Lift Him Up
Christ Church UMC
Fairview Heights, Illinois
March 15, 2015
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
If God can save the Hebrew children from snakebite by looking at Moses serpent of bronze on a pole; and God can save the world through his Son not condemn it through his perfect love; if amazing grace can save us through faith in Jesus Christ why is it so difficult to do what the Son of Man desires namely “Lift Him Up?” Lifting him up is a no brainer if one believes in the promise of John 12:32 “And I, when I am lifted up will (not might) draw all persons unto me.” The apostle Paul has no qualms celebrating Christ in Ephesians 1:12 “…we who were first to set our hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory.” One of the lectionary scriptures for today, specifically John 3:14, focuses on one of the earliest versions of Lift Him Up, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Today’s sermon inspires a delightful but piercing interrogative. What part of “Lift Him Up” do we not understand?
A famous and secret encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus takes place. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. Holding up and honoring God and Moses are the dominant motifs of his life. As Bishops have a responsibility to “guard, transmit, teach and proclaim the apostolic faith,” so do the Pharisees. So does our Lord albeit from a different perspective. Though Christ respects the traditions of Mosaic Law, he is God’s Son. Above the honored tradition of the Lawgiver and or the Ten Commandments stands a relationship of highest priority. That is the relationship - the connection - the plan of salvation formed and shaped between God the Father and God the Son.
Not willing to lose his job as a Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus meets Jesus at night and in secret. Then, he admits that Jesus is a “teacher come from God” and that “no one can work miracles unless God is with him.” Nicodemus is probably referring to the wedding at Cana of Galilee. The wedding precedes Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Somehow, he learns about Jesus changing water into wine at the Wedding Feast. Unlike most of his peers on the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus has a high opinion of this non-Pharisee. His peers live into the conflict, hostility and enmity between Jesus and the Pharisees but Nicodemus cannot. Mosaic Law is important. Studying and observing the Torah, and/or the Writing and Prophets in the Hebrew Bible are right and reasonable. For Nicodemus, Jesus is a prophetic anomaly, a public servant for all God’s people that he cannot ignore privately although he does so publicly. Christ’s magnetic personality and ministry attract him. And, his Word convicts him. “You must be born again.” While Nicodemus cannot understand how a man can enter his mother’s womb again and be reborn; he does understand that rebirth in Christ requires voluntary not forced change, voluntary reformation of his Pharisaic ways and a lifting up of Christ in his life for the very first time. More pointedly, Nicodemus understands the danger of knowing Christ publicly. One’s life is subject to a higher set of risks, challenges and commitments. Anyone who comes after Christ must engage in self-denial first then take up a cross.
Is that the present state of those of us who are “card carrying” Christians? We lift Christ up privately not publicly. Organizations to whom we belong or provide high profile leadership need not know how much Jesus means to us, how he is or has transformed our lives, how his forgiveness and amazing grace have given us a new lease on life. Some folk share the dilemma of Nicodemus. They represent a different faith tradition. Jesus is a good man, a holy man maybe a prophet but is not seen as the Messiah, Allah, etc. In January, I spent a couple of weeks in India. Christians comprise less than 3% of the population. Lifting up Christ requires making itself known in an environment where it is a minority religion. Holy men and women from Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism etc., dominate the scene. Occasionally, persecution of Christians occurs. Consequently, followers of the Way tend to practice their faith quietly or practice in privately so as not to disturb or threaten the multiple faith tradition and context in which Christianity finds itself.
Criticize Nicodemus if we must. Yes, he takes the risk of seeking out our Lord in private. Yes, if he is found out, it’s probably “curtains” for his position and career in the Sanhedrin Council. But if you have a hole in your soul like the man in psalm 42 who is cast down; if you are weepy like Peter upon his denial, distraught like Judas upon his betrayal, it’s better to seek out the one who can provide “living water” for one’s soul salvation. Are we not in that same boat at times? It’s uncomfortable to lift up Jesus though we scream “Go Cards!” Or, our best friends may not do church so we don’t bring it up. He who dares to say to the best and worst of us “Go and sin no more” or “You must be born again” challenges us to embody the spirit and word of Acts 1:8. “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria even to the ends of the earth.” A story in John’s gospel gives us a clue of how a Pharisee can lift up Jesus whether it’s the last thing on his mind or has never done it that way before.
In John’s gospel, chapter four, a tired and thirsty master stopped at Jacob’s well for water. A Samaritan woman arrived so he asked her for a drink. Shocked, the woman informed Jesus that he was out of line. Speaking to her was taboo. Jews and Samaritans never talked to one another. Our Lord begged to differ. In no uncertain terms, our Lord informed the woman, that the gift of God, namely living water, is not constrained by the fact that she is a woman or Samaritan. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, give me a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water,” Jesus said. That the Samaritan woman is surprised demonstrates what we often discover about God the Father and the Son of Man. God is always doing “a new thing” anywhere, anyplace, anytime. One of the new things God has continually done at Christ Church is helping you grow or make disciples.
Someone named Bishop sent me a 2014 fact sheet crammed with new happenings. For example, you approved a new children’s wing for construction in 2015. Second, eight weekly services in four locations has Fairview: Christ poised for more growth. February 27, I received a text message from a Bishop that said Christ Church was “…recognized as the third fastest growing United Methodist church in America.” Could that growth be attributed to “living water” come down from Jesus the Christ?
One of the new things Nicodemus learned from Jesus came in the form of an analogy. In it, our Lord made a comparison between Moses and himself. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” he said. Two men, whose lives were separated by nearly 1400 years, were venerated. A story in the book of Numbers 21:1-9 explained why Jesus made the comparison.
The Hebrew Children wandered in the desert for a long time. Periodically, they got mad at God and Moses. God and Moses had brought them out of Egypt into the desert to die. Food, water and shelter were in short supply. Upset by their constant complaints, God sent poisonous snakes to bite them. A lot of people died. Convicted over their rebellion, the people confessed their sins to Moses and begged him to intercede for them. Moses prayed and God answered with a specific instruction. Moses was ordered to fashion a bronze serpent and mount it on his pole. Anyone bitten by a serpent that looked at it would live. Moses complied. Poisonous snakebites ceased to be a concern. Just one look at Moses’ pole solved the problem. However, God’s solution created another problem.
After Moses died; things changed. The bread of heaven was soon gone and so was theological clarity. His leadership was gone; so was the pole that saved people from snakebite. In its place, God sent the Word, the Law and the Prophets. None of those elements seemed adequate to address the long term problems of humankind. So God did a new thing. He sent his Son. As James A. Francis wrote in his poem nothing and no one has “affected the life of mankind on this earth as much as that one solitary life.”
John the Baptist lifted up Christ by crying in the wilderness. And folk came to repent and lead new lives by the boatloads. Peter testified about his lord and three thousand folk joined the church. John Wesley attracted thousands to the Methodist movement by engaging in Field Preaching sometimes called Open Air Preaching. Down through the corridors of time, men, women and children have witnessed for Jesus Christ. Lifting up Christ bore fruit as well. Maybe the singular lesson learned by Nicodemus as he reflected on Jesus’ analogy is this. The Son of Man came to do more than Moses’ pole. Moses’ bronze pole saved people from snakebite. But Jesus saved us from sin, showed us how to live, took care of soul and body right now and in the age to come.
How do we know? Jesus blows the roof off his secret meeting with a testimony most of you know by heart. Over twenty centuries, this inclusive affirmation resonates with the hearts of believers all over the world be they Jew or gentile, Protestant or Catholic, American, Australian, African or European, Iranian, Iraqi or Indian, enemies or friends, Pharisee or non-Pharisee. To Nicodemus Jesus says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” On this basis alone, we are compelled to lift him up. Why is illustrated in what follows.
When Congressman John Lewis introduced President Obama to deliver remarks at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the march on Selma for voting rights, one newscaster pointed out why. It had nothing to do with his 28 year tenure in Congress - nothing to do with his honorary doctorate degrees from prestigious universities like Brown, Emory, Connecticut and Harvard Universities - nothing to do with his high ranking role as a Democrat or as a native son of Alabama. The privilege was extended because of the nature of his sacrifice.
Formerly a Lieutenant in Martin King’s non-violent struggle for civil rights, John Lewis nearly lost his life on Bloody Sunday. He and many others suffered tear gas attacks. Then, a police baton fractured his skull. Lewis almost died. His work and sacrifice led to the historic Voting Rights Act. Baldheaded at 75 years young, the marks of that club can be seen on his head. Since then, Lewis’ willingness to suffer, to lay down his life for a good cause has inspired praise. His sacrifice and the ultimate sacrifice of women like 39 year old Viola Liuozzo will never be forgotten. In other words, the nature of Lewis sacrifice has inspired multiple generations to lift him up the last fifty years.
For over 2000 years, the Son of Man who talked to Nicodemus has been feted and celebrated around the world. The nature of his sacrifice for the whole world compels that we lift him up. Last month, we saw where the Holy Family lived in Egypt having escaped the death threats of King Herod. We visited Nazareth where he grew up and the hometown folks tried to kill him after he preached his first sermon. We paused in the general area of the Upper Room where our Lord declared someone would betray him. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we oohed and ahhed over a 3000 year old Olive Tree that must have witnessed Jesus’ titanic struggle over whether he would go to the cross for you, me and the whole world. Up and down the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the cross), we walked tracing the route Jesus took carrying the cross to Calvary. There between two thieves, he died after whips, nails, spear, sun and derision made him suffer. Hurting and even more inspired Nicodemus showed up at the cross with Joseph of Arimathea to remove his body and bury him in a new tomb. But on the third day, he got up from the grave and we’ve been lifting him up ever since. Nicodemus never got around to publicly recognizing Jesus as Lord. But he lifted Jesus up in his own way.
Paul may have said it best in Philippians 2: 10, “at the name of Jesus every knee shall be and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!!!” I’m saying to you “Lift Him Up.” Amen.