Wednesday, March 26, 2014

For God so Love the World - a sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, 2014

It's a verse many of us probably know by heart. It’s a verse most sports fans will recognize, it being held up on painted signs at games just about everywhere. It suggests the heart of the Christian message, summarizing what God did in Jesus. “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.” “God so loved the world.” That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? It's the good news in a nutshell.
Today, I’d like to invite you to a deeper story, to a journey into the distant past. Let’s go all the way back to the people of Israel in the desert, half-heartedly following Moses on the circuitous trek toward a land that God has promised the ancestors of these former slaves. They are following half-heartedly because after all this time they have begun to doubt their leaders and even wonder if there is such a land at all.  Moses' rag-tag band of pilgrims have begun to "murmur"- to complain about the hard life of the desert and the strange diet of manna and quail that God has given them. They are uncertain of their somewhat serpentine route.
And then, in the midst of their arduous journey, somewhere in the seemingly endless desert, comes a plague of snakes. And they are very poisonous, very deadly snakes. I don't know about you, but I don't particularly like snakes. No, not in the least. But my mother had an outright phobia of snakes. The problem was that mom was a bit of a gardener and one can hardly garden in Florida without coming across a snake or two. Now, every time mom would see a snake among the bushes she would go a little crazy. She would take the hoe to that snake like a whirlwind. It was usually just a little garter snake but, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she would pummel that poor thing.
It was perhaps worse for the Hebrews, however, for the snakes they encountered were many and they were poisonous and people began to die. The people went to Moses, suspecting that the snakes were some kind of divine retribution for their complaining. They asked that Moses intercede for them. 
So Moses did intercede. And God tells Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and have the people gaze at it. Seriously? This was God’s response? Okay! So Moses did that and when the people who were bit by the snakes gazed at that bronze serpent, they were healed. It worked!!! It was a miracle.
Now, fast forward to the time of the kings. The people have been settled in the land for some time when they suddenly decided that they needed to have kings like other nations. Many if not most of those kings were a little disappointing, somewhat corrupt, and exactly what could have been predicted. However, there were a few who were righteous. One of those righteous kings was named Hezekiah. He would clean things up in the land: “He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole.” He destroyed the places of idol worship, which had cropped up around the land. And then he did this: “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”
Do you see what had happened?  Five hundred years after Moses had made the bronze serpent as a means of healing, they Jews still had it. But, it had become an idolNot just any old idol, though, for they had dedicated that pole to a completely different god than YHWH. Yep, that sign of healing given them by their God was offered to another. So, instead of pointing toward the God who had given them healing and sustenance, the Jews had made it into an object of worship for another. And more, they even named the pole. They gave it a name just like God had given them God’s own name. And they named it Nehushtan.
Fast forward again. Come now to Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, visiting by the light of a candle with a man named Nicodemus. In the third chapter of John, it is reported that Nicodemus, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders of Jerusalem, came to Jesus under cover of night. The purpose of this clandestine meeting was to ask serious questions of Jesus, for I suspect that Nicodemus was a genuine seeker who had urgent and searching questions.
So Nicodemus asks, his voice in whispered tones: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” With these words of Nicodemus, a door is opened and Jesus steps through. “You must be born from above,” Jesus says; but Nicodemus misunderstands. Because the Hebrew can be taken either way, Nicodemus thinks Jesus has said, “You must be born again.” What, he asks, you mean I have to go back into my mother's womb and be born all over again? 
No, says Jesus, you need to be born for water and spirit. You must be born from above!
How interesting, that in all our talk about being "born again Christians," we have joined Nicodemus in his misunderstanding! What Jesus really said was, “You must be born from above.” You see, he was trying to lift the eyes of this religious leader to take in higher things, so that he might begin to see his life from a spiritual perspective.  You must be born from above!
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he “must be born of water and spirit.”  Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus!  “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”  Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus!  There's more to life than you know!
And here it is. You all know John 3:16, “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.”  But do you know John 3:1315, the verses that comes just before?  “
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.”
So there it is! The bronze serpent has returned! That old bronze serpent made by Moses and smashed by King Hezekiah has come back at the end of this serpentine story. Jesus is not saying that a serpent on a pole can heal you. What he is saying that just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to heal, so he, Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, must be lifted up on a cross to save.  You must lift up your eyes, Nicodemus!  You must be born from above.  You must discover the incredible world of the Spirit.  And if nothing else will lift up your eyes and your heart, then the sight of me lifted up will lift them up.
Do you see where this serpentine, meandering story of the snake has taken us? From the desert wanderings of Moses' rag-tag band to the hill of Calvary, where we hear the call to lift up our eyes and see the one who saves us and gives abundant life.
Now the snake of Moses has led us to that favorite verse, that “gospel in a nutshell.” “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.”

But we shouldn’t stop at John 3:16. There is even better news in the next verse. “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.”

1 comment:

  1. This was a wonderful sermon--warmed and filled my heart.