In the story of the fiery serpents, God sends the serpents among the people of Israel to punish them for believing that he has delivered them from Egypt in order to kill them in the wilderness. When they repent and confess their sin of speaking against the LORD and his servant Moses, God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole so that everyone who is bitten by the poisonous serpents may look upon the bronze serpent and live.
In the 4th Gospel, the author compares Jesus to the bronze serpent. He writes:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (aka lifted up on the cross) so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
In speaking of Jesus being lifted up on the cross, the great Neo-Orthodox theologian Emil Brunner used to talk about “the parabola of redemption.” In the incarnation, the descent begins as the eternal Word of God humbles himself to become a human being. The lowest point of the Son’s humanity is his death on the cross, but at the lowest point, his exaltation, his lifting up, has already begun. Sinful human beings lifted him up on the cross, but God then exalted the Crucified One, lifting him from death and the grave to the right hand of his majesty on high.
“The parabola of redemption.” Well named.
In both these texts, human beings must face the evil we have done in order to overcome it and be restored to fellowship with God.
Now let’s talk about Lent. Lent is a time of introspection, during which we search out ourselves before God. There are two parts to our Lenten ritual.
First, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we search out ourselves. We identify the sin in our lives, confess it, rid ourselves of it, and move beyond it. Lent comes around once each year, it lasts six weeks; but the Holy Spirit convinces us of sin and of righteousness 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Few of us have to be told about right and wrong. Our conscience applauds the former and torments us over the latter. If you need a text for this phenomenon, consider Romans 2:15. I will let you look that up.
Second, we search our ourselves before God. I emphasize before God because we ought to spend at least as much time contemplating the ways that God has already shown his love for us as we spend searching out the sin that we have committed. That is exactly what the Psalmist is proposing in Psalm 107 when he exhorts:
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble.
If you read the remainder of the Psalm, you will find that, in verse 21, the Psalmist goes so far as to suggest that we thank the LORD not only what he has done for us as individuals, but also “for his wonderful works to (all) humankind.”
In a similar fashion, in Ephesians 2, the apostle reminds the church in Ephesus of how much God has done for them and for us when he writes:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient…but God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. For by grace, you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
I take comfort in the fact that “God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses.” This introduces a prospect of mercy and hope for even the most sinful and hopeless among us. William Jennings Bryant got it exactly right:
When we repent toward our neighbor, we repent into the mouth of a raging lion. When we repent toward ourselves, we repent up a slippery slope. When we repent toward God, we repent toward the source of all love, grace and goodness.
It is fitting that we end with the most beloved verse in the New Testament:
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
And perhaps we should add verse 17:
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Let us not waste this opportunity.