Sermon on 11th March 2018

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 11 MAR 2018, LENT IV

Revd Angus MacLeod MA BD

 

“…see, lifted up, the one who for us drank the cup of suffering,

whose love even in death conquered its evil;

by whose living breath we also may thrive.

We turn trusting eyes, snake-bitten, upon Christ,

and the serpent dies. Andrew King (See John 3:14-15)

 

At last week’s Oscar ceremonies on of the hotly tipped films was

Three Bill Boards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

It is undoubtedly a powerful film.

Without giving too much away, it is the story of a mother’s struggle

to get justice in small town America,

after the brutal rape and murder of her daughter.

Her method of kick starting the police enquiries that have ground to a halt,

Is the renting of three dilapidated hoardings (billboards) on the town’s outskirts;

onto which she pastes a message to the local sheriff,

designed to shame him and his officers into action.

Her provocative, very public action sets off a chain of unforeseen consequences.

 

Provocative and very public, in C1st Palestine

the Romans raised crosses like billboards;

deliberately designed to demonstrate power and instill fear.

[In 6AD/CE 2,000 Galilean insurrectionists were crucified.

Might a child Jesus have witnessed such things?]

Crosses were raised up so that their message could not be ignored.

 

We have read of two “lifting up’s” this morning.

From the Book of Numbers the Children of Israel, in the wilderness –

are on the long walk to freedom from the captivity of Egypt.

The harshness of the road, the detours and delays

lead the people to grumble.

They grew impatient with their shepherd, Moses

and they murmured against their God.

 

According to scripture, just east of Palestine,

God plagues them with “fiery serpents” for their complaining against Him.

Snakes on the PLAIN!

Not surprisingly, repentance is swift.

“We did wrong; Moses we implore you,

pray to God to remove the serpents from among us.”

 

Moses does not take the huff, nor use the situation to give a lecture.

Instead he prays. The upshot is unexpected.

Instead of the snakes just slithering away,

the Israelites’ salvation will be found in an act of faith.

A bronze snake is put on a pole and raised up in the centre of the camp.

The instruction is clear.

If you are bitten, look to the snake, and you will be healed.

If you dismiss this as nonsense,

if you try other ways of fighting the venom,

if you simply lay down in your tent, then fine,

but in the end you will die.

In a snake-bitten world, persevere in faith.

Complaint is replaced by trust.

The journey goes on, their God watches over them.

 

The Gospel reading references this same tale:

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

 

The gospel writer John uses this image, to convey his message:

The same verb (Greek, hupsoun,) is used twice;

Once here, for the lifting up on the cross

and later for the Ascension, his lifting up into the heavens.

John’s understanding: the crucifixion not as an end, but an enthronement.

What looks like absolute defeat – the gateway to victory.

And just as the bronze serpent was sign and salvation to the Israelites,

Christ crucified, Christ raised up is sign, remedy and promise of life.

 

“…so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

I am not sure any of us can explain the cross of Christ,

the symbol at the heart of our faith –

it is perhaps a lifetime’s work to gaze upon it;

its meaning and relevance shifting with our own passing years.

But if stories help – and I believe they do – let me offer one that raises the Cross.

It might well have come a fortnight ago, amid our own snow,

But on mothering Sunday it maintains its currency.

And though it is a story told before, by grace, may it be worth the re-telling.

 

Norman MacLeod of the Barony Church in Glasgow

was a famous C19th Church of Scotland minister,

(author of the hymn, Courage Brother, do not stumble.)

 

(In the parish of Morven) a Highland widow,

set out with her baby son to visit a kinsman;

a journey of some ten miles between neighbouring glens,

requiring passage over a rocky, exposed high pass.

On the morning of departure the day was set fair.

But it changed; ferociously so.

In time it would be remembered as the day of the Great May Storm;

sudden driving blizzards blanketing the hill paths.

 

To begin with there was little concern for the widow –

there were multiple places along the way

where she could have found temporary shelter.

But in time, when the kinsman reported that she hadn’t arrived, concern grew.

A party of local men gathered and searched.

 

At last a cry from one of the searchers alerted the others.

There beneath the partial shelter of a great boulder

they found the frozen body of the unfortunate woman.

Initially it was a mystery, for apart from a thin shawl the mother was naked –

and there was no sign of the child.

Had some appalling attack been perpetrated?

 

Soon events became clearer.

Another searcher discovered the child – alive –

not far from his mother’s frozen body.

It lay on a bed of heather and fern,

swathed in his mother’s clothes.

 

Unsurprisingly the story of how the child had been saved

spread through the parish like wildfire.

When the widow’s body was returned to her home

the Minister offering prayers for her and her child, was barely able to speak.

What words could express what the woman had done?

 

Fifty years later, the son of that Minister,

by then, himself a Minister to a Highland congregation in Glasgow,

set out for his church for the evening service.

As he made his way through the streets snow began to fall.

On a whim, prompted by the swirling flakes,

though he had a quite alternative sermon prepared,

he chose instead to retell the tale of the Highland widow and her son.

 

He recalled how he had known the woman himself as a child

and mused how that surviving son must feel –

“If he were to look again at the clothes that she wrapped him in on that hillside

what would they speak to him?”

Then, in preparation for the forthcoming service of Holy Communion,

he made comparison with the garments/memorials of Christ – the bread and wine –

symbols of that other great giving of love –

How should we respond to them? What do they speak to us?

 

Sometime later the Minister was sent for, to attend a dying man.

On arrival the man seized the Minister’s hand:

“You do not recognise me – no matter.

I have been a wanderer for many years, including fighting for King and Country.

While I served my King, I forgot my God.

Though I have been in this city a number of years,

I have never once darkened a church door;

until some time ago, the night of the snow.

 

Passing the doorway of your church I entered it – just for its shelter, no other reason.

But as I heard the singing of the psalms I took a seat near the door.

 

So I heard you speak and tell the story of the widow and her child.

“I am that son!” Of course I have never forgotten her.

One day I will rest alongside her in that churchyard in the hills.

But what breaks my heart and covers me with shame is this –

until now I never saw the love of Christ in giving himself for me –

poor and lost though I am.

I am told my mother used to pray for me –

 and now these prayers have been answered;

she did not die in vain.”

 

“…see, lifted up, the one who for us drank the cup of suffering,

whose love even in death conquered its evil;

by whose living breath we also may thrive.

We turn trusting eyes, snake-bitten, upon Christ,

and the serpent dies.

Andrew King