Recently, my friend’s cousin in Palestine was killed. Because we live in a 21st-century world with instant access, I watched on social media as his shrouded body was lifted high in the air and paraded down Prayer Road, while his mother wept and could not be consoled. I listened to the heartbroken crowd confidently cry out, “Allah Akbar”— God is the greatest. I wept with my friends, even from thousands of miles, as we watched his body lifted high for all to see.
I’ve never witnessed a funeral like this — one that comes so soon after the death, and becomes such a scene of community grief. But what moved me most profoundly, and also disturbed me, was that as the crowd lifted this dead teenager over their heads, they said over and over, “God is the greatest.”
It’s times like this — when a teenager is senselessly killed — that I reserve the right to not say, “God is the greatest.” When children are shot in their schools, on our streets, or by the military in occupied territory, I reserve the right to purse my lips, turn my head and refuse to say that God is the greatest. It is a phrase that is dissonant in my ears and heart when something so unnecessary and so outrageously violent happens.
This funeral procession is not unlike Moses lifting up the snake in the desert. In this strange story from the book of Numbers, God’s people are plagued by poisonous snakes, who are biting and killing the people at random. And the only way to survive the bites was to look at that snake that Moses is holding up. In order for the people to live, they had to look at the thing that was killing them.
This is the opposite of what we usually do. If something is hurting us, we run from it. We don’t look at it; we avoid it.
But this is what God told Moses and the people to do. Look at the thing that’s killing you. That will save you.
And just as Moses lifted up that snake in the desert, so must the Chosen One be lifted up. Just as Moses lifted up the thing that was killing the people, so must we look at the cross, that symbol of all that killed Jesus, and all that is killing us.
In our story from the gospel of John, Jesus met Nicodemus in the cover of darkness. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and religious leader, who couldn’t be seen with Jesus in the light. Nicodemus represented the religious establishment, the powerful and the privileged in Jewish society. And Nicodemus had all of that to lose in coming to Jesus.
But he saw something, heard something in Jesus that he found irresistible. He wanted to be part of the reign of God, but was struggling to understand it fully.
So Jesus said these words to Nicodemus in the darkness: Just as Moses lived up the snake in the desert, so must the Chosen One be lifted up. God loved this world so much that God sent their child — God made flesh — so that everyone that believes will live. God didn’t send this child to condemn the world, but so that the world would be saved. Whoever believes is not condemned, but whoever doesn’t believe is already condemned. Here’s the verdict: Light comes into the world, but the people love the darkness, because that’s where evil hides. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear of being exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so all they have done comes plainly into view.
Jesus, who was talking to a proud and powerful Nicodemus in the darkness, was talking about a couple of things at once. First, he’s scolding Nicodemus for coming to him in the darkness. All Jesus did and taught was about coming out of the darkness and into the light. Second he’s revealing himself as God’s child, the light of the world. And finally, he’s calling Nicodemus, and all people, into the light, into the truth of the reign of God.
And, it seems, into order to do that, we have to look at Jesus raised high in the light. We have to look at Jesus on the cross. We have to look at all that killed Jesus in order for the truth to be revealed. And in the case of Nicodemus, he’s being asked to look at the thing that was killing Jesus, killing him and killing all of us, and face it in the light.
I hate to break it to you, folks, but Christianity is not some sort of sanitized religion, or a feel-good faith. This Jesus Christ we follow is calling Nicodemus and us to look at the thing that killed Jesus, and to look at the thing that is killing us.
The thing that killed my friends’ cousin this week was a system of oppression that demanded obedience to military orders barked at him, and did not care that he was deaf and couldn’t hear the instructions. The thing that killed Jesus was a system that demanded blood, demanded a scapegoat so that people could feel safe. What killed Jesus was a religious and political system that demanded things be hidden.
And that’s what kills us, too. Hidden things. Things we refuse to believe, things we are afraid to bring to light in this world.
Recently I attended the funeral of an old friend’s fiancé. He was 57, and he died of a stroke while on a business trip. I didn’t know Steve — I was there to support my friend — but after hearing so many stories about him yesterday, I decided that I’d like him. He was a talented musician, a rabid sports fan, and he loved good theological conversations.
One friend shared Steve’s favorite toast to make when he and his friends would gather together. They’d get together to sing, laugh and make music, and after the second or third round of drinks, Steve would stand and make a toast — the same one he’d make every time they gathered. He’d lift his beer in the air and say, “Onward, toward death.”
Steve’s friend said the thing that we often hear at funerals. “Steve wasn’t afraid to die.” Now, I don’t know how true that is, but I’m sure that however Steve felt about death, he was looking it straight in the eye. He was levelheaded enough to know that death is inescapable, and God asks us to look at what is scaring us, and what is killing us.
God doesn’t take away the snakes that bite us — I wish God would. God doesn’t take away the pain of this world, even though I wish God would. God doesn’t even take away death. But God says, look at the thing that kills your body and your spirit, and you will be healed.
In the same way Jesus said to Nicodemus, and to us (who are more like Nicodemus than we’d like to admit) — just as Moses lifted up the thing that was killing the people, just as the people lifted up the body of Mahmoud Al Jabari, just as Steve lifted his beer in the air and said, “Onward, toward death!” — so Jesus must be lifted up, so that we can see the things that are killing us, and see the truth of the world. Because that truth, brought into the light of day, will save us. That truth, brought into light, is healing us. And maybe as we who have our battle scars, see how far God has brought us, and experience our healing, we too can say, “God is the greatest.”
Amy Yoder McGloughlin is pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. This is a sermon she gave based on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21, first posted on Stories from the Red Tent.