By Paul Koch –
C.S. Lewis famously wrote that he believed that all the doors of hell are locked from the inside. In other words, those that are there are there because they want to be, because they are defiant to the end and actually choose hell. Perhaps they don’t see it as hell. They see it as their own exertion of free choice, of doing what they want. Now, that may sound strange to our ears, but I think he was on to something. He had a clear understanding of the radical nature of our faith. You see, the gift of faith has given you something that the rest of the world does not have—a sort of superpower if you will. By faith, you can see what others cannot. And the first thing that you are given to see is sin. Because of faith, you are no longer blind to the bondage of sin, and you know that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. Those who are stuck there are only there because they cannot see this reality. They cannot see their own bondage. They have rejected God, and so they have loved an imprisonment of their own making.
In fact, even those who have been reborn, who have been given the gift of faith, can still struggle to see sin. Perhaps you just don’t want to. Perhaps it’s too condemning. And of course, there is the simple fact that to see sin puts you immediately at odds with the world in which you live. No one really wants that. No one wants to feel out of place among their family and friends. The law of God, which falls like a plumb line in the midst of your lives, reveals everything that is out of sync; every transgression, every selfish motivation, every sinful advance, it is all clearly illuminated by the law of God. But people don’t want to see it. No one wants to tell their friends that sex outside of marriage is sinful. No one wants to speak the truth in love by holding their tongue when it leads to gossip but risking it all for the protection of their neighbor’s character. God’s law is backward looking and archaic. To stand with it makes you immediately irrelevant.
However, there are times when we can’t help but see sin, or at least the effects of sin. We can go for most of our lives without seeing it, without acknowledging it, but there is one event that brings it all into sharp focus: death. When I was in Georgia, there was this wonderful little bar down the street from our home where I spent a fair amount of time. I would go on motorcycle rides with the crew down there, and we would hang out and laugh and tell stories. They knew I was a pastor. When I walked in, I was always greeted with “Preacher, how ya doin’?” And they would slide a Bub Light onto the bar. They weren’t all believers. In fact, I’m pretty sure most of them were not, but that was part of why I enjoyed being there. And when tragedy would strike when a member of that strange little family would die, I would often get a phone call. “Preacher, we would like you to come and say a few words.” And I would. For death, you see, is a powerful thing. It shakes us in a deep and profound way. It reveals to us what we don’t want to see. When we gather around the dead, believer or unbeliever, we get a glimpse of sin.
Think of the Israelites, who wandered through the wilderness under the constant care and provision of God. They knew of his power, his wrath, and his love. But along the way, they no longer wanted to see sin. Perhaps they didn’t mind pointing out the sin of others, but they didn’t see their own sin. So, in their growing pride and self-reliance, they begin to grumble against God and against Moses. Though they eat manna from the heavens and drink water from rocks in the desert, they remain concerned with their bellies and ask, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” And so God helps them to see their sin.
Snakes. That’s right, poisonous snakes begin to fill their camp. They appear out of nowhere, slide into their tents, and begin to bite them all. The young and the old alike are aroused from their blindness as they see their sin, for they begin to see death. They see their mistake. They see how they were wrong, that though they thought they were in control, that they were in the right, that they had it all figured out, all they were doing was building a prison of their own making. And now they want out. The way out is through repentance, through contrition in their souls. They come to Moses and say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.”
Now, the Lord is compassionate and merciful. He hears their repentance and offers a way out of death. He says to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” The snakes are death to them. The snakes are the result of their sin—sin that they were too blind to see on their own. And what is the solution he gives? It’s to look upon another snake, look upon another vehicle of death, look upon their sin. And it is here that he promises life. There is no pretending that they are alright, that they have it under control. Death swirls all around them, and it is through death that they will live.
Martin Luther called John 3:16 the Gospel in a nutshell. This was a clear and concise summary of the Good News of our salvation, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Our way out of sin and death is through the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ. And yet right before this powerful verse, St. John writes, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the So of Man be lifted up.” The cross of our Lord is the greater fulfillment of the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses. It means that what you see in the cross is not just God’s love, not just compassion. There you see your sin, perhaps more clearly than ever before.
See, you’ve gotten used to the cross over the years. You see it as you enter into the church. It is familiar, a constant focal point of our worship. But it’s not all that shocking, just part of the art and architecture of the church. You may make the sign of the cross upon yourself as you confess your faith or receive absolution. But it often functions as an empty ritual instead of something that helps you see. St. Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). What you see in that image of death is your sin. The thrones that pierced his brow are your transgressions. The brutality and mocking are your turning away from God. The nails and spear are your selfishness and pride.
And I get it if you don’t want to look. I get it if you would rather have the cross removed, cleaned up, or set aside so you don’t have to see your sin. For his suffering and death don’t allow you to ignore the wages of sin. His pain and agony bring into sharp focus how you have transgressed against your God. You have lived as if God did not matter and as if you matter most. You have failed to help your brothers and sisters. You have acted out of selfishness instead of generosity. And all this you see as your Lord dies for you. But it is in the same cross that you find life. For though you see your sin, you also see it die. Your sin is crucified with your Lord.
As he is lifted up, you see hope and salvation—not by ignoring your sin or by allowing you to remain blind but by opening your eyes to the gift of life in the death of Christ. Just as a funeral rouses us from our blindness to sin, so the cross of Christ opens our eyes of faith to the promise of life eternal. It is the cross that awakens your hearts and the hearts of all believers to see that the door leading to life is not locked from the outside. For it stands wide open for you, secured by the one whose blood sets you free, the one who forgives and loves and heals you. See clearly your sin, and you will see the very source of life.