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The Good News of Opposite Action

A sermon on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

[audio recording available here. Photo by Marl Clevenger on]

So, it really is weird… the whole snake on a stick thing.

It’s OK. We can say it. God already knows about all of the weird stuff in the Bible. We don’t have to pretend like some of it doesn’t confuse or even disturb us a bit.

And making a sculpture of the thing that is killing your people, and then raising it up on a pole for people to look at when they are bitten by the deadly creature…that’s up there on the disturbing and strange list!

In fact, it’s almost as weird as turning an instrument of execution into decorative jewelry that we wear around our necks…

Think about it. That IS what a cross is – it’s a painful, humiliating, prolonged method of execution.

But Jesus talks about the cross openly, without discomfort.

And Jesus himself makes the association between the snake in the wilderness and the way that he himself would be lifted up as a gateway to eternal life.

Jesus is apparently unembarrassed by the strangeness of this symbolism… or the counter-intuitive action of focusing attention on the thing our instincts tell us to get far away from.

I suppose we could shrug off this strange pair of texts as reflecting an ancient worldview that does not translate well for modern sensibilities, but modern research actually suggests that there is deep wisdom in this pattern.

The research comes from a school of therapeutic practice known as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (or DBT).

DBT is one of the most effective therapeutic approaches for improving emotional regulation – which just means it helps us to shift from being at the mercy of our uncontrolled emotions (which often lead us into actions that make things worse for us, in the end), to being able to understand our emotional triggers and make wise decisions about how we will respond to them.  

One of the core skills of this approach is a principle called “opposite action.” It works like this:

A big emotion hits: Anger, shame, fear …

and we automatically feel an urge to particular kind of reaction: fight, conceal, run-away.

But with DBT we assess whether the sense of threat we are experiencing will actually be helped by giving into that urge, and if not, we instead engage in opposite action.

Our anger at a perceived insult makes us want to lash out, but a fight is not actually going to help us to restore our self-respect, so instead we pull back, calm ourselves down, and ground ourselves in the truth we know about our own value.

Our shame about disappointing a loved one makes us want to cover-up what we have done, but that will only damage trust in the relationship, so instead we bravely admit our mistake and seek reconciliation.

Our fear of performing poorly at an important task screams at us to retreat and avoid, but the thing we are afraid of is not a physical threat that can be escaped; running away will guarantee that we fail. So instead, we approach the task with curiosity about what we need to learn in order to do our best.

In each case, we do the opposite of what our emotions urge us to do, and in so doing we take back control from our emotions so that we can instead be guided by wisdom.

If you think about it, it’s the same principle as raising up the snake in the wilderness.

The snake was an object of fear. It was literally killing people. Of course, their instinct was to run away!

But the snake was in the camp because the people had already run away.

God had saved them from slavery and oppression, but they had gotten frustrated by the hardships of the path to freedom and so they had complained and bitterly turned their backs on God… while wandering through a dangerous wilderness inhabited by poisonous snakes.

And so, in designing yet another salvation for this fearful people, God called them into “opposite action.”

Their instinct was to run away from the challenge set before them, and from the God who was leading them, so God made their salvation a symbol of their fear…

teaching them to face the fear and trust the God who will lead them through it.

It’s actually a perfect story to help us to understand the power of the cross.

Without the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, the cross is a symbol of death.  And death is humanity’s greatest enemy and most universal fear.

Our instinctive urge when faced with death is to run away. To try to deny its truth and power…

through our cultural obsession with youth;

and in our endless drugs and procedures to try to extend pain-wracked and failing lives just a few more months;

and in our discomfort with talking openly about grief, and aging, and mortality.

Our instinct is to run away from even the acknowledgement of death.

But Jesus does the opposite.

He talks openly about his coming death, embracing the language of the cross, the implement that will bring about his death.

He lifts up the proclamation of his coming death as a promise that all we need to do is to trust him, and death won’t control us anymore. We will have eternal life.

He teaches us that the instinct to hide in the dark of denial and deceit, which characterizes the world, is an instinct that pushes God away. And we need to go against that flow, opening ourselves up to the truth, even when our instincts say to run and hide from the light of God that will reveal all of our mistakes.

It’s opposite action. It’s a pattern of thought and behavior that steals the power of fear and death by not letting our fear bully us into denial and avoidance.

And in breaking that control, if gives us freedom to practice wisdom… to turn toward trust in God even when we are facing things that scare us, or shame us, or make us angry.

If we can do that, if we can resist our emotional instincts and move toward the hard things in life with trust in God… it is probably the most powerful witness we can offer to a world that is so clearly at the mercy of fear, and anger, and shame.

That’s why the baptismal commitment I link to today’s gospel is the commitment to be living witnesses: to proclaim the good news of God in word and deed. 

Was that a spike of fear I just felt in the room… when I started talking about witnessing? Remember…opposite action!

Now, I know that this baptismal commitment is probably the one that makes the average Lutheran the most nervous.

Despite the word “evangelical” in our denominational name of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we don’t tend to be all that comfortable with “evangelizing.”

Our faith means a lot to us, but we aren’t necessarily ready to talk about it with anyone outside of the church.

Because… that’s so pushy! And we don’t want people to think we are judging them, like so many of the vocal Christians in the public eye do.

We are afraid of the response we might get, or the assumptions people might make about us.

And what is the instinctive urge when our fear gets triggered? 

(Run away! Avoid!)

But! Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness and people were healed from its venom.

And Jesus lifted up the cross in his teaching and robbed death of its shame and power.

And when we trust him enough to stop running away… from our fear, and our shame, and even from death… that’s when we experience the wholeness and power of the eternal life that he promises.

That’s when we are freed.

That’s when the control that fear, and shame, and anger hold over us is broken.

That’s when our lives shine with the light of God’s truth… the shining certainty that God LOVES us,

and that God so loved the world that Jesus came to share our fears, and weakness, and vulnerability so that he could break their power, and lead us to the kind of freedom and life that not even death can defeat.

And when we live our lives in the light of that truth, it will show… in our words and in our deeds.

Because we WON’T be controlled by our emotional urges to hide, or run, or fight.

We will be able to diffuse anger, and reject shame, and move toward anxiety with curiosity and openness.

We will be living eternal life right here and now.

And people will recognize that kind of life as good news.

Thanks be to God.


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