Friday, March 16, 2012

B, Lent 4 – Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21 “Too Good Not To Be True”

All they had to do was look at the bronze serpent and live. It sounds like a hoax. The venom of a deadly desert snake kills a person in minutes. A snake's neurotoxin floods the body's lymphatic system causing bodily organs to fail. A pressure bandage and medical attention needs to come quickly to stop the deadly effects from the snake's bite.
Therefore, look at a bronze snake and live! Sound fair enough? I don't think so! How can looking at bronze pole stop the lymphatic system from pumping the venom around the body? It sounds too good to be true!
After the resurrection Jesus said to the eleven Apostles…
"Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." (Mark 16:15–18 ESV)
Therefore, we should go out looking for tiger snakes, brown snakes, cobras, and vipers to see if we're made of the right stuff? Ah no! Not a good idea! God may call for this to happen but only when he desires it, when it serves him to his ends, and when he calls an individual or a group of people into this situation to glorify him alone!
Nevertheless, he did call the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness to look and live. They were being bitten and many were dying. So they came to Moses and pleaded he pray to God to take away the snakes. So Moses prayed on behalf of the people, and God didn't take the snakes away. Instead, he commanded Moses to add a bronze snake to the equation.
All they had to do was believe, and healing they would receive. It was no different to the food and the water God had been supplying. If they trusted him, looked to him, he would continue to sustain them. But despite God being with them they saw their situation as being in greater peril of perishing than when they were slaves in Egypt.
Jesus names this event when he speaks to Nicodemus, who had come to him at night. He introduces Nicodemus to the idea of being born again through water and the Spirit, and ties it to his being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.
In the same way Jesus connects baptism and belief, unbelief and condemnation in the hearing of the disciples after the resurrection, as he had done so here with Nicodemus too.
John 3:16 are Jesus' words to Nicodemus, but we do well to hold the text of Moses and the bronze serpent with this well know verse, so we might get the full volume of what Jesus is saying here. If we don't then we're in danger of turning John 3:16 or for that matter the gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us, into a cheesy feel good cliché.
Yes it should make us feel good, but in a way that leads us to glorify God for the eternal salvation he gives to us through his Son. In the next verse, verse seventeen Jesus says…
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. (John 3:17 ESV)
And lets couple this verse with what we have heard from Numbers twenty-one…
Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." (Numbers 21:6–8 ESV)
What did God want with the Israelites in the wilderness; to starve them, to have them die of thirst, or to poison them with snakes? No! Why then would he have bothered to save them in the first place! Rather he sought to save them because he loved them and wanted to take them from the land of slavery and oppression into the land of milk and honey.
Similarly we are called to see Jesus lifted up alone on the cross, as the one who exposes and lifts up our sin. We first have to believe we are bitten with sin, to believe the being of sin is within, in order for us to look to him on the cross in faith to have our sin forgiven so we may not eternally perish.
If we choose to shun the seriousness of our sin, we become like one in the wilderness bitten by a fiery serpent; thinking it's only a scratch, it's not that bad, refusing to stop, look and live. Sin is serious and like the bronze serpent, Jesus lifted up on the cross is too good not to be true.
When someone makes the fatal mistake of thinking it's too good to be true the person fulfils what Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse eighteen…
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. (John 3:18 ESV)
If the Israelites didn't believe they were bitten, if they didn't believe the brass serpent to have any power, they too were condemned to death even before their death inevitably came.
So how does one believe, and what does believing do? Surely we first must be brought to an understanding of our need. This is not a mental or cognitive understanding; rather it's the deeper yearning of our inner being for what life was originally created to be, before the fall.
Jesus tells Nicodemus what believing does in John 3:21…
But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God." (John 3:21 ESV)
Those who do what is true allow themselves to be brought into the light so they might have sin exposed and expunged, to have sin revealed and its power removed! Therefore, it is clearly seen that a person's works have been carried out in God. This means, that everything that's done is shown as being done by God himself. But how does he do it?
We find this answer in Ephesians 2:8…
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8 ESV)
It is faith that enables a person to believe, and this faith is not of us it is the gift of God. Unfortunately, many today are deceived into a faith that is of themselves and not a gift of God at all. But for those being saved Christ dwells within, because having heard his word, we stop, look and live.
So to keep it concise, I pray we might continue to stop, look, and live. Let the light shine on us to expose and extinguish sin. To let the light shine on us disempowering sin and empowering the Holy Spirit who works through hearing the word, to give us the ability to believe and receive, Jesus' death and resurrection for you, for me, for all who stop, look, and live.
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. (John 3:14–16 ESV)
Surely this is too good not to be true! Amen.