When I survey the wondrous cross
Num. 21: 4-9
Luke 14: 27-33
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When I was a small boy I had two irrational fears, one was of the dark and the other was of snakes. I am sure that my fear of the dark was largely due to my grandmother prayer for protection from; ‘goulies and ghosties and long leggedy beastesies and things that go bump in the night.’ But my fear of snakes was entirely irrational. I grew out of my fear of the dark as soon as I realised the nastiest thing in the dark was me, but my fear of snakes has always stayed with me and is justified by tonight’ s first reading. As the Israelites wander in the desert God looses patience with their ingratitude and sends a plague of snakes to punish them and many die from snake bites. But when they repent God answers Moses prayer of intercession and tells him to fashion a bronze serpent and mount it on top of a pole, rather like a cross, so that if anyone is bitten by a snake all they have to do is look up and gaze upon the bronze serpent and then they will be miraculously saved.
Speaking of his own death, Jesus said; ‘Just 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’. When Jesus was crucified he was lifted up on the cross for all to see. Jesus said that whoever saw him on the cross, even if only in their mind’s eye, and believed in him, would be saved from death. The devil took the form of a serpent when he tempted Jesus in the desert; he also took the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden, so the guilt of sin is like a snakebite. Looking on Jesus on the cross saves us from the punishment we deserve for our sins.
The symbolism of looking at the bronze serpent is the basis of one of my favourite Passiontide hymns:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but lost,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Simply imaging what Jesus suffered for our sakes is enough to make us repent of our sins, and believe and trust in his love. Then we are forgiven, and the gift of eternal life is ours.
The hymn was written by Isaac Watts, who was a local Southampton man born here in 1674, He was the son of a Nonconformist minister who was twice imprisoned for his beliefs. Isaac was a clever young man, he learned Greek and Hebrew while he was still a schoolboy, and was offered a place at university, but turned it down, because he would have had to become a member of the established church to be admitted. Instead he went to a Nonconformist academy in Stoke Newington. He suffered from bad health and during the two years he spent at home after leaving the academy, he wrote most of the hymns for which he is famous. ‘O God our help in ages past’, ‘Joy to the world’ and of course ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. These hymns and many others have influenced our beliefs more than we may realise. It may come as a surprise to you to know that at the time the only singing that was permitted in most churches consisted of paraphrases of the Psalms and other Bible passages – Watts was the first to help Christians to sing of their personal feelings and for that I will always be indebted to him. Who can sing ‘When I survey’ without being moved, I certainly can’t, and the deep emotion intensifies the nearer we get to Easter. Charles Wesley said he would have given up all his other hymns to have written this hymn.
We British are famous for our stiff upper lip approach to the way we live our lives we rarely display emotion, certainly not in public. But Isaac Watts bought emotion into religion, and I thank God for it, who can remain unmoved as we sing:
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown!
Few words describe better what Christ did for me as he hung on the cross, to create the response of belief, and love in my heart.
‘Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life my all’.
Simply to look with our imaginations at Jesus hanging on the cross saves us from the snakebite of sin and lovelessness, and heals us with his gift of eternal life. Jesus gave a range of meaning to the words ‘lifted up’, when he spoke about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. He applied them to his body being lifted on the cross for all to gaze upon. But he also looked forward to when he would be raised up from the grave at the resurrection, and lifted up to heaven at the Ascension, to live there forever and make the gift of eternal life to all who see him on the cross, and believe.