrayed Him. All His friends deserted Him in the end.

Just like Jesus, all of us have struggled against evil. We have all felt that scary, cold something in ourselves, in certain situations, in particular people, and in the world, that can only be described as an evil force working to destroy us and the ones we love. We all know if we are not careful, that evil force uses our weaknesses to turn us away from God. In one way or another, we have all been wounded by the prince of darkness. We have all felt the devil knocking on our door.

I didn’t ask for my mom to be an alcoholic. She didn’t ask for her dad to be an alcoholic. We are both victims of the evil of addiction. No one here ever asked for the evil things that have happened to us. Being human means evil sometimes touches us.

When we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, in the supreme act of resisting evil, we see ourselves, the victims of an evil world where the devil still has power. Jesus on the cross is the perfect mirror, portraying our own personal struggles against the devil. In seeing our deepest struggles with evil in Jesus’ struggles, we are healed.

Next, when Jesus is lifted up, we see His innocence, the innocence of a lamb being led to the slaughter. Jesus lived only to serve others, and yet, the world too often turned against Him. His own brothers and sisters doubted that he was the Christ. The Pharisees, the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy, rejected His message and hounded Him every step of the way. His disciples never really caught on to what Jesus was saying. The crowds thought He should be a conquering King. In a show trial His own people handed Him over to the Romans to be executed. He was crucified among thieves. Jesus was innocent of ever harming anyone, and yet the world harmed Him whenever it could.

Jesus’ experience is our experience. Sometimes, no matter what we do, life just doesn’t work out. We can do everything right, and still lose. We can pour ourselves out for our families and friends, and nevertheless be utterly rejected. We can give ourselves unselfishly to our work, and then be fired for no reason at all. We can take wonderful care of ourselves physically, and still contract a terminal disease. We can love and nurture our church, and still have it wounded by something completely outside our control. We all know what its like to give life our very best shot, and end up totally defeated. We are all lambs being led to the slaughter.

Jesus knows what we are feeling. He lived a perfect life, and lost everything. When we see Jesus lifted up, in His innocence we see our own innocence in the face of a world that is often very cruel, and in seeing ourselves in Him, we are healed.

In addition to Jesus being an innocent lamb led to the slaughter, Jesus was also the sinless lamb of God. Jesus committed no sin, yet he took on the sins of the world. In the face of everything the world and the devil could throw at Him, He prayed that God would forgive because we know not what we do. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

Beholding the sinless life of Jesus reveals our own sin. We have not only been victims of evil; we have perpetrated evil. We have not only been defeated by a cruel world; we have defeated others by our cruelty. We have not only been tempted by sin; we have tempted others to participate in sin. We have not only been betrayed by our friends; we have betrayed our friendships and forsaken those we love. When Jesus is lifted up, His sinless life reveals how far short we all fall, and His life reveals how much we all need Jesus to be our Savior. When we see this, we are healed.

Finally, when Jesus is lifted up, we see Him participating in the great mystery of death. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The person who loves his life will lose it, while the person who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

The entire story of the universe is a story of life and death. Galaxies are formed, and galaxies die. Stars are born, stars die, and from the supernovae death of stars come new stars and planets. Seasons bring life, and seasons bring death. Life gives birth to new life. Death of life provides the food and sustenance for new life. Relationships are born, and relationships die. Our parents are born, they love us, and then they die. We will follow them to the grave. In creativity we build and give meaning to our lives. In death we will be remembered no more.

Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, participates fully in this great mystery of death. The God who gives life to all things dies lifted up on a cross. The story of the universe becomes God’s own story. Death is trampled down and transformed by God. It is an incredible mystery.

As we experience death in our lives, Jesus asks to trust Him. He tells us to remember the lesson of the seed. Unless the seed falls to the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit. We need not fear death. There is life on the other side, and fruitfulness that we can’t even begin to imagine. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, and we see him participating in and transforming the great mystery of death, we know that though we will die, we will never be abandoned, and in this certainty we are healed.

Just as the bronze serpent became a mirror that healed God’s children in the desert, so too gazing into the mirror of Jesus’ perfect life shows us who Jesus really is, and who we really are. In seeing this, we are be healed. But how? How does seeing ourselves in a mirror heal us?

The answer is that we become what we gaze at. If we stare at potato chip ads all day on T.V., then we become a couch potato. If we gaze deeply into the materialism of our culture, then we will judge our worth by how much money we make and how many toys we have. But if we focus our attention on who Jesus really is, and who we really are, then we become honest and authentic Christians. Honestly and authentically knowing who we are is healing. Honestly and authentically knowing who we are builds character.

In our reading this morning from Jeremiah God says that He will make a new covenant with His people, a new covenant where “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.” God does not want His people to follow the law as an exterior code of conduct. He promises to write His law on our hearts, and make it a part of our very being. In other words, His law will become part of our character. His law will imprinted on our souls. When we focus our gaze on Christ, we become Christlike.

Remember the Greek word I mentioned earlier from Hebrews that said that Jesus was the exact representation of God? That Greek word is ‘karacter’, from which we get our English word character. To be the exact representation of something means you bear the character of something. You are authentic because you carry the character of the original.

We are authentic Christians because we carry the imprint and character of God in our hearts. We are children of God because His law, through the New Covenant, is not an exterior code but His character imprinted on our souls. Through beholding Jesus on the cross, we honestly and authentically know who we are, we know who Jesus is, and in this knowing God’s character is burned into our souls. We are authentic. We carry the character of the original. We are little Christs. We are children of God. We are healed.

When I picked up “Co-Dependent No More” in the bookstore, I saw myself for the first time. That was not the end of my healing, but the beginning. Because of that experience I immediately got into therapy, and I am still healing today. It hasn’t been easy. But it has been good. Very good. And I am very happy to report that my mom has been sober now for over twenty-five years. God is healing us both.

Lent is not an easy time. It is never easy to see ourselves honestly and authentically. The church gives us many mirrors during Lent in which we can see God, and ourselves. Through these holy reflections God is building his character in our souls. May we continue to gaze at Christ lifted up during the remainder of Lent, and may His imprint in our souls become a light to the world.


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