The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
St. John 3:14-21
Lifted Up for You
Fourth Sunday in Lent, 18 March 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Dr. Luther sets the scene before us: The Lord delivers an excellent sermon to Nicodemus, a Jew, who supposed that keeping the Law of Moses offered him a way to heaven and that his own ascension into heaven depended upon his fasting, his praying, and his ascetic life. Now Christ interprets and unravels Moses to him correctly and says to him: “That will never do it. Your mode of ascension [to heaven] is not the way, but you must be born anew. Therefore listen to what I tell you. You are a Jew. I shall take your Moses and cite from him passages which you have not understood until now.” Who else [but Our Lord Jesus] would have interpreted Moses in this way before? 22:337
And 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. Jesus is referring to Numbers 21.
Can you believe what the people did? Speaking against God and his man on the scene—dangerous business—playing with fire, or venomous serpents in their case. Such situations, including tragic loss, war weariness, fear of terrorism, personal disappointments, etc. often cause people to speak against God. Is God our enemy? No. The serpent is. It’s in Satan’s best interests to get you to doubt God’s love for you.
When someone’s in trouble, they often refer to that as being in “hot water.” Think about hot water. Think about the trials and difficulties and suffering you’ve weathered or are still weathering. When you put an egg in boiling water, what happens? It becomes hard—a hard-boiled egg. What happens when a potato goes into a boiling pot? It gets soft. You can easily make mashed potatoes. What happens when a tea bag goes in the pot? What happens to it? The tea bag transforms boiling water into tea.
Suffering hardens some people. They may put up barriers, pull away from previously close friends, and even their church family. Others get soft. Their confidence in God appears to fail. Doubts arise. Both eggs and potatoes are in danger of falling away. These are the people who need us. They need their pastor certainly, but you have no idea how meaningful a visit from a caring Christian friend is. God’s promises are solid and sure, especially when it feels like all of fallen creation is against you.
Back to Moses & the people in the wilderness. Luther again: The people were to do no more than believe the word of Moses; the term which the Lord employs here for this believing is “look at.”…[The people] (They) might well have thought, “ Ha, what a ridiculous medicine it is that you propose for the sting and bite of the serpents! Moses, have you lost your senses? How are we to be helped by looking at this bronze serpent which looks like those that bit us? We are so terrified that we cannot stand the sight of them! If only you would instead, give us a drink, a cooling plaster, a cooling drink, to take away the venom and the fever! What good can mere words and looking do? How can that dead and lifeless object up there benefit us? 22: 338-339
Here are thoughts of unbelief, unfaith, likely rolling around in the heads of the people in the wilderness! Here the Lord was calling them to faith, to trust in Him, and some likely remained in unbelief, choosing death by venom over the means by which God had instituted for their life and salvation. Sure, it was only a bronze snake, but it had God’s promises tied to it! That makes all the difference.
And 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. This text speaks of salvation by God’s grace through faith. The Son of Man was lifted up upon the Good Friday cross for you, in fulfillment of the ancient Gospel promise to our first parents, addressed as a curse upon the serpent: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel. At the cross Our Lord bore the marks of fang-like nails in his feet and hands, yet there, amid what appeared to be defeat, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head. The old satanic foe lay defeated.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
For God so loved the world…These words start the recordings of memory. We know how this verse goes. Many Christians have memorized this precious verse about the Gospel.
God so loved the world. The world. The whole world. You will be familiar with the Greek word here for we have brought it into English usage: Kosmos, cosmos. For God so loved the whole cosmos! He created it to love all the people in it, to give them, including you, His Gifts as part of a loving relationship that He creates.
How much did God love you? Enough to send His Son, His only Son, whom He loved. Our Heavenly Father is preparing to sacrifice His Son as Abraham readied Isaac. No reprieve this time. No ram is caught in a thicket nearby. Jesus will die, and willingly. He must be lifted up. The condemnation hanging over the head of every sinner like the sword of Damocles had to fall. Judgment and wrath had to be poured out as a punishment for sin. God’s justice, fairness, and holiness were to be upheld. In God’s love, you are spared. God mercifully doesn’t give you what you deserve—His wrath. God graciously gives you what you do not deserve—eternal life.
God sent His Son to save the world. He desires not the death of a sinner. He would that all would come to a knowledge of the truth, His truth in His Son. But Judgment is coming. When Christ came, He came as Savior. When He returns, it will be as Judge.
One of the most depressing statements I ever heard was spoken by a guest lecturer at the University of Nebraska. He was Jewish, but doubted even the existence of God. He said that when or if this Jesus ever came, he had but one question: “Have you been here before?” He had no clue that by then the question would be moot. Now is the time of God’s favor. Repent and believe the Gospel!
Jesus addresses the question of evil in terms of light and darkness: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God."
An old story tells of a desert nomad who awakened hungry in the middle of the night. He lit a candle and began eating dates from a bowl beside his bed. He took a bite from one end and saw a worm in it, so he threw it out of the tent. He bit into the second date, found another worm, and threw it away also. Reasoning that he wouldn’t have any dates left to eat if he continued in this way, he blew out the candle and quickly at all the dates. There are many who prefer darkness and denial to the light of reality.
You know what kinds of things go bump in the night. You know what behaviors are covered by the blanket of darkness. You know, because the Old Adam of your sinful human nature is alive and well in you. There are skeletons in your closet. There are evil deeds that you would rather not come into the light. We tend to harshly judge the misdeeds of Hollywood personalities, pro athletes, Washington insiders, and other people closer to hand. Many lives are backlit by the harsh spotlights of media attention or rampant community rumor mills. Be honest. How well would you stand up under such close scrutiny?
Come Judgment Day, all the books will be opened. Every deep, dark, dirty, pitch-black sin you have committed will be exposed to the light of day. It only takes one sin to damn someone. Are you holding any outside of the blood of Jesus? He comes to shed light in every corner of your sin-darkened existence. Since your sins and my sins will be exposed anyway on the Last Day, why wait and be condemned by them? Wash your robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb! Repent and believe the Gospel! You who dwell in the land of deep darkness, look to the Light of Christ and Live!
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. So writes St. John in the first chapter of his first epistle. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
And 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.
Bob Woods tells the story of a couple who took their son, 11, and daughter, 7, to Carlsbad Caverns. As always, when the tour reached the deepest point of the cavern, the guide turned off all the lights to dramatize how completely dark and silent it is below the earth’s surface. The little girl, suddenly enveloped in utter darkness, was frightened and began to cry. Immediately was heard the voice of her brother: “Don’t cry. Somebody here knows how to turn on the lights.”
In a real sense, that is the message of the Gospel: Light is available, even when the darkness seems overwhelming. Darkness only seems overwhelming. In reality, Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, the Light no darkness can overcome.
And 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
How can water do such great things? How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Who can forgive sins but God alone? These are not new questions. Luther posed the first two in his Small Catechism. Certainly not just the water, or eating bread, drinking wine, and a man saying nice things do this, but the Word of God, the Lord’s own promises, along with the faith which trusts those Words of God.
Our Lord calls for you to repent and believe the Gospel! Even this faith is not from yourselves. It is also the gift of God. We all have occasions to say the prayer, Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief! The Lord has promised to answer that prayer.
There is no sin that is too big that it cannot be forgiven. Perceived size does not matter to your Lord. It matters not how long you have been away. It is unbelief that damns, unbelief that trusts not God’s Word nor His precious promises. His forgiveness is for you. His forgiveness is full. Everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. Amen.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.