Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Zachary Flack
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Isn’t this story about the snakes the weirdest story in the Bible? The people start complaining that God rescued them from slavery and brought them to the cusp of the promised land and fed them along the way with miraculous bread and meat. So they complained, and the Lord sent poisonous snakes that apparently slithered around looking for whiners and bit them when they whined. It seems like it was a bit of a slow death, too, because once Moses pleaded with God and put up a bronze serpent, the bitten had enough time to go to the serpent and look on it. But it’s such a strange story, almost like something you would expect from the Time Machine by Jules Verne. Not to mention, of course, that the last time Israel fashioned an animal out of metal they made the golden calf. That didn’t turn out too well for them.
So what’s going on in the story? John Calvin said that he thought the bronze serpent served as a kind of sacrament—that it offered a spiritual reality through material means. And I think he’s got a point. The serpent was a bronze, and yet the people merely needed to look at the serpent and believe what was promised by God—healing of their wounds. I kind of like that idea, that God sent the Israelites something they could see and know so they could receive healing and forgiveness. I imagine, although, this is poetic license, that the people in their illness crawled along with the snakes in the dirt, and raised their heads and cried out to God and were healed. One way to think about sacraments is just this way—that they are signs of a promise, signs that we can touch and see, signs that heal and forgive.
A sacrament is a mysterion, as it was originally known, “a secret thing described by words but seized by faith in the heart.” A mysterion is just what it sounds like: a mystery, not in the sense of a puzzle to be solved, but in the sense of something that is beyond understanding, just as God is beyond understanding. You may remember what Paul said about the cross—foolishness to many, but the power of God to those who believe. Above all a mysterion, a sacrament, is to be believed. It is useless without belief, because although the material things convey the promise, it is the promise that is most important: that through his Word, God saves. And yet, it is also useless to try to understand it, and by its incomprehensible nature it is somehow more real to us—a mysterion is a presence we point at but cannot bear to see, and word we hear with a meaning too deep for understanding, an emotion that will bring us to our knees if we let it run its course.
Did you know that’s what we talk about when we talk about sacraments? Although we Lutherans believe there are two sacraments, Luther himself thought we should really make say that we talk about one sacrament—and that is sacrament of Christ on the cross for us. That is the holy mystery, and that is just what Jesus says today—any who believe in the mystery of Christ will not perish but have eternal life. And so, the sign of the snake seems to be a foreshadowing of the promise God makes in Christ. God works always through means and through promises, and this raising up in the wilderness to save a small people leads to raising up Jesus to save the whole world. And yet God saves in both cases—once by a word associated with a signs, and once with the Word itself in the flesh for us. Because that is the truly great mysterion—that the Word became flesh and lived among us, and that we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
To believe in the mystery—not merely to believe there is a mystery, but to believe in it, to believe the mystery holds the meaning to this life of ours, to believe that somehow the Word come to us from the inexpressible, to believe that the revelation of God is like a brief flash of clarity in the dark, illuminating only to lure us deeper into the unknown—this is part of our faith. Faith is like this—think about being in the house when the lights go out. There’s a thunderstorm, and thunder and the noise of rushing wind and rain splatting on the windows. It’s night and you can’t see—but here and there are flashes of lightning, and by them you can find your way to your flashlights and lamps. When the power comes on, you can see all things brightly and clearly, but until then you rely on flashes of light, and faith that what you remember when you could see can help you get to where you need to go.
Jesus today tells us about God’s will—that God loves the world and will save the world. Not that God wishes that God could save the world, but that God is saving the world through Christ. We all know John 3:16 by heart, at least I hope we do, but John 3:17 is just as important: “Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Sacraments are signs of God’s love and God’s will toward us. They convey God’s promises through the Word attached to the sign. God’s promise is eternal, and everlastingly valid, because no power can stop God’s word. But still something remains, which is faith, or belief. The sacraments call out for faith—they call faith into being.
And rightly administered, the sacraments should call works into being. Jesus is the primary sacrament, the true mysterion: but notice that in both this text and in the Ephesians text where belief and faith appear, deeds follow shortly thereafter. In John, Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” And in Ephesians Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Both begin with faith, which looks to the Son of Man raised up like the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Both recognize that God’s Word calls faith into being, both when we hear it, and when we experience the presence of Christ in life. And both say that to say you believe is not enough. When we partake in the sacraments, we truly partake in the presence of Christ. We truly receive the body and blood of Christ, and we truly become members of Christ’s body. And if we look to see where Christ’s body is, we look to the cross, to see it suffering in the service of others.
To believe in the mystery is also to submit to it, and to serve it. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to phrase it in today’s culture—I like to say that faith is a coat, many sizes too big, and that we have to grow into it. But Paul tells us that God has prepared a way of life for us, a life of good works, and so our way is illumined by the flashes of light of the sacraments, so that we can see and know what to do. We are taught never to think of ourselves as suffering, but strong. Our faith shows us that we are strong when we enter the mystery and give ourselves over to the suffering God, who suffers for our sake, and who brings us into his suffering body so that we might receive the fulness of new life.
Did you know this is what the sacrament is? We proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. And we proclaim that we here, in all our own suffering, are brought together in the body of Christ to stretch forth our hands to world, to let our deeds, prepared by God for the world God loves so much, to let our deeds proclaim love. Amen.