Monthly Archives: September 2014

Serpent on a Pole, and Jesus on the Cross

In indigenous Presbyterian churches, I usually encounter a strong objection to the figure of the cross.Cross Symbol They tend to reject the cross as a graven image that’s only used by Roman Catholics. This view is so deeply held that you’ll rarely see anything resembling a cross in or on their church buildings. Occasionally U.S. partners will present some form of a cross as a gift to their Guatemalan partners, resulting in some awkwardness and confusion. There have been times when I’ve raised this issue with indigenous church leaders, inviting them to consider the difference between idolatrous images and sacred symbols. For starters, I share a message about how the Bible’s most famous verse is linked to one of its strangest verses:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” —John 3:16

Most of us are so eager to focus on John 3:16 that we skip right over John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life.”

Though this allusion to Moses is often ignored, we can’t fully understand John 3:16 without it. The conjunction “for”—as in “For God so loved the world…”—binds the two phrases, making the meaning of the second part dependent on the first.

Bronze SerpentIt was an obscure incident involving Moses. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for almost forty years, and as usual they were complaining. God, fed up with their negativism, sent deadly snakes to crawl around them and bite them. As the death toll mounted, the Israelites admitted their faithlessness. They got Moses to ask God to remove the snakes. God’s response was to have Moses make a bronze snake and hold it up on a staff. If the snake-bitten Israelites looked upon it, they were told, their wounds would be healed.

Someone might wonder how this decrepit tale found its way into scripture. Doesn’t it smack of superstitious cures and magic wands? Was there no quality control in the oral tradition? Why would God want Moses to lift up a graven image, after years of forbidding it? Why would God want people to stare at a symbol of temptation and falsehood? And what does any of this have to do with John 3:16?

Actually, John 3:14-15 is an excellent, if strange, precursor to John 3:16. In one, people face their sin, that the snakes are doing to them what they’ve been doing to God and one other. In the other, people hear about the way to our redemption and healing. In one we offer confession. In the other we find mercy. In one—the reality of evil. In the other—the power of grace. In one, we perish. In the other, we live eternally.

The aftermath of this episode was that the murmuring stopped, and the end of the wandering came drew near. Even after the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, they kept lifting up Moses’ bronze serpent. They looked at it in the Jerusalem temple for 500 years, revering it with incense until King Hezekiah declared that a meaningful symbol had become a harmful idol, and he smashed it to pieces.

Anyway, a more potent symbol would be on the way—the cross on which Jesus was lifted up. When we consider the cross, we face the reality of our sin. We confront our separation from God, the consequence of our weak faith, our own murmuring, bickering, and idolatry. We also find the way towards our healing, God’s Son, sent to us as the supreme expression of God’s love and salvation. That’s where John 3:16 fits in.

Sure, the cross is abused by some people—an empty novelty, a decoration piece, a good luck charm, or even a graven image. However, we needn’t follow the example of King Hezekiah and smash the cross to pieces. Unlike the bronze serpent, the cross is a symbol for the ages for all of God’s people. It stands irrevocably for the Christ who never loses his ability to smash sin to pieces and heal the world. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

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Izabal and Other News

DSC02074Being in the Izabal Q’eqchi’ Presbytery this past weekend was a great pleasure. Although Izabal has few churches —4 chartered and 8 mission congregations—it’s a strong presbytery with some of the largest memberships in the whole IENPG. The host church in the village of Los Angeles Pancalá, for example has over 500 members. I’m grateful for the invitation and warm welcome from the church and its pastor, Alberto Sacul.

Getting there wasn’t very easy. I rode on a series of busses, vans and pick-ups that meandered through fields of corn, cane, rice, palm, rubber, and more corn. We just drove through most rivers, but one crossing was on an interesting metal raft that moved with a manual-cranked and steel cables. (See photo)DSC02063 DSC02068 DSC02067

The occasion was the 8th anniversary of the presbytery’s radio ministry—Amanecer 87.9. One of the few radio station’s in the IENPG, it’s gained a wide listening audience across Izabal and the Vera Paces. (See photos) The pastors of the Izabal Presbytery take turns doing the announcing, and it’s funded mostly by donations. This was especially interesting to me, since there are hopes to found a radio ministry as part of the Presbyterian Complex in Cobán. The Izabal pastors have offered to help get it organized.

I preached at the two anniversary services, plus more messages by radio. Attendance was estimated at 2,000 each night. The big draw wasn’t my sermons (needless to say), but a popular Christian singer from the Quiché region named Martina Osorio. Her wailing voice and Pentecostal rhythms drove worshippers into a frenzy of excitement. (See photo at top) DSC02054

Some other news:

  • I also appreciated the opportunity to preach at the plenary of the Central Presbytery, and to present a Power-Point about the Presbyterian Complex. Invitations like this are invaluable, since an important part of my work now is on facilitating partnerships within, as well as outside of, the IENPG.
  • Sunday worship has been held for three weeks now in Cobán. Even though we don’t have musicians or a formal meeting space, we’re thankful the services are underway. (See photo) For now we’re meeting in our garage, and singing accapella or using sound tracks. Please help us pray for musicians that will liven up the music.DSC02080-1
  • Matthew, Manny and Stefi are happy in their school, La Patria Norte. (See photo with their uniforms) Matthew and Manny are thrilled to be taking karate at a nearby sports center, and Stefi’s learning ping pong. Meanwhile, Bacilia has taken up piano classes again, and is registering at the local campus of Universidad Rafael Landívar for a nursing program that begins in January.
  • Progress is coming along quickly on the Presbyterian Complex manse, which will be our future home. The contractor, Donaldo Urizar, expects it will be finished in two months. (See photo)DSC02077

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