And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
[Numbers 21:8-9]

“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. 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.”
[John 3:16-17]

On September 14, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Cross.

The late Philip Pfatteicher, in his New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, writes that the cross of Christ was found at Jerusalem during the time of the emperor Constantine, somewhere around the year 350.

As with most Church festivals, this celebration of the Holy Cross, which began as early as the Fourth Century, evolved over time, and underwent several iterations, until becoming a fixture on its current date.

For Lutherans, it is a time that invites us to reflect on Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross,” and its significance.

The purpose of this brief essay, however, is not get into some deep theological discussion on that topic, other than to state that the cross is a sign of hope for those who despair.

It can almost go without saying that we are in the midst of turbulent times. The list is endless: a pandemic, climate change that is wreaking havoc on all the earth, racial unrest, political discord, economic disparity. It is the proverbial rabbit hole.

And the question that springs to mind for all of us is, where is God in all this?

The two scripture passages at the beginning of today’s post are from the assigned readings for this day.

In the Old Testament reading from Numbers (beginning with verse 4), the Israelites again display their impatience in the wilderness. They are sick of eating manna and complain again to God and to Moses. So God responds by sending poisonous snakes to bite the people, and some of them died. When they realize their blunder, they repent. Moses appeals to God and God’s solution is the bronze serpent on a pole that heals.

The message of the story is reinforced in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the reading from the Gospel [John 3:13-17]. God does not condemn the world, but through Christ, God saves the world.

Caduceus – Traditional symbol of medicine

One doesn’t have to be a theological scholar to draw a parallel between the poisonous serpents and our current COVID-19 crisis. We continue to flounder in this quagmire of controversy over mask and vaccine mandates, while many are unwilling or unable to realize that God is active in the world through the science of medicine, the research, the health care workers, and all those factors at work in an effort to heal us.

There is a quote by Luther that applies just as much today as it did in his time. He called John 3:16 “the heart of the Bible, the gospel in miniature.”

And Luther went on to say that if he were the Lord God, “and these vile people were as disobedient as they now are, I would knock the world to pieces.”

We can thank God that Martin Luther is not God. God doesn’t need to condemn anyone, they do it themselves.

On this day of the Holy Cross, let us keep in mind that the message of the cross is grace – sheer grace.

The shame of it is, however, that not many people understand that message of grace.

Mural drawn by youth at the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston in 2019

So allow me to boil it down to this:

Everything God does is because God loves us.

Everything God does is done in love and with love.

Apart from love, there is really no other relationship we have with God.

That is the grace that we believe in.

That is the greatest gift that God gives us.

For many in our world, the church is an alien concept. Church buildings are curious but foreign territory. Many seekers are looking for God but are reluctant to enter the doors of the church, because they are bewildered by it all. For some, the closest they may get to the Christ and the cross is the Christ and the cross they see in us.

That is what it means to be a witness for the Lord – to make God’s love known by loving God and loving one another, and show others that we are disciples, by living lives of love and humble service.

Published by pastorallende

Retired Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Social justice and immigration reform advocate. Micah 6:8. Fluent in English and Spanish. I enjoy music and sports.

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