Sermon preached by the Revd Canon Peter Moger on Sunday 10th March

A couple of weeks ago, there was the termly meeting of the Christ Church Communications Committee. One of the items on the agenda was Christ Church branding. We looked at versions of the crest in its various forms and colours, and we talked about what we should be using in different contexts. Does it matter? Well yes, it does. Visual identity matters, because logos help us to recognise an organisation quickly and easily; but more than that, logos point beyond themselves, to the things they represent – they act as symbols.

Symbols work on a number of levels. Some speak for themselves. If we smile at someone, the person who sees that smile will know instinctively that we are being friendly, warm and open. But other symbols work only if we have a certain amount of pre-existent knowledge. Take the Remembrance Day poppy, for instance. To the uninitiated, it’s simply a poppy. But to those who know about two world wars, it has a symbolic significance, and points to those who died in active service. And for others, the Remembrance poppy also points to the particular geographical location of Flanders Fields.

But I wonder what the person in the street makes of the fact that our local Ambulance Service, medical suppliers and the World Health Organisation have as part of their logo a snake on a pole? I suspect that, for many, the symbolism of that goes right over their heads.

The clue to what might seem a rather bizarre symbol is to be found in this morning’s first reading, from the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers (21.4-9). The Israelites were dying in droves, having been bitten by poisonous serpents in the wilderness. Moses prayed to God for them, and was told by God to make an image of serpent and set it on a pole; so that anyone who had been bitten by the serpents could look at it, be healed, and live.

And so the snake on a pole has, over time - and across Jewish, Greek and Christian culture - become a symbol of healing, and of life. And we might expect that people of faith who have a working knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures will look at the logo on the side of our ambulances and realise that this symbol has something to do with medicine and healing.

One of the wonderful things about symbols is that they don’t stay still; over time, they grow, and they develop. In a few weeks’ time, on Maundy Thursday, the Eucharist of the Last Supper will end with the stripping of the altars: by the end of the day, there will be no more hangings, cloths or vestments to be seen in the building. That means that we shall keep Good Friday against a background of plainness and emptiness in church. This deeply symbolic act grew out of the simple need for church communities to spring clean their church buildings ready for Easter. But as time went on, it began to be seen as a powerful symbol of the impending desolation as Jesus moved from the Upper Room to Gethsemane and on to the Cross.

The serpent on the pole is similar; it’s a symbol which has grown and developed over time, and not only as the logo of medical services. We heard it twice in this morning’s readings, in the passage from Numbers and in then again in the Gospel—from John chapter 3 (3.14-21). There, the writer records as words of Jesus to Nicodemus:

‘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.’ (John 3.14-15)

John uses this image of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ twice – once here and again in chapter 12, where Jesus declares:

‘when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me.’ (John 12.32)

On the Tuesday of Holy Week we shall be privileged to hear Bach’s St John Passion here in the cathedral. This is a work which expresses profoundly this ‘lifting up’ of Jesus. And it’s quite different in its musical and theological content from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. For the writer of the fourth gospel, it is the lifting up of Jesus on the cross which is his ultimate glorification. And so, over time, the symbol has grown the serpent nailed to the pole (originally for the benefit of only the Israelites) becomes Jesus nailed to the cross for the purpose of drawing all people to himself.

The cross itself is the most powerful of all Christian symbols. At a basic level, it is no more than two intersecting lines. Within political and military history it was a favoured Roman instrument of execution. Within salvation history, it was the means of Jesus’ death. And for those with faith in Christ, it has become the symbol of our salvation, the sign used at our baptism, and the source of our life and hope.

By making the link between Moses’ bronze serpent in the wilderness and Jesus on the cross, the writer of the fourth gospel is pointing clearly to Jesus as the one who fulfils the Old Testament. The Israelites looked at the serpent on the pole in order to be healed and to live, in the short term. We look to Christ on the cross in order to receive ultimate healing and everlasting life.

But there’s yet another layer to be uncovered. The serpent is an ancient symbol of wisdom. In the story of the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, we are told by the writer of Genesis that

'the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made' (Genesis 3.1)

and Jesus himself warned his disciples that they must be

'wise as serpents, innocent as doves.'

And so, by lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole in the wilderness, Moses was making the point that the people should look, not to their own insight, but to the wisdom which comes from God. It seems that following their own wisdom during their wanderings in the wilderness had led to godless and sinful ways—and ultimately to death—whereas to follow God’s wisdom would lead to right living, to health and life.

Again, there is a transposition of this symbol into the new key of the Christian Gospel. Jesus, the one on whom we are to look in order to live, is not only the one who brings healing and life but is himself the incarnation of divine wisdom. As St Paul’s wrote to the Corinthians:

'we proclaim Christ crucified……the power of God and the wisdom of God.' (1 Corinthians 1.23, 24)

And he goes on:

'For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.' (1 Corinthians 1.25)

So where does this leave us as we stand in the middle of Lent? The rich and developing symbol of the serpent on the pole offers us two particular challenges in our daily walk with God.

First it calls us to stop: to ‘look and live’. To remind ourselves again and again—because we will always forget—that Jesus, lifted up on the cross for us, is the one in whom we can find healing, life and peace. Passiontide and Holy Week, when we can enter most fully into the mystery of God’s love for us, lie just around the corner. The serpent on the pole is a wake-up call not to miss that opportunity.

Second it calls us to ask the question ‘upon whose wisdom am I relying as I live my life from day to day?’ The capacity for self-deception is almost limitless, and we can easily con ourselves that, as sophisticated human beings living in the 21st century, we have more than enough innate wisdom to get by, to say nothing of what is instantly available at a single click. The Prayer Book Collect from a couple of weeks ago is a stark reminder, though, that

'we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves,'

and that we do well to look for a wisdom beyond our own. This is a challenge not only to us as individuals but also as a local Christian community. As Christ Church fashions its life around a new governance structure over the coming years, we shall need a corporate divine wisdom, as we fathom out the direction in which God is leading us as a whole foundation, and as a cathedral community. Much of the responsibility here will rest with the members of Chapter and the Governing Body, but all of us need consciously to discern God’s wisdom among us as the source for our thinking, our acting and our decision-making from day to day. We can all pray for God’s wisdom to be made manifest. Such wisdom is the way to life.

God’s wisdom, as St Paul recorded and as the fourth gospel suggests, through its powerful use of symbol – is not something intangible or nebulous – but is embodied in the person of Jesus. But whatever our journey – at the end of the day, that journey should lead us to Jesus – the one in whom we see God’s love, God’s wisdom, displayed. If Lent is about anything it’s about deepening the relationship we have with Jesus – about learning to look in order to live. The Scriptures, the Sacraments, prayer, music, art, embroidery retreats and quiet days…. are all means to that end.

May God guide us and bless us in these remaining days of Lent.

God of truth, 
whose Son was lifted up on the cross
Grant us to walk in ways of wisdom, 
that we may look and live 
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.