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“Raised Up!” : Sermon 3/11/2018

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sermon Text: John 3: 14-21

I have a friend who is a herpetologist---she studies amphibians (such as frogs and toads) and reptiles (such as lizards, turtles, and snakes). I’m okay with all of them except for snakes. Since I’m not knowledgeable enough to know a harmless snake from a venomous one, I prefer to stay well clear of them. My husband Jim, when he was a young boy used to go out with his Dad into the Atchafalaya River basin in Louisiana to pick moss---they used moss to stuff bed mattresses. At times when his Dad reached up into the trees to pick the moss, he’d also get a snake. Jim remembered his Dad would just calmly toss the snake in the water. “If it didn’t harm him, he wouldn’t harm it,” was what his Dad said. His Mom didn’t feel the same way about snakes. One day, as a little boy, he carried a dead snake into the houseboat to show his Mom what he had. He said she shrieked and ran out of the room hollering for his Dad.

Our Numbers 21 passage tells us of the Israelites who began to once again become impatient and complain against God and Moses saying “there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” The “miserable food” they are complaining about is the manna—the food (along with quail) that God has been providing for them to eat. So instead of sending quail, God sends poisonous snakes. One commentator says that the invasion of these reptiles is like the plagues on Egypt by which the Lord demonstrated his sovereignty over nature. If the Israelites prefer to live in Egypt, they will die like Egyptians. Jesus said, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? (Matthew 7: 9-10). But the Lord has already given his people “bread from heaven” (manna) which they now regard as contemptible. Perhaps some snakes will help them appreciate his bread!

When the Israelites confess their sin and call for help, God does not simply call off the serpents. Rather, he commands Moses to employ a visual anti-venom which Moses does by sculpting and displaying a snake out of bronze. The bronze snake is appointed by God who alone is capable of healing his people. To confront the serpent sculpture is to confront one’s own sin and its result. It is the spiritual equivalent of looking in the mirror. That unspoken confession is all it takes to live. If they spurn the bronze serpent, they will simply go on dying. But they can escape death if they accept the remedy that the Lord has provided. The choice is theirs. In Moses’ bronze snake, the Lord simultaneously shows the Israelites their sin and his grace. By doing something that seems foolish—to stare at a bronze snake to be healed—the people show faith in the Lord’s power and promise of healing which is their only hope. It is appropriate that divine remedies such as a bronze serpent and a carpenter on a cross are “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1: 18) because divine grace itself does not conform to human logic.

Moses’ bronze snake was preserved for centuries until King Hezekiah destroyed it because the Israelites had made it an object of worship. (2 Kings 18:4). Although it was gone, it was not forgotten. One night Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is from our John 3 reading. Jesus identified himself as the ultimate antidote to the “snakebite” of mortality that results from sin. By looking at him, lifted up and dying for our sin, we see the depth of our fall, the fate we deserve, and the magnitude of his grace and mercy.

One of the most memorable verses in the Bible---one that ought to be etched into our minds and our hearts is this: “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.”

I found an important point made by a commentator. As a Biblical teacher, he sees people thinking that Jesus died in order to placate an angry God, whereas the cross expresses the love of Christ for us and his work appeases God’s threatening wrath. This makes God an opponent and an adversary while Jesus is our ally. This is not what John says in 3:16. The work of Christ is GOD at work, GOD saving the world, GOD extending himself into the condition of our humanity and bringing about reconciliation. Christ was not created---there was no time in history when he “was not”—and so he enjoys an eternal existence precisely like God. Further, he shares the very essence or being of God (the Council of Nicea used the word homoousios to express this concept). Why is this important? Because it means that God himself is on our side. God himself is at work on our behalf. He did not send a messenger Jesus to do the dirty work. God himself came to the cross and suffered in order to bring his beloved creation back to himself. This understanding was expressed by Paul. In 2 Corinthians 5: 18-19, he describes the goodness of God in rescuing us and remarks: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” The cross is thus God’s work. Jesus Christ came to earth not in order to change God’s mind, but to express God’s mind.

Paul’s writings in Ephesians 2 reminds us that we were dead through our trespasses and sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us---even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ. By GRACE we have been saved. And we are raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. We were saved through faith by grace…and it is not something we did---it is the gift of God, not the result of things we have done so that we cannot boast. God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

I’ve used this illustration before: During a conference on comparative religions, experts from all over the world debated what belief was unique to the Christian faith. The debate lasted quite some time before C. S. Lewis entered the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” After some discussion, the others had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law—each offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

A loving God chastised the Israelites showing to them their sin and His grace. A loving God so loved us all that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. A loving God, even though we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him. How can we not lift our eyes up to the cross and see His love?