Ms. Sara Emmerich
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 22, 2009
Number 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Numbers 21:4-9 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 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.
Ephesians 2:1-10 You were dead through the trespasses and sinsin 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. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved useven when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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 prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
John 3:14-21 And 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.
“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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.”
When I hear the word salvation, my mind doesn’t always go to scripture passages or hymns or theological discussions. Because I spent about 14 years between the ages of 10 and 24 being outside of the church, the way I heard about salvation was through well-meaning though quite frightening church members. “Have you been saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as Your Savior? Have you found salvation?”
These questions always built up to Scout Sunday, when my Girl Scout troop sat in the pews of our hosting Southern Baptist church. The preacher always put forth a very emotional and passionate sermon, and all the people in the congregation would let out “Amens” and “Praise Jesus!” Then came the altar call. The preacher would call the congregation forward at the end of the service. A few came up, crying at times and weeping on their knees, to be saved and to receive salvation.
Though I had a deep belief in God and an on again off again idea of the divinity of Christ, those words and phrases about this thing salvation never matched how I experienced God. They always made me feel excluded and rejected from those who were calling us forward. It didn’t seem as if I were doing anything terribly wrong that I needed to be saved from, and I could not quite fathom what the preachers were talking about. What were those people being saved from, and how were they being saved? The next day they still seemed to be living the same type of life, so I didn’t even know what that moment was supposed to have done for them.
I soon discovered that I was not the only one with this confusion. When I became an English teacher, I had the pleasure of reading Langston Hugh’s essay “Salvation” semester after semester. He writes about the hope and desire he had to literally see Jesus during a revival and to be saved by Jesus during the altar call. As the preacher moves through the rhythms and pace of the sermon, all of Langston’s fellow friends and peers go up to the altar to be saved.
But Langston is still literally waiting to see Jesus, and refuses to move forward as the members of his church gather around him and continue to sing, pleading for him to go forth. Eventually, he does, but he goes because of peer pressure and not because of any moment of conversion. At the end of the essay, his aunt hears him crying and thinks it is because the Holy Ghost is in his life, but the opposite is true. Hughes writes: “I was really crying because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everyone in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe that there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help me.”
During a class discussion on the essay, a student described the moment as “Being saved from the untested beliefs of a religious institution and being led into the truth of the world.” A few of his classmates let out a deep and ironic “Amen.”
But I don’t think that we should discard these moments so many congregations experience. My experience and Langston Hugh’s experience aside, many of my friends and mentors of mine have shared their own salvation experiences at the altar, and all of those experiences seem very real and genuine. Part of it was where their hearts were at the time, and another part was just recognizing what was meant by salvation.
The Greek word for salvation can be translated as either “save” or “heal.” In Hebrew the words that refer to salvation contain the letters yodh, (like our Y) and shin (like our S). Jesus’ name in Hebrew is Yeshua, or “God Saves.” But save us from what? And heal us from what? And how?
In our Hebrew scripture lesson today, the Israelites were physically healed from the snake bites that they received in the wilderness. But their healing was not just physical–they needed a way to be healed in their relationship to God. Their complaining and bitterness as they journeyed throughout the wilderness caused this relationship and their relationships with one another to be dysfunctional and out of joint. Their complaints morphed into poisonous snakes that turn, bite them, and even kill them. After Moses prays on their behalf, God offers them healing. But first they have to recognize what they did to veer off the path.
By looking up at the bronze snake, a representation of their wrongful actions, they recognize and ask forgiveness for their wrongs, they receive healing. By letting go of their weariness, hunger, and sorrow of traveling, they are able to be reconciled and healed back into a relationship with God.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that sin, in essence, is not really about violations of law. Sin is the violation of relationships that the law seeks to prevent . The broken relationships are with one another, on a personal level. But they are also broken relationships in our society.
Jesus sought to heal those relationships. In our Gospel lesson today Jesus tells Nicodemus that, “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 not perish but have eternal life.”
Here Jesus is making an audacious claim. Jesus is going to become the bronze serpent on the pole. He is going to be a reminder of our wayward glances, our complaining and bitterness, our wrath and anger, our violence and hatred, our greed and dishonesty.
And the Son of Man looks like us, as in he is human, maybe closer to a Mideastern Jew in the 1st century than your average AU student, but he is human and he is going to endure human suffering. Enduring our wrath and pain, Jesus will be the reminder of our missed marks, our iniquities, and our rebellions against God. He will heal those who also, like him, endure the suffering others unjustly inflict on them. As we see our sins in Jesus’ suffering, God will also freely forgive us as we see how our human actions cause so much pain.
The transformation that takes place, as we recognize our sins and experience God healing us from them, is what I always understood salvation to mean. What I saw happening in that Southern Baptist church, and what Langston Hugh’s saw happening in his own church, were people giving that pain and suffering to a higher power and being healed and restored in their relationship with God. They were receiving salvation.
But what does salvation lead to? What does it transform us into? Many traditions point us to life after death, the “eternal life” that Jesus talks about in John. And there is great hope in that. But what about us in the here and now? Supposedly we’re changed people and changed communities…but do we really live as if we are changed? In the Greek, Jesus is not saying “Whoever believes in me…” as in whoever gives intellectual assent to a belief thought. He is saying “Whoever believes into me.”
Throughout Hebrew scripture, the emphasis is not on our lives after death, but how we live out lives so the world around us is also transformed. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “The point of human life on earth, as any son or daughter of the Torah can tell you, is to assist God in the redeeming of this world now.” Salvation is not just for our personal relationship with God. Salvation is part of God’s transformation of the world, and we are part of that movement.
And it is not easy. We see how brokenness is experienced by our fellow human beings when we try to combat problems like homelessness, unfair wages, human rights violations, war, and so many other sins that are in our society. But when we first come ready to fight these battles, we become overcome by how intricately woven this brokenness is. And how we contribute to that brokenness.
A friend of mine used to be a high school counselor, but after two years quit and went to law school. When I asked him why, he said that it was a never-ending battle. A student would come to his office with an incredible amount of pain and anger, and the two of them would painstakingly talk it through together. They would go through countless sessions, and he would think that the student was finally set up right, finally healed and stable. Only to find out the next day that the student had committed a crime or some other offense that caused them to be suspended, expelled, or sent to juvenile prison.
The problem, he said, was not just the kid, but the brokenness in society the kid lived through. He went to law school to change those systems. Of course, once in law school he became infinitely more disillusioned with our criminal system, but he realized that transformation had to take place on a societal level as well as on the personal level.
It is not easy. In fact, I find it overwhelming. So did the Israelites as they were walking through the wilderness. But God blesses us so that we can, through our lives, bless others. The promise of salvation is to the living, to us, and to the world around us. We have to figure out how to live into that promise. As Reynolds Price once wrote in regards to the salvation of his past sufferings, “You are dead. What are you going to do tomorrow?” What are we going to do with our tomorrow?
Hughs, Langston. “Salvation.” 10 March, 2009. https://courses.vcu.edu/offline.html
May, Gerald G. A Dark Night of the Soul . San Fransisco: Harper Collins, 2004.73.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation . Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 2000. 58.