Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 102; John 8:21-30
The birth we are witnessing has many consequences. One of them is new life - eternal life - for those who come to believe in Christ, those who come to believe that he is, as he says twice in this gospel passage, the 'I am'. He is the Lord, the presence of God, the one who reveals the Father to the world.
The salvation of humanity and the healing of the world: these are consequences of this birth whose labour pains are steadily stronger as we move through the fifth week of Lent. And these things come about alongside another consequence of infinite significance: we are given a new understanding of God. The One Jesus refers to as 'the Father' is made known to us and we glimpse what he is like.
The contrast between two pictures of God in today's readings brings this out very clearly. In the Book of Numbers God is vindictive and punishing, a 'big man' whose patience is limited, who speaks the language of sin and punishment, who is trapped, it seems, within the same recurring dynamic as the people. If they are ungrateful and complaining then he will punish them and this time he does so by sending deadly snakes among them.
We will, of course, sympathise with the people who are trying to understand God's way of working in their lives. God continues to act like an unsteady 'big man' who is at times sentimental about his people and at times angry with them. Here, when they show signs of repentance also, he immediately repents of the evil he is doing them: they kiss and make up and the story continues.
Jesus also associates sin and death. He speaks of people dying because of sin, or rather of people dying in their sins. But he does not say that the Father is out to kill them. Sin brings death with it. Sin is itself a kind of death. Who will rescue us from this body of death?, Saint Paul cries. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The bronze serpent, by a kind of sympathetic magic, cures people who have been bitten by the real serpents. Jesus lifted up on the cross is a kind of bronze serpent taking into himself all the power of sin and evil and death, so that whoever comes to believe belongs with him where he is in the company of the Father. Believing in the Son of Man lifted up is the equivalent of looking at the bronze serpent.
Jesus is also pleading with us to understand what the Father is like, that he is not the primitive god of tribal religions anymore than he is a lifeless idol. He is the one who sent Jesus and that already tells us much about him. He is the one who sent Jesus not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.
Our ego will have us focusing on the consequences for us of this birth. But the more important consequences are simply the revelation of the Father (what God is like: the only Son alone can teach us this) and the revelation of the union between the Father and the Son (I do nothing on my own, I say only what the Father taught me, he is with me, and I always do what pleases him).
Let us try to forget ourselves and to think only in the second place of the consequences for us of this birth into which Jesus is entering. Let us try instead to keep our minds and hearts fixed on him, the loving servant, the beloved son, the one who is teaching us that the life of God is love, the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as sin is already a kind of death, so seeing this divine mystery is already eternal life. 'This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent' (John 17:3).
It is no longer simply the case that God beholds the earth from his heaven. Now he leads us in our journey from this world into the kingdom of eternal love. It is a journey that will take him to Gethsemane and to Golgotha before it takes him to Easter and Pentecost.