John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9
Lent 4B, March 14, 2021
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
Rush United Methodist Church
And 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. “For 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.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
| Centering Prayer |
I had an aunt June
Who liked to complain about nearly everything.
As a young child I remember
How embarrassing it was to go to a restaurant with her.
Her coffee back for being too stale,
Her soup back for being too cold,
Her steak back for being too rare or too well done.
Every single time.
Back in the day
When she waited tables
She would ‘never give such shoddy service,’
She’d muse indignantly.
No waitress or waiter could live up to her expectations.
Aunt June was hardly unique.
A lot of us like to complain, don’t we?
Some taxpayers complain taxes are too high and the stimulus check will be too small.
Others complain taxes are too low and the stimulus will be too large.
One administration blames its predecessor.
Both parties complain about the other.
“Obstructionists! Hypocrites!” They cry.
Albany complains about Washington and
Washington complains about Albany.
We complain about potholes, police, polls, and pop quizzes.
We complain about rights, responsibility, and reason.
We complain about referees, officials, and umpires.
We complain about ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands and ex-wives.
We would even complain about the weather, if we ….
We complain about the weather all the time!
It seems like the COVID-19 pandemic has only made our complaints worse.
We complain because we can.
For western Americans it is about
Freedom of speech.
More than just Constitutional rights;
Free choice is a gift from God.
Free choice is given with the expectation of responsibility.
It is our responsibility
To chose wisely,
To behave responsibly,
To speak kindly, and
To walk humbly.
We are not the first generation of complainers.
Consider our Hebrew ancestors in Numbers 21:4-5
Newly freed from Egyptian captivity:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against 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.”
The Lord grew tired of their complaining
About no food, no water, and fear of death.
‘Blah! Blah! Blah!
Talk to the hand!
Shut your pie hole!
Enough of your complaining!’
The narrative continues in verse 6:
Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
Be forewarned, people of God.
The Lord’s response to their complaints?
The Lord sent them boat loads of poisonous serpents!
Our ancestors got the message.
Continuing with verse 7:
The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
They took three actions:
1. They stopped complaining,
2. Confessed their sin,
3. And begged for God’s mercy.
(Right there is sufficient material for a good three-point sermon!)
The episode concludes with verses 8 and 9:
So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So 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.
This, then is God’s mercy:
Moses was to make a serpent of bronze.
Mount it on a stick.
Lift it up.
Anyone bit by a poisonous snake who looks up at the bronze serpent will live.
God’s merciful promise was:
Look up and be saved.
“So must the Son of Man be lifted up,” (3:14)
Jesus tells shadowy Nicodemus,
“That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (3:15)
When we think of Christ being lifted up during this season of Lent,
Many times we focus our thoughts on his crucifixion.
Of course, the crucified Christ is lifted high upon a cross.
But, let think more broadly.
Christ is lifted from the grave.
Christ is lifted into heaven,
Ascending to the right hand of the Heavenly Father.
The Gospel of John encourages the faithful to lift up Jesus Christ,
That he might be glorified and praised.
When we lift up Jesus Christ,
The Light of the World,
Darkness is chased away.
Shadows of sin and evil are washed away in God’s radiant light.
The light of Christ
Reveals his will for our lives and
Sets a moral compass in ourselves and in our community.
The light of Christ
Illuminates God’s values of justice, mercy, and love.
There was a day and time in our not-too-distant past
That John 3:16 had such popularity
That nearly everyone in a crowd, (atheists included)
Could perfectly recite it:
“For 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.” (3:16)
Sadly, I’m not certain this is true today.
Let’s take a closer look.
God so loves the world …
All the people of this world.
God so loves everything created,
In which we live and find happiness.
The person and the context
Are created and are loved by God.
Just as God loves you and me,
So too does God love others.
We are to love others just as God loves others.
Just as God loves creation,
So too are we to love creation.
Loving creation requires us,
Individually and corporately,
To practice good stewardship of the environment.
Love and care for the world,
Because God loves and cares for the world.
The frequently forgotten balance for John 3:16
Is Jesus’ very next sentence:
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3:17)
As we have seen,
Can get one into trouble,
Can lead to the darkness.
Once in the darkness, it’s hard to break out.
It’s hard, and it gets harder,
To return to the light the longer one lingers in the darkness.
Jesus makes his position clear as crystal
Condemnation is not God’s will.
This point is so important, it bears repeating:
Condemnation is not God’s will.
It wasn’t God’s will that those bitten by one of his poisonous snakes
Should be condemned to die.
Neither is it God’s will that those who live in the darkness
Should be eternally condemned to live in sin.
God is sure-as-shooting
In the justice business,
Not so much.
We condemn ourselves
By choosing to live in darkness,
By making wrong choices when we know better,
By blaming and complaining,
By failing to take responsibility for our words.
By failing to discipline our behavior.
God is in the salvation business.
God had Moses mount a bronze snake on a stick
That all who looked upon it might be saved.
God is in the salvation business,
That all who look upon Jesus and believe in him might be saved.
I recall an old theological saw from my seminary days that states
“Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.”
What does this mean?
The gift of salvation,
Is freely, lavishly, abundantly given.
God’s grace cannot be bought, stolen, or traded.
You will not perish, Jesus promises.
You may have eternal life.
This is God’s gift.
This is what is called “grace.”
There is no price, yet it is priceless.
There is no expectation of reciprocity.
God just gives it away.
Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.
But there is one qualifying demand,
That we believe in Jesus Christ,
The Son of Man,
The Son of God.
Salvation is already yours.
I’ve been a Christian all my life,
Since my infant baptism.
I’ve tried to follow Jesus every moment of every day,
Some days more successfully than others.
And, yet, I know
My belief ebbs and flows like an ocean tide.
My belief never dries up and blows away;
Neither does is maintain record flood levels.
I’ve been around ordained ministry for a long time.
It has been a privileged to be surrounded by beacons of spirituality;
Mentors, guides, and fellow disciples traveling this same river of faith.
Some towers of faith were ordained, many others, not.
At the same time
I’ve seen some of the most faithful stumble and fall,
Some spectacularly on the front page of the newspaper,
Others quietly fading away,
Others becoming utterly defeated
By sanity, addiction, end of life, money, power, or organized religion.
I can see no rhyme or reason;
No discernible patterns upon which conclusions can be drawn.
I refuse to stand in judgment of others.
I can only observe that which I intuitively feel in my own soul;
That belief isn’t a one-and-done proposition.
Belief is a lifetime, ongoing effort.
There but by the grace of God goes I,
I think to myself,
Because I know this to be true.
Whoever believes in Jesus
Will not perish
But may have eternal life.
Every day we are called to believe in Jesus.
Like maintaining a house or treating a patient,
Belief begins with assessment:
Where does my belief stand today?
Where was it yesterday?
What is going to be the trajectory of belief tomorrow?
What assets do I have to shore up my faith?
To turn around negative trends?
What assets do I have internally,
And what assets must I obtain from others?
For example, I can pray and study scripture privately.
But I have to hold myself accountable and
Take part in communal, corporate worship each Sabbath.
Some need more coaching and encouragement than others.
What are the deficits in my life that impact negatively on my faith?
What can I do to reduce or eliminate
People, situations, or behaviors
That undermines my belief?
Believe in Jesus.
Lord, help my unbelief!
Do not let me fall into the abyss!
Maintaining belief requires intentional action.
A passive, nonchalant posture towards faith development
Is a recipe for disaster.
When we discipline our words and deeds
The ebbs and flows of faith and doubt
Are evened out.
Treatment doesn’t work if you don’t follow your doctor’s orders.
Your house doesn’t get repaired if plans sit on the drawing board.
Faith in Jesus demands action.
Set yourself up for success.
Surround yourself with all the right people.
Stop hanging around with the wrong crowd
That sabotage faith.
Learn from those who are more seasoned in the spiritual life.
Share with those who are traveling the journey with you.
Offer a hand up to those who are coming along behind.
Listen for the movement of the Spirit that dwells within
And don’t be afraid to tap into its power.
Take action to strengthen belief in Jesus Christ!
Lift up Christ.
Glorify and praise him
That his light might shine upon the world.
God brings justice to the world,
But the only condemnation is
That which we heap upon ourselves.
May the light of Christ bring an end to our self-imposed sentence.
May the light of Christ save us.
Believe in Christ.
When doubt inevitably returns,
Oppose it with every effort.
Believe in Christ and receive eternity.