Roderick P. Frohman Third Presbyterian Church
March 18, 2012 John 3:14-21

In the last couple of weeks there has been more nuclear saber rattling in the Middle East. There is a strange dialogue occurring about who is going to nuke whom first.

The US says to Israel,

“Hold back, we will talk, investigate, sanction and strike Iran if necessary.”

Israel says, “We reserve the right to strike first.”

Iran says, “Death to both of your houses, we will strike whenever we please.”

Every time something like this happens to or in Israel and Palestine, the question surfaces in my mind, “why are these people fighting so viciously over a piece of desert?” We all know the answer; the land is holy to three world religions. But why is that land holy? Why not the Alps, or the Maasai Mara preserve in Kenya? Why not the Amazon rain forest or the Adirondacks? Of course we know the answer to that too. Those beautiful areas are not disputed, at least not as vociferously by three world religions. I find the Middle East very fascinating, but certainly not physically beautiful. You know I could get rather agitated about the defense of the Rocky Mountain National Forest, but the Negev desert, or the semi-arid hills of Judea? I don’t think so.

What gives here? Jews and Moslems see more in their land than the topography, they see more in their land that the landscape. They see inscape. Inscape is landscape in depth. The poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins can help us with the idea of “inscape.” He says,

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But melody is what strikes me most of all in music, and design in painting. So design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I, above all, aim at in poetry.”

So Jews and Muslims fight over the desert, a land that is filled with their forbearers’ blood. They somehow see a beauty in its ugliness. May this contrast serve as a metaphorical entry point into the heart of Lent: the ugliness of the cross of Christ.

In our Old Testament lesson of the morning we have a situation in ancient Palestine in which the people of Israel were compelled to deal with something ugly and repulsive, a snake, or specifically a snake as an object of healing.

The context of the story is this. The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness in the middle of a 40-year detour to the Promised Land. They are hungry, thirsty and afraid of dying. They are free from their taskmasters in Egypt but now the cruelty of the wilderness is their master, and the nomads are attacked by an infestation of snakes. To the bite of discouragement is added the bite of poisonous snakes and many Israelites died. Assuming in classical Semitic style that their misfortune is punishment from God, they plead that their mediator should contact the Almighty to remedy the situation. So Moses prays and comes up with the divine solution to bronze one of those poisonous snakes, stick it on a pole in the middle of the nomad encampment and directs all those bitten to gaze on the snake and be healed. The story says it worked. They looked at the snake and recovered.

Now keep in mind that this is no easy task for Jews for whom snakes are not exactly kosher. A snake was an object of repulsion. They were asked to sustain repulsion, to focus on the object of the invasion and be healed.

This ancient legend may have actually been a story about parasites instead of snakes. In ancient times infection by parasitic worms was common. The filarial worm crawled around the victim's body, just under the skin. It could have come from eating rotten meat, especially pork. Physicians and ancient mendicants treated this infection by cutting a slit in the patient’s skin, just in front of the worm’s path. As the worm crawled out the cut, the physician carefully wound the pest around a stick until the entire organism had been removed. It is believed that because this type of infection was so common, physicians advertised their services by displaying a sign with a snake on a stick. (The Caduceus vs. the Staff of Asclepius. Remember that the symbol of the Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius, is a snake on a staff. The wand of Hermes contains a snake and is featured as the medical symbol, the caduceus, on the jackets of doctors and nurses in modern hospitals.

There is an ancient principle of healing illustrated in this biblical legend and it concerns focusing on the diseased part of the body. The principle is, healing can come when we recognize the ambivalence or opposition within us. It is possible to stay sick, or get sicker, because we refuse to deal with the repulsiveness that lies within us. There is a technique that has been rediscovered in the last few years and is seriously in use in hospitals as part of the overall spectrum of therapies including surgery and pharmaceuticals. The technique is called “imaging.” One images, or focuses on the repulsive, diseased part of the body or mind in an effort to promote healing. This method is also used in psychotherapy to deal with anxiety disorders by focusing on the anxiety rather than running from it. ( Reid Wilson, Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks, 2009, Harper Perennial )

Now let us set aside these ancient images for a moment. We will come back to them.

In our New Testament lesson we have the famous night time encounter of Jesus with a member of the Israelite legislature, Nicodemus. If this were a modern setting Nicodemus would be a member of the Knesset. Nicodemus is fascinated with Jesus but not fascinated enough to seek him out in broad daylight, but nevertheless a sincere seeker concerned about having a relationship with God. So, he has just asked Jesus what he must do to become connected with God, what he must do to experience spiritual rebirth.

Among the metaphors used, Jesus reminds him of the bizarre wilderness legend with Moses and the snake, and then says to him, as well as to us, “If you want to be healed, if you want to enter the kingdom of God, if you want to have authentic re-birth beginning now, then, as the ancient Israelites gazed on the ugliness of the snake and were healed, so you must gaze on the ugliness of the cross.”

We are aware of the old gospel hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross” which is “an emblem of suffering and shame.” Thy hymn writer goes on to say that he “Loves that old cross” because it is the “dearest and the best.” Really? I don't think so. I think it is the most repulsive and the worst. Yet the cross with Jesus hanging on it is the focus of Lent and at the center of our faith. The cross is an ancient and repulsive method of executing common criminals. Our Gospel text tells us that if we gaze on the ugly cross we will have a fulfilling and eternal life. Really? I mean, really? Jesus says:

“And Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

How is this possible? Perhaps two stories can illustrate.

In 1933, a 10-year old white boy witnessed a lynching of a black man in the south. It was a haunting experience that seared on his mind forever the ghastliness of the event. He remembered exactly where the lynching tree was located on the edge of his boyhood town.

As a 60-year old man, he went back home for a visit and tried to find site of the old lynching tree. After several days of looking he found it in a new suburb. There it was, sticking up behind a new house, the huge, oak lynching tree. Slowly he went around to the back of the house, and there saw a grey haired African American man digging in the garden. There were children swinging on a tire swing, having a great time, swinging from the very tree limb on which the lynching had taken place. The white man stood there and stared incongruously at the scene. Finally, the owner noticed the staring white man and asked,

“May I help you?”

Then the white man told the story of the lynching. The black man listened patiently, and then responded,

“Yes, I know about the lynching too,” he said. “You see the man who was lynched on this tree was my father.” After a stunned silence, the white man asked,

“How can you stand to live here?”

“Well,” the homeowner answered, “It is difficult, I still see the lynching, I still hear all the sounds, the laughing of the Klan and the choking of my father. I still can remember the smell of my father's burning flesh. But that lynching changed my life. I discovered that my father suffered for me. Therefore I was able to join with others in creating a society in the South where lynchings would never happen again. So now, when I look at my grandchildren, I realize that they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that lynching. I absolutely don’t want it to happen again. It doesn't need to happen again. Once was enough. Someday I may show my grandchildren newspaper clippings of the ugly act when they are able to understand what it means. But I can live at peace now because I see the repulsive beauty of the lynching tree.”

The son of the lynched man saw the inscape in the landscape of the lynching tree.

In the ugliness of the cross of Christ do we see its beauty? Or has the cross of Christ become to us such a tame symbol on necklaces and lapel pins that we no longer see the stark terror behind it?

In staring at and facing the ugliness of the cross of Christ we discover that the cross has the power to change lives because it moves people first to despair when we realize the tragic consequences of hate, a hate that kills the one who taught the truth of God and modeled the way of God in his life. Then, as we continue to gaze on the Son of Man lifted up we realize that we daily contribute to his re-crucifixion and we become very sorry about our participation in his death. Then out of our contrition we realize the importance of this death and somehow we are changed by it and discover the newness of life possible beyond this death. This is faith, that there is a future, a hope, a new tomorrow. We discover the power of the cross to transform us from apathy, through despair to a new sense of power for living. This is a power made perfect in weakness. “The cross is the perfected expression of divine power. It is the great clue to the character of divine reality that orders and governs all things.” (Douglas Ottati, Jesus Christ and Christian Vision, p. 88)

We move from despair to hope because we realize that Jesus was lynched for us. We begin to see the inscape in the landscape of the cross. The crucifixion is no accident on the way to the empty tomb. We have to face the ugly and dark corners of our lives personally and socially if we want an Easter. The eye of faith pierces beneath appearances. If we seen the inscape of the cross despite its ugly landscape, we discover new life and new hope. New hope like this.

A school teacher was employed to help hospitalized children with their school work. On one occasion she was given a most difficult assignment with a twelve-year-old boy who had been recently admitted. But no one had prepared the teacher to find the young patient as she did, in the burn unit, horribly disfigured and in great pain.

Not wanting to walk out on him, she just stammered,

“I’m. I’m the, the hospital teacher and your classroom teacher has sent me to help you with nouns and verbs.” Fighting back nausea the hospital teacher struggled through their first lesson on a Friday afternoon.

The next Monday one of the nurses asked the teacher,

“What did you do with that boy? We've been so worried about him, but since your visit, his whole attitude has changed. He’s finally fighting, responding to treatment. It is though he has just decided to live!”

Later the boy explained that he had really given up hope until that teacher came to see him. He pointed out,

“They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and verbs with a kid who is dying, would they?” (Lenten Devotional Booklet, PCUSA, 1991)

Return to Third Presbyterian Church