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Because I have been invited to teach a preaching course at a conference in Uganda this coming August, I recently paid a visit to the on-campus health center to get the requisite immunizations for the trip. I was pierced twice in each upper arm. The shot that stung the most was also the one that contained the heaviest proviso warning ahead of time: the yellow fever vaccine contained a small portion of the live virus and so that was the shot that had the highest potential of causing redness and soreness at the vaccination site but also of just possibly giving you the real deal disease. The risk was slight but . . . when you receive a portion of a living disease, there is no getting around the possibility–however statistically slight–that you could come down with it.
It had been a long while since I got an immunization for anything but when the nurse sunk the needle into my one upper arm, I could still see the scar from a vaccine I got back as a child in the early 1960s (probably small pox). This, in turn, reminded me of the amazing revolution in medicine that came about when Jonas Salk and others figured out the highly counter-intuitive fact that the best way to get our bodies to ward off certain diseases was to give our systems a taste of the real deal–not enough to make one sick but enough to get the antibodies to say, “We’ll be more than ready some day if this disease comes knocking big-time.”
Years ago–in an article and also sermon that many readers of this blog will remember–my friend Neal Plantinga pointed out that when Moses lifted up that bronze serpent in the wilderness as a paradoxical cure for snakebites–and when Jesus centuries later told Nicodemus that the lifting up of the Son of Man on a cross was going to be a similar spectacle for no less than the scourge of death itself–the very principle of immunizations/vaccines was being evoked. Somehow like cures like. Israelites got inoculated by God’s grace by looking at an image of the very serpents nipping at their heels. And in the longest possible Gospel run we all get inoculated against eternal death by dying with Jesus on the cross. Jesus took death into himself–and in baptism gives us a portion of that death–as a way to immunize us against the death that is otherwise the wages of our sins. Through tasting and passing through death, we find life. When in this Lenten Season we cast our gaze upon the crucified Savior, we find once again God’s ingenious way to rid his good creation of death once and for all.
Lent, of course, is not the only time in our Christian lives or in the life of the Church that we can or should ponder the great mystery of what happened to God’s Son at the Place of the Skull two millennia ago. But it is a mystery so profound, so strangely wonderful, that it is most assuredly worthy of as much joyful and awe-filled pondering as we can give it.
If everything is working right–and I surely hope it is!!–something really quite astonishing has happened in my body since those four serums were injected into me a couple of weeks ago. But in my soul and thanks to the power of the Spirit in my baptism, something far, far more amazing has been happening and continues to happen as the crucified and risen Christ now lives in me.
As the old hymn puts it, such wondrous love as that deserves . . . well, it finally deserves my all.