Saturday, March 25, 2006

B, Lent 4 - Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-16 "Lifted up like the Bronze Serpent"

In the Gospel reading today we hear, what would have to be, one of the most well known texts in the bible. In John 3:16 Jesus says: “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. But what does this verse mean? The little phrase “God so loved” can be wrongly understood as; God loved the world “so much” that he gave his Son. But rather, the Greek says, “For God thusly loved the world that he gave his one and only Son”, or to read it more easily, “For God loved the world in this way, therefore he gave his one and only Son”.

So when we hear this verse, it’s not Jesus being over emotional, but when he says that God so loved the world, we are called to not use it out of the context in which it is intended. It is not a cheap soppy emotional statement of love for the world spoken in a vacuum. However, it is a statement of fact, and it is a prophecy from the lips of Jesus himself, housed in the context of the Gospel reading for today (John 3:14-21). And even more so it is grounded in the context of the whole of Scripture, and in the context of God’s plan of salvation for all of humanity, emphasized especially here in the fourth Sunday of the Lenten season.

We now have a better grip on John 3:16, understanding the little word “so” in the phrase “For God so loved the world” as actually meaning “For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his one and only Son”. But now a question beckons to be answered. In what way does God love the world?

Surely we are forced to look out of ourselves and into God’s Word for answers! If we go back a few verses to the beginning of the text for today we see that verses fourteen and fifteen parallel verse sixteen and in fact give us our context for understanding the well known verse John 3:16. We hear: “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. 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.” (John 3:14-16)

Jesus foretells that he must be lifted up; he must be crucified for all to see. This is in fact the very way God so loved the world, so if we trust this act of love, this act of mercy and grace, we will not perish but have eternal life. But behold! More questions beg to be asked and answered? Why don’t we have eternal life if we don’t believe in him; why do we perish? And why does Jesus have to be lifted up in the same way as was the bronze serpent by Moses in the Sinai wilderness?

Now we finally come to the Lenten context; we come to the Old Testament reading to which Jesus refers; and we come to our context and see for what reason Jesus has to be lifted up for you and me – for all people. Now we can see the Gospel text John 3:16 in all its grace and truth for you, me, your families, and our community – for the whole world. We are led to a deeper understanding and trust that the Word made flesh had to come and dwell with us and in us; that Jesus had to come and be crucified, raised from the dead, and given to us in his own special way. So he might temple in our hearts and he might carry us to eternal life.

Let’s hear the Old Testament reading for today (Numbers 21:4-7), and see the power and greatness of God’s love for us and why he had to love us in the way of lifting up his one and only Son.

The Israelites travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)

Before we take up this text and let it test us, first we need to see the context which leads up to the life and death events of the bronze serpent.

Last week we heard Moses hand down the Ten Commandments. The people shook with fear when Moses came down the mountain and they said, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Exodus 20:19-20) Moses then goes on to fill out the Law before the Israelites with its practical application. Then after he does this as God’s mouthpiece; after he read from this new Book of the Covenant, the people exclaimed, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” (Exodus 24:7)

The Israelites knew God dwelt amongst them and he was their God. They knew he brought them out of Egypt so he could temple amongst them in the Holy of holies. Yet before long the people became sour. They rejected Moses and God and built a golden calf as a graven image of God and they worshipped it. God’s anger fell upon them and many died, but Moses pleaded on behalf of the Israelites for forgiveness.

Then they left Mount Sinai and set out towards the land God had promised to them. But it was not long before they lost faith and began to complain against God and Moses. They thought of stoning those who led them (Numbers 14:10). So God let them wander for forty years in the wilderness, letting a whole generation die rather than inhabit the land God had promised to them.

So after all God has done for them through Moses we arrive at the text for today and once again hear the Israelites have become short on patience and long on doubt and worry. Their track record shows the depths of their foolishness; it is quite obvious that even when led by God they were still bound by sin and sought to pull away. Even after they have trembled with fear and vowed to follow God; and even after God had provided water and quail in the desert they were quick to pass God off in mistrust and doubt and slow to see that God provides.

In fact the Israelites typify all people and show plainly that all of us too quickly doubt God and his word and run after other gods, quickly breaking any promise we might make to him. Those whom God sends to call us to repentance are often treated as if they are fools, and as if they haven’t a clue what they are talking about. Revealed in humanity is an unholiness that puts us in opposition to God; exposed is the sin that causes all of humanity to die.

It is understandable that God would want to get rid of the Israelites, and us, as we continually revolt against him and his means. But God doesn’t just wipe us out; nor does he pass over our rebellion easily. He sent snakes as the Israelites wander in the wilderness. Those who still ignored God suffered the inevitable consequences; they died in opposition to God – they died for their sin. It’s ironic that the very creature that led Adam and all creation into sin is used to inflict the fatal wound on the heel of those against God.

But if God would have left it at that, everyone would have died. But the purpose of being bitten and the threat of imminent death, returned the people to God. But even that didn’t save them! Their act of contrition, however, caused Moses to pray to God to show mercy on them. So through Moses, God commanded a bronze serpent to be lifted up, and all who were bitten could look and be saved. Then only those who trusted God’s word and means, given through Moses, lived.

Notice that neither Moses, God’s law giver and mediator, nor the snakes were removed; but rather God built the promise of salvation upon them. The Israelites asked Moses to pray to God to remove the snakes. However, human nature being what it is, the snakes still came and inflicted the fatal bites. God didn’t take the snakes away, but rather, had Moses lift up a replica of the very serpent that revealed their rebellion, and inflicted imminent death on them.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up… 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. (John 3:14,16)

The snakes still bite! Death is still on the horizon of every living person! Every one of us lives with a nature engrained in sin, which seeks not to trust God. But rather we take his word and his means, twisting them and ignoring his prohibitions and putting our own golden calves in place as a means of worshipping him.

But it is the cross alone which saves us. It is Jesus' spilt blood in death for our sin which saves us. The snakes don’t stop biting us because of who we are, but because of God’s love for us he gives us a way of receiving the benefits of the cross so that we might be saved. Jesus is our mediator and our saviour, he gives us his means through pastors (who stand in the mediatory tradition of both Moses and Jesus) through whom he gives salvation in Baptism, preaches his word of law and condemnation but also his saving word of grace and forgiveness, through whom he administers that forgiveness in absolution, and administers himself in the bread and wine.

The snakes of sin bite, we are called to trust his means of grace; we are called to believe that God loves us this way. We are called to trust that Jesus is with us; that he is on the altar, that the Holy Spirit is in his Word bringing us to him, so that he might cleanse us and make us holy and temple in us. Jesus like Moses points us to way of salvation; Jesus points us to himself, the Word made flesh, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins when he was lifted up on the cross. Jesus has not come to us to condemn us! He comes to save us! Yes, he reveals the truth of who we are, but he calls us to believe that he had to be lifted up and that his death gives us life.

For God loved you in this way; that he daily gives you his one and only Son, who was lifted up, and if you believe and trust his way, his means of grace, your sin will no longer make you perish but instead you will have eternal life. Amen.