Not What We Do, But What Was Done For Us

Sermon,  March 11, 2018  – Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Numbers 21:4-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s Gospel reading includes one of the best known verses in the Bible – John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  We often read this verse as if it was a stand alone statement, and doing so does not distort the meaning of this verse, but it is part of a larger passage that gives us an even richer message.  This message is echoed by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians which we also heard.

Our Gospel is actually the second half of a passage made up of the first half of chapter 3.  It involves a conversation between Jesus and a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, which is then followed by an editorial comment by John, the author of this gospel.  We heard only the tail end of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus but all of John’s commentary.

Before we get to today’s reading, let’s review the first part of the overall story.  A highly placed Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night.  Their conversation is mostly about what it means to be born again into the kingdom of God and Jesus tells him “I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  Nicodemus has a hard time understanding this and he asks Jesus how this is possible.

The rest of the conversation concerns Jesus explaining what it means to be born again.  I think that Nicodemus, as a good Pharisee, was probably looking for Jesus to tell him the steps he needed to take so he could be born again.  Nicodemus wanted to know exactly how this could be accomplished.  Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus the answers that he would like, and his answers are very informative as to what the Gospel is all about.

First, Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born again is like the wind.  Jesus says that the wind blows where it pleases, and that we really have no control over it.  So it is, he says, with those born of the Spirit.  In saying this, I think Jesus was telling Nicodemus that being born again isn’t something that we control, but rather something that God bestows on us.

Nicodemus is still confused, and Jesus then provides another example.  This is where our lectionary joins the larger passage.   Jesus makes reference to a story from the Old Testament, which we heard in our Old Testament reading today.  In that story, the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness after they had escaped from Egypt.  They were constantly disobeying God, but instead of taking responsibility for their disobedience, they complained incessantly to God.  Finally God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites leading to many deaths.  When the people begged God for mercy, God had Moses erect a pillar with a bronze serpent on its tip.  Whenever someone was bitten by a snake, all they needed to do was look at the bronze serpent and they would live.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  This cure that God effected in the Old Testament did not involve any action on the part of the Israelites.  All they had to do was look at the serpent.  And so Jesus is making the point again that being born again isn’t something that we accomplish for ourselves, but something that God gives to us.

This illustration from Numbers also communicates another important truth about the Gospel.  What has long puzzled me is why God decided that a bronze snake on a pole would be the best symbol to heal the Israelites from snake bites.  After all, it seemed odd that God would make a representation of the very thing that is causing all the harm to be the symbol to save the people from that harm.

But it turns out that this is a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus on the cross.  Think about the symbolism closely here.  Moses raised up the symbol of a snake – the very thing that was causing death amongst the Israelites, as the thing that would heal them.  And now it is Jesus Christ on the cross – the very picture of a criminal being punished for his sins, which is the thing that will heal us from our sin.  We often forget that the image of a cross is an image of death – it would be like an image of an electric chair or a noose today.  And so when we see the cross, it should serve as a constant reminder not just that we are saved, but that we are saved from our due punishment of eternal death.

At this point in the passage, John offers his comments.  He begins with his comment reflecting on the idea of Jesus being lifted up for us like the image of the serpent in the Old Testament.  In vs. 16, which is justly famous as one of the most concise summaries of the Gospel found in Scripture, John writes:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Just as the Israelites who were bitten by snakes only needed to look upon the bronze serpent for healing, so we only need believe in Jesus in order to be saved from our sin and have eternal life.

John follows this up by declaring “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  This is very important for us to hear.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee and the Pharisees had developed the unfortunate mindset that it was a failure to adhere to the Law that condemned people.  Indeed, this attitude even went beyond the Pharisees.  In John chapter 9, there is a story in which Jesus encounters a man born blind.  His disciples ask him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  There is a belief that it is disobedience to the Law that condemns someone, as if there were no Law to disobey, there would be no sin.  But it is not the Law that condemns us, but our sin.  If we think, like the Pharisees did, that we can obey the Law on our own, then indeed it would be the Law that condemns us.  Obedience to the Law would be the deciding issue of whether we were condemned or not.

But this is the point that John is arguing against here.  John says very clearly that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.  John says that our pre-existing condition is one of sin.  We are all living in darkness.  We do not have the power to earn our salvation by obeying the Law.  Paul makes this point very clear in our reading from Ephesians.  He writes “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”  The Law makes it clear how far we have fallen short, and how great our need is for a savior.  It has no power to condemn us nor save us.  Regardless of the Law, we are dead in sin.  And so when we encounter Jesus, there is only one direction we can go, and that is up.

This is why John says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  We are like the Israelites in the wilderness after they have been bitten by poisonous snakes.  We are dead men and dead women walking.  The venom is in us.  The only choice that the Israelites had was whether they would look to the bronze serpent and live, or whether they would refuse God’s rescue plan and die.  Our choice today is whether we look to God’s son Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sins on the cross for our salvation, and become born again into the kingdom of God; or whether we remain mired in our sin.

Put another way, Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, because if Jesus had not come, the world would still be condemned.  Without Jesus, the only option is condemnation.  With the entry of Jesus into the world, another option was added – the option of salvation.

John puts it in the well-known words of chapter 3 verse 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Paul has the same message for us in his letter to the Ephesians which we read today, when he says “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

This is what the Gospel is all about.  It is not about following moral directives to become better people.  It is not even about our choice to follow Jesus and be obedient to him.  No, it is all about us being dead in sin, unable to save ourselves from the deadly muck, only to have God send Jesus Christ to become one of us, take our sins upon himself and thereby open a path by which we can be born again as citizens of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel is not about us or what we do or don’t do.  The Gospel is all about the fact that God saved us from our sin, and lifted us up to be members of the kingdom of God.  This is what we look forward to in this season of Lent.

Let us pray.

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; Amen.

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