13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
September 14 is the day on which we commemorate the discovery of the cross of Jesus by St Helena in 326, the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built at the site in 335, and the return of the cross to Jerusalem in 629, after it had been taken by the Persians.
It is customary on the feast of the Holy Cross to read the Old Testament account of Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert. It is a foreshadowing of the crucifixion, and repeated by Jesus to Nicodemus in today’s gospel. As a pharisee, Nicodemus was very familiar with the writings of Moses. In this conversation, Jesus revealed the parallel: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Of all the many names we have for Jesus, “The Son of Man” is the one by which he refers to himself. It is a reminder of his humanity and that for a short time, God became human.
The snakes that endangered the people of Israel with their fiery venom were God’s punishment for their sinful ways, and there was nothing the people could do to save themselves. They would die unless they confessed their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them. God could have removed the snakes from the wilderness, but instead, he let the snakes remain and provided a means for salvation in the form of a bronze snake that Moses was to lift up on a pole, as Jesus was lifted up when the cross was placed upright.
As the snake on the pole was God’s gift of salvation for those in the wilderness all those years ago, how much greater is God’s gift of salvation to us – His own Son, lifted up on the cross for us? Looking at the bronze snake gave them physical life, but they eventually died a physical death. And herein lies the difference: looking on Jesus conquers sin and gives us eternal life.
The recounting of the snake on the pole is followed by one of the first Bible verses many of us memorized as children in Sunday school: “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.”
When we look at the cross, we see how much God loves us. We see His love in action, complete with sacrifice. How many of us would sacrifice the life of our child to save another? I can say with all certainty I would not, and I doubt any of you would either. And what if the person was sinful and evil? But God so loved the world – He so loved us, you and me – that he gave…there’s the second action. He loved, and He gave. He gave His only Son. He gave – it was a gift, and there are no strings attached, no special qualifications, no level of education or income, only belief followed by the action of accepting Jesus as our Saviour. The cross is where God showed how deep His love for us really is.
As Jesus hung on the cross, the one who had no sin took on every sin ever committed, and every sin that would ever be committed in the future. That includes ours. As we know, the wages of sin is death, and by His death on the cross Jesus paid the price so we wouldn’t have to.
As the cross was lifted that Good Friday, the power of God’s love – the most powerful love that ever existed – was also lifted for all to see. But Jesus was “lifted up” two more times, the second time being when He rose again, and the third time when He ascended to Heaven.
Today, two thousand years after the crucifixion, the cross is a bridge between heaven and earth. This instrument of torture has today become a thing of beauty, worn as jewellery and displayed in Christian homes and churches. As Jesus told Nicodemus, we need to be born again, and the cross is where our old life ends and our new life begins. At baptism we are sealed with the sign of the cross.
The cross represents God’s grace and mercy. Grace when He richly blesses us although we have sinned and do not deserve these blessings, and mercy when He forgives us for our sins and does not give us just punishment.
God’s love for us is beyond human comprehension. The depth of His love is beyond any human emotion. God doesn’t want us to understand, He wants us to respond to His love. He wants us to love for Him, just as He died for us.
He didn’t just suffer, He didn’t just say He was willing to die for us. He did. That shows how complete His love for us was. We can live just as completely for Him by loving Him with our whole heart and by loving each other…by helping those who are in need…by offering a kind word to those who are lonely…by offering comfort to those who are suffering.
Let us truly use the cross to bridge heaven and earth.