We are called to travel many paths, some that challenge us, others that inspire us. To trust in God is to trust that whatever path we are now on is the one that will ultimately bring us to the Promised Land.
This is easy to say, especially when one’s path is not meandering through war zones or famine, caught up in the horrors of this world, and it is important not to dismiss the journey itself as insignificant. It is the locus of our life and salvation.
The Israelites on the path to the Promised Land are a microcosm of humanity as they grumble about their travelling conditions. Their complaints are not trivial. They asked Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” While the questions are ordinary and understandable, they are judged for them because “the people spoke against God and against Moses.” They had lost faith in the one who had brought them out of slavery to walk on a new path home. Poisonous snakes were sent to punish them, but they are saved from these snakes by a strange action directed by God. Moses “made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus explains this event as a prefigurement of his death to come: “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.” The Son of Man will be lifted up because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” As the bronze serpent raised high saved the Israelites’ lives, so the Messiah raised high on the cross will lead to eternal life.
But the lifting up of the Son of Man was not the same as raising an inanimate object; it required the humility of the Son to follow willingly a path strewn with pain, to become “obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Some wonder what sort of obedience this was, given that Jesus is God incarnate. Would not Jesus know that God’s response to this obedience would result in him being “highly exalted” and given “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”?
While theologians are divided about what Jesus’ divinity meant in practical terms during his incarnate existence, it is important to insist that Jesus became truly human, a person like us but without sin. This means his obedience to God’s path was a genuinely human choice, not part of an act put on for our benefit. Paul understood that Jesus willingly humbled himself, for he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
We share neither Jesus’ divinity nor his sinlessness, but his emptying of himself by taking on human form and then obediently taking up the cross offers us a guide along our own paths that Jesus did not have. We know that his act of humble sacrifice led to his exaltation. We have the example of the reward for the one who remained faithful even to death on the cross, who was raised up and ascended to God, who will be acknowledged by every tongue as Lord. We ought then to trust that when we walk humbly along our paths, we have the promise before us that “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The humility of the only Son ought to inspire us to walk our own paths with humility because we know that we have been promised the glory of life everlasting. Humility does not mean never asking questions of God or accepting all suffering along our paths silently, but it does mean trusting that God has as our final goal eternal life with the exalted Son.