A friend of mine had a tattoo on his arm with the words: That which does not kill you will only make you stronger. The words encircled an image he had seen on the cover of a book of Hindu spirituality called the Bha’gavad Gita. Matt had not been raised in a Christian home. In fact, his father was what you would call a classic seeker: someone who spent his life floating from one belief system to another. Matt used to tell me he had a great relationship with God. He leaves me alone and I leave him alone, Matt would say. He would have identified himself as Agnostic, but would really be more aptly categorized as apathetic toward religion altogether.
Several years ago, I heard from Matt after a long absence and in conversation he told me that he had been baptized and become Christian. I told him he should think about getting a cross tattoo on the other arm to go with his new life! He told me he might get a crucifix. He said he still believed that what did not kill you did, indeed, make you stronger but he also believed God said something more than just: survive if you can! “I think,” he said, “God says That which kills my people, I will destroy, for I turn death into life! The image of Jesus on the cross symbolizes that to me—God turns death into life.”
Our Old Testament lesson for today talks about the importance of our symbols through the story of serpents, both real poisonous ones and bronze ones on a pole.
The people of Israel are still following Moses on their way to the Promised Land. God had led them out of slavery in Egypt into the desert and Moses had taught them the ways of God by presenting the 10 commandments given to them by God. And God had preserved them in the desert, leading them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, giving them manna and quail to eat when there was no food to be found, even providing them water from a rock when there were no other sources of water. He had also given them success in military battles as well and, pretty much, anything the people had asked of God, he’d given them. Yet the people of God were, as we often are now, the “what have you done for me lately” people. Every time things got rough, they would go to Moses and complain. Like kids in the back of the car whining with ‘are we there yet??’ the Israelites would say “Why did you bring us out into this desert where the food is bad and we are so unhappy?” Never mind the fact that they were previously in brutal slavery and were heading to a land flowing with milk and honey that would be their very own home.
And this is where we pick up on their story today. The people of God are getting impatient again and begin to whine once more. Why did you bring us here just to die in the desert and we hate the food and there isn’t any water and whine whine whine.
Well, if they thought things were bad, they just got worse. There is a snake infestation—poisonous snakes—and their bites kill many people. They cry to Moses to ask God for help, and he does. God tells Moses to make a great symbol of God’s power and authority for the people to see and remember. Make a serpent of bronze, place it on a high pole and have the people look at it. The word here in the Hebrew is not just look at it in the sense of a passing glance, but to focus on it intently. To really see it. So, Moses does just that and when someone was bitten, they looked at the serpent on the pole—this symbol of God’s power and authority over all things—and lived.
The bronze serpent on the pole was intended to be an intense reminder, a symbolic image, a touchstone to keep the people ever focused on the reality of God’s love for them, God’s mercy for them and God’s strength over all things.
Our symbols are powerful things. Just think about the many symbols we have today. In our secular world, we have things such as our nation’s flag, which is meant to symbolize for us the rich history of our country and those who have died to defend it. School colors and mascots. Company logos, monograms and other commercial images.
Our church is full of innumerable symbols. The paraments and linens on our altar are, in themselves, full of symbolism. The altar is symbolic of, simultaneously, a place of sacrifice and of the table where Jesus hosted his last supper. The white linen draped across it, representative of the linen used to wrap Jesus’ body when it was taken down from the cross, has five crosses embroidered on it, symbolizing his five wounds. The colorful paraments each have their own symbolism as well. For Lent, we have this beautiful deep purple which reminds us of the passion of Christ. Easter will have white and gold, reminders of purity, holiness and celebration. The vestments—the garments worn by the pastor have symbolism as well. The stole is a sign of the office of pastor and it is symbolic of the yoke of Christ. The white alb comes from the book of Revelation where those who are saved dip their robes in the blood of the lamb and they are made white as snow. It is symbolic of our baptisms.
Symbolism can also be a kind of short hand or abbreviated statement of what one believes. In the fellowship hall we have a huge image of Luther’s Rose. Martin Luther designed it to be his official seal and each part and color has a particular meaning. The black cross, showing the death of Christ both painful and life giving, situated inside the red heart, the place the cross belongs. These are centered in a white flower, the renewed life and holiness Jesus gives our lives.
Our Apostle’s Creed used to be called the Old Roman Symbol. It was a statement made by Christians when they were baptized that summarized and, therefore, symbolized their faith. It was short, easy to remember, and something to hold on to, so to speak, to remind others and oneself what Christians believe and who our God is.
There is such beautiful and amazing symbolism in the church that we could spend forever talking about it. Some of it has become so much a part of the life of Christians that we even forget what it really means and must remind ourselves from time to time. However, there is also a danger in symbols. We can sometimes make a symbol into something greater than what it symbolizes. A small number of the Israelites eventually did this very thing to that serpent on the staff. In the book of Kings we read about a king of Israel, many years later, destroying that bronze serpent along with many pagan worship sites because a small group of people had begun to think that the serpent itself had some kind of magical powers. Rather than believing in the God whose power it symbolized, a whole cult had grown up around the worship of this bronze snake.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his being lifted up in the desert in the same way that Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole, but there are some differences. The bronze serpent was a symbol only—one that only illustrated God’s power. The cross is both a symbol and the thing it symbolizes. It is both an image of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and power over life and death and it is also the actual manifestation of these things as well. It is God’s love and redemption made flesh and blood. It is kind of like daffodils. The blooming of daffodils is a sign, a symbol that spring is on the way. But daffodils are also more than a symbol—they are also real flowers that really bloom and really do show up when spring is coming. Like baptism, which is a symbolic reminder of God’s salvation of creation and his people through the flood waters, the parting of the red sea and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and also the actual washing away of our sins and making us members of the body of Christ. Communion, too, which is a symbolic act in remembrance of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples AND the very real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine.
Jesus’ crucifixion was to be an image to be seen and believed to show—to symbolize—God’s power in the world. God’s power over evil. And it was ACTUALLY God’s very real power over evil in action. Moses placed on a staff a dead and conquered version of the fearful thing: the serpent. He held it up high, for all to see, as if to say, we have no fear from such things as these, serpents cannot harm us because our God has more power than this little snake. With Jesus, DEATH ITSELF is on that staff. Death itself, the very death of God, is lifted up high, for all to see so that God may say to us: no serpent, no evil, nothing, not even death itself can harm you because I am more powerful than this. I have overcome it. See this and remember. See this and know. I love you, I have saved you and you are mine. Not just symbolically, but truly.
I think my friend was right to some extent. Often times what does not kill us does make us stronger. But more than this, far more than this, he was right about God. God says That which kills my people, I will destroy, for I turn death into life!