What are you looking for? [Lent 4B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Lent 4B
John 3:14-21
What are you looking for?
What are you looking for? These are the very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John.  Andrew, the one who will become his first disciple, is following him on the banks of the river like an awkward fan seeking an autograph and Jesus turns and rather abruptly says to him, “What are you looking for?”

It is a question Jesus never stops asking, a question that passes eternally from his lips to our burning hearts: what are you looking for?  And it is a question that becomes especially poignant during this season of Lent, this season that exists in the shadow of the cross.  And as looming shadows often do, sooner or later, this shadow too draws our eyes to its source.  And as the days of Lent shorten, our gaze moves from the shadow on the ground to the cross, and then from the rugged wood of the cross to the ragged body of the one who is lifted up on that cross.   

I find it interesting that this is the language Jesus uses and that this is the comparison he chooses: the serpent in the wilderness from the story in the book of Numbers.  A snake on a stick held high above a nation riddled with pain and misery.  The bronze serpent was held up as the solution to the people’s problem.  As they do for much of the book of Numbers, the people complain against God and against Moses – and then the snakes come.  The same people who miraculously escaped the chariots of Egypt, who survived on manna in the wilderness and water from the rock, are now dying in the desert of snakebites. 

In their pain and misery they cried out to God for salvation.  And the solution, the salvation, God gave them was a bronze serpent.  What was placed before their glossy, tear-plagued eyes was their most immediate fear on a stick: haunting salvation.  They did not touch the snake.  They did not lick a healing potion off of its metallic body.  The serpent was not rubbed on the wound or waved over the punctures like a magic wand.  It was simply lifted up – the bronze serpent on the pole – and they looked at it; they saw it.  And they were saved.

That is the example Jesus uses in today’s Gospel: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  And this is not the last time in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to his crucifixion in such terms.  Later in the Gospel, in the twelfth chapter, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

It is almost as if being up high and lifted up was the only way Jesus could catch our attention, so distracted are we by all the busy-ness on the ground.  Amidst all of the many distractions, all of the many flashing lights and screens fighting for our eyes, it is the chilling shadow of a crucifix that finally has the power to draw our eyes to the only thing that can save us from the distractions.  Somehow in a picture of death, we find new life.

It is not necessarily the picture of Jesus we want.  Every crucifix, a Good Friday moment frozen in time.  A reminder that we most often prefer to forget.  The cross places before our eyes the weight of our guilt, the terrible role we play in the passion drama.  And it confronts us with our own mortality, the fate we share with the One hanging on the cross.  It is not the picture of Jesus we want, and yet, it has the power to hold our gaze.  Somehow, though his mouth is silenced by an absence of breath, the Jesus on the Cross, the Jesus lifted up, still begs the same question, still pierces our hearts with his eternally inquiry: What are you looking for?

What is supposed to look like salvation and healing, somehow, like the serpent on the pole, reflects back at us the very things we fear – as if to remind us of the divine cost of the gift of grace and the willingness of God to share our suffering.  I am reminded of Frank Horne’s haunting poem, On Seeing Two Brown Boys in a Catholic Church. He writes:

It is fitting that you be here,
Little brown boys
With Christ-like eyes
And curling hair.

Look you on yonder crucifix
Where He hangs nailed and pierced
With head hung low
And eyes all blind with blood that drips
From a thorny crown…
Look you well,
You shall know this thing.

Judas’ kiss shall burn your cheek
And you will be denied
By your Peter –

And Gethsemane…
You shall know full well…

You, too, will suffer under Pontius Pilate
And feel the rugged cut of rough-hewn cross
upon your surging shoulder –

They will spit in your face
And laugh…
They will nail you up twixt thieves
And gamble for your garments.

And in this you will exceed God
For on this earth
You shall know Hell –

O little brown boys
With Christ-like eyes
And curling hair,
It is fitting that you be here.[1]

What are you looking for?  Because on this cross what you will find is your most immediate fear reflected back at you through the eyes of God.  Mothers will see the death of a child.  The timid will see the cost of great courage.  The innocent victims will see that not even God can escape the fury of the oppressor.  Mortals will see that death comes for even the best of us. 

This cross, holding tightly to its crucified Savior, it does have a way of drawing people to itself.  It does have a way of holding our gaze.  Maybe it is healing.  Maybe it is freedom from fear.  Maybe it is salvation.  Maybe it is redemption of the pain and misery that plagues this world.  Maybe it is a sign of hope in the broken body of God.  What are you looking for?

The cross stands so high over history that it is impossible to ignore.  It stands lifted up before a cosmos desperate to grasp the full meaning of an object at once as simple and crude as two pieces of splintered wood and yet infinitely meaningful.  The cross, this symbol of death, that God looks at and sees a symbol of life.  Somehow the snake is also the healing.  Somehow the cross is also the salvation. 

Deep in the divine mystery, this cross that seems so final, as if nothing could ever happen in the universe after the death of God, is where we see hope and healing and salvation.  Just when it seems that the story is over, the last word is nailed down, God turns the page.  And our eyes lifted once to see the cross, see the light of a new day breaking through the clouds.

[1] 3000 Years of Black Poetry, 212-3.