SERMON: The tree of shame was made the tree of glory; and where life was lost, there life has been restored
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 11 March 2018
I’ve grown to appreciate processional crosses! That’s a very clerical opening remark to a sermon, but it’s true! We don’t use a processional cross at the evening service here, but at the main morning service we do. And as I walk in and out of church I find myself looking up at our lovely wooden processional cross.
Maybe it’s because I am a clergy person and often find myself following processional crosses that I’ve grown to appreciate them, but I don’t think it’s just that!
At a Cathedral when I’m in the congregation, particularly when the Cathedral is full for something like an ordination service, I can’t always see the people moving around in procession but I can see the great processional cross raised high above everyone, indicating where the procession has got to.
It’s very moving that the object that we put on a pole and lift up high is the cross.
We sing about it in hymns, on Good Friday we may solemnly process it into church and place it in front of us all, and week by week I walk behind our processional cross here at St Mary’s to begin and end our Parish Eucharist.
In our first reading this evening we heard how Moses was told by the Lord to make a serpent of bronze so that whoever looked at it, if they had been bitten by a snake, would live.
It’s a strange reversal.
Snakes were, and still are, objects of horror. According to the Genesis story:
The serpent was more crafty than any other wild
animal that the Lord God had made.’
In the story of the people of God journeying through the wilderness, many are dying having been bitten by snakes.
So in response to the prayers of Moses, God tells him to make out of bronze this object of horror and put it on a pole so that it can become a sign to the people, of God’s protection. Eventually this pole is put in the Jerusalem temple until it is removed and smashed to pieces during a period of reform when Hezekiah was king.
An object of horror becomes a symbol of salvation.
And that’s what happens to the cross in the Christian faith. It too suffers a strange reversal.
In Roman times the cross was an object of horror, used extensively for capital punishment by the Roman authorities.
In the Old Testament, many years before the time of the Romans, anyone who was hung on a tree was judged cursed not just by other people but also by God (Deuteronomy 21.23).
What struck the first Christians so forcibly was that God takes this object of horror and places his own Son on it:
‘The tree of shame was made the tree of glory;
and where life was lost, there life has been restored.’
Saint John in particular stresses this, both the shame and the glory of the cross, by using the words ‘lifted up’.
Jesus is lifted up both onto the cross and also into heaven. In Saint John’s way of understanding things, they are one and the same moment, one and the same action by God, Jesus being lifted up to draw all people to himself (John 12.32), or as we heard Jesus say to Nicodemus:
‘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.’