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In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
One of today’s Gospel readings (John 3:13-17) is given to us as a preparation for the upcoming feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which falls on September 14th. In one of the verses, Jesus tells us that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must He, the Son of man, be lifted up. This refers to the Old Testament Book of Numbers (21:9), where the Hebrews, after they were freed from their bondage in Egypt and were wandering in the desert, were attacked by poisonous snakes. In order to heal the snakebites, God commanded Moses to fashion a brass serpent, and to place it on a pole or standard, and whoever looked upon the serpent would be immediately healed. Here Christ is showing how the Old Testament types would be fulfilled by Him. But more than that, Christ is showing us that just as the Hebrews were healed through this symbol of death (i.e, the poisonous serpent) so are we saved through Christ who was hung upon the Cross. And while the Cross was the symbol of death, like the serpent, it now becomes the symbol of healing and life. This is another one of those wonderful Orthodox paradoxes. Other examples are: ‘God becomes man’ or ‘a virgin gives birth.’ Yet, as unfathomable as some of these things may be to us, the earthly existence of the Saviour was prefigured throughout the Old Testament. Christ becomes the new Adam; Jonah in the belly of the fish foreshadows Christ in the tomb after His crucifixion, as well as the brass serpent as prefiguring the saving act of Christ’s death on the Cross. While the serpent in the Garden of Eden represents sin and its deadly effect in the Old Testament, the brass serpent in the wilderness represents the annulling of the curse and of judgement for sin. Again, one snake represents death, another snake represents life.
As Christians, we should never underestimate the importance of the Old Testament and its place within our lives, because, basically, without the Old Testament we would never be able to fully understand the message of the New Testament. Without the Old Testament we would not understand what Christ was referring to in today’s Gospel. The Old Testament points to the New. It’s message was preparation, while the message of the Gospel is fulfillment. Jesus sums it up entirely by saying, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life." That is ultimately the message of the Gospels summed up in 25 words. God’s love for us; God loving us so much that He sends His Son for us; our faith or belief in the Son; and our invitation to eternal life predicated by our faith in Him. This small but important passage is the essence of our faith. If someone who had never in their life heard of Christianity, what we believe, what we practice etc., this would be the primary passage which would illustrate everything about God, about us, and about our salvation.
Continuing on from this passage, Jesus states that, "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." Now Jesus never condemned anyone whilst here on earth. He was very stern with many, He condemned the hypocrisy and practices of some, but He never condemned anyone to hell. In fact, God doesn’t send people to hell.
Our whole understanding of what heaven and hell is, has been so distorted and corrupted by the false teachings of the heterodox, that it has even confused many in our own Church, making some blind to the authentic words of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church Fathers. Heaven is not up there, and hell is not down there. You want to know what hell is? Hell is an absence of God (whether it’s here on this earth or in the afterlife), and it is a place for the devil and his demons, and any human beings who choose, like them, to hate God and to be far away from Him (See Matthew 25:41). Do you want to know who condemns us to hell? We condemn ourselves. To find yourself in hell is to turn your back on God, to reject God, to reject His mercy. There are people out there who are living in hell right now on this earth, and the sad thing is, that they don’t even know it. They love to blame society, or those around them, even the Church, but the answers to their problems are inside of them! All they need to do is to discover God and His kingdom within them, and then will they realize what they’ve been missing all this time. God doesn’t condemn us to an eternity of misery. That would be contrary to His His nature. He only loves. But He also will not violate the free will which He gave to us. He won’t force us to love Him. If we choose to turn our backs on God, turn our backs on His unconditional love, then we create our own hell.
Our relationship with God is in some ways like that of a married couple. As Isaiah says:  "For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 54:5). For a relationship to really work, you need the cooperation of both parties. The Church Fathers call this “synergeia” or synergy – a “working together.” Nowhere is this synergy more important than in the area of love. It’s similar between God and us, but with differences. God IS love, and His love is unconditional.  Our love is puny, tainted, and often very conditional. We often turn our relationship into a very one-sided affair. I demand a lot, but I don’t give very much at all. God gives everything, even His life to us. We try very hard to keep everything for ourselves. That’s where we need to change. That’s where we need to grow. If I have nothing to say to my father confessor, I can always say “I have sinned by not loving God enough.”
We are in this 'marriage' together for eternity. Let’s not let it end in what C.S. Lewis calls “The Great Divorce,” but rather let’s do our best to make it work.