Preaching Notes Lent 4.B.2015
John 3:14-31 and Numbers 21:4-9
Sometimes context is everything, as in the case of today’s Gospel lection.
When John writes, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life," it is important to be aware thathe is making a direct reference to the incident from twenty-first chapter of the book of Numbers that is the Old Testament lection for this day.
In order to understand the context, we have to go back to that book and recall the whole story. The passage from Numbers records that after following Moses for forty years in the wilderness, the Israeliteshad finally arrived at the entry point into the promised land. But having finally reached the long-anticipated threshold, they found themselves blocked at the last minute by the Edomites. So they were forced to take a long detour and be delayed even further. In their frustration they once again begin to lose their patience and started griping and complaining about God and Moses.
"Why, oh why, Moses, why did you ever bring us out of Egypt?" they whine. "Why did you lead us through all of that if it was only so that we could sit here and starve in the desert? We are sick and tired of the manna. It’s bland and tasteless and we want something else."
And so the story goes that God sent poisonous snakes among the people. Many were bitten and many died.After that happened, the people came back to Moses and said, "We made a mistake Moses. We realized we sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. We are sorry. Please forgive us and pray to the Lord to take the snakes away." So Moses prayed for the people.
Then the Lord told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten had only to look at the snake Moses lifted up and the bitten person would be healed. It is thisimage, then, that John picks up to set the stage for what is probably the most well-know and beloved verse in all the New Testament: John 3, verse 16, which says, "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."
Most of the time, however, when folks quote that beautiful verse, they fail to mention its connection to this passage from Numbers. And unfortunately, when we lift John 3:16 out of context, it loses its fullness of meaning.
I would invite you to hold the following four images in mind as we consider John’s words:
- the pole,
- the snake
- and the doctor.
(Brazen Serpent Monument by Italian sculptor Giovanni Fantoni. Mount Nebo, Jordan. Image from author’s personal collection.)
As for Moses and the pole and the snake, their relationship goes back to the third chapter of Exodus.When God called Moses to lead the people, at first Moses said he could not be a leader because he was a terrible speaker and he had no personal charisma. He worried that no one would follow him.In response,God told Moses to throw his staff, his walking stick, down on the ground, and when Moses did that, it turned into a snake. Then, when Moses reached down and caught the snake by the tail, it turned back into a walking stick (See Exodus 4).
It was this very same walking stick that, when Moses held it up, the Red Sea parted so that the children of Israel were able to cross it and escape the army of the Pharaoh.It was this same stick with which Moses struck the rock at Mt. Sinai and water gushed out for the thirsty Israelite people to drink.
So perhaps a good wrap-up of all these scenes and connections would be to say that in the story of Moses, the image of the snake and the pole together stands for the power of God.
As for the snake itself, without the pole, well we all know the history of the snake.
The snake appeared quite early in the Hebrew Scriptures, way back in the third chapter of Genesis. Remember that in that chapter it was the snake that approached Eve and asked her if God had really forbidden Adam and her from eating fruit from any tree in the Garden of Eden.Eve said, "God did not forbid the fruit of any tree except for the one in the middle. God said if we ate that fruit we would die."
And the snake said, "Ha! That's not the truth! The reason God doesn't what you to eat fruit from that tree is because God knows that when you eat that fruit, you will become Godlike yourselves, and be able to recognize what is good and what is bad, and you won't need God anymore."
So I want to suggest that in the Bible, what the snake alone represents is disobedience to God. The snake represents having knowledge of what is good and what is evil independent of God.
To make the point, just fast-forward a little bit to the scene from today’s Old Testament lesson in which the Israelites found themselves confronted by this roadblock at Edom. They decided that what God and Moses were asking them to do was unreasonable. They decided it was bad, and their complaining was a form of disobedience. What happened as a result of their sin? Snakes appeared and bit them, and they died.
In the Bible, nothing is ever what it seems to be at first glance. The snake is not just a snake. In the Bible, the snake is a sign of sin. It is a symbol of disobedience. It appears whenever people decide for themselves, apart from God, what is good or what is bad. Whenever people disobey in this way the consequence, say the scriptures, is death. Independent judgment meant death for Adam and Eve, brought about by having to leave the security of Garden of Eden. It meant death for the Israelites poised on the brink of entering the Promised Land.
This is why the snake is not just a snake.
Furthermore, even though Moses offers the remedy for their sins,Moses is not really the doctor. Because when the Israelites speak against God and Moses, it is not Moses, but rather God working through Moses who sends away the snakes, the sign of sin and the instruments of death. Therefore it is God who causes the people to stop their gossip. It is God who leads them to approach Moses with penitent hearts. And it is God who prescribes the remedy that Moses uses to heal the people who would have died. That is why Moses isn't really the doctor; because in this story, God is the doctor.
Now there is absolutely no question that all of these layers and layers of tradition were in John's mind when he wrote (and I paraphrase here), "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that just as every sinful Israelite who looked a the bronze snake might be healed, so every sinful person who believes in the crucified Christ might have eternal life."
God is not the one who causes sin and death. But God is the healer. God is the one who sends the Great Physician. God is the doctor of our souls.
- God does not love us because we are innocent like Adam and Eve were before they thought of disobeying God.
- God does not love us because we are God’s chosen people being led into the promised land.
- God does not love us because we have earned God’s favor by always doing the right thing.
- God does not love us because we have lived in perfect obedience and without sin.
But still God loves us! God loves us so much thatthrough Christ, God has affected the cure for our disobedience.
The hard truth we have to face is thatthe people of today, including the people in your congregation, stand at the end of a long line of people who history is one of being aggressive to the point of ruthlessness. What are some examples you can share that would demonstrate clearly the continuing inhumanity of the human race?
The nature of humanity is that we have inherited the stain of original sin. We have been bitten by the consequences of not listening to God, not believing in God, and not obeying God. The poison is in our blood and we are sick unto death. And yet, God would not have us die: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
The only question that remains is how does this work? How is this cure affected? How does a person believe in Jesus Christ? What does that mean for the people to whom you are preaching?
I want to suggest that it begins with finding a way to get un-centered from ourselves. The subtle nature of this snake called sin is that it starts with ME. It makes ME important. It seeks to put ME into a favorable light. It awakens and promotes the desire that I gain and maintain some advantage over everyone else.
Once I start down that road, once I begin to look at the world primarily in terms of my own selfish goals and needs, I can’t get out of the rut. The more I think about my own condition, the more I think about myself. And the more I think about myself the more self-centered and selfish I become. But when I raise my eyes and see Christ lifted up on the cross, when my heart goes out to his pain and his suffering, I stop thinking about myself for a while.
The snake of sin whispers to us to be independent, to think about ourselves first, to try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and judge for ourselves what is good and what is evil apart from God. But Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, teaches us from God. To believe in him, to know him and follow him, means to lay down the burden of our own sin and guilt and take up the burden of bearing the cross on behalf of others. That is the way that leads to life.
And as Jesus says, it is not a burden that we will not wish to carry. Christ's yoke is easy and his burden is light. And through it we shall find rest unto our souls. What more could we want? That is life! That is life eternal.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—“
This is THE GOOD NEWS, my friends! For Paul, there is nothing in this world we can ever do to earn God’s love because God’s love for us is an unmerited gift. And furthermore, even if we thought we could earn it we couldn’t, because our essentially fallen natures make us dead through our trespasses and sins.
How many of the people in your congregation really believe that? How many of them believe that God loves them and will continue to love them no matter what they do? How many of them believe that God also loves that person whom they know to be sinning—that person that is cheating on her spouse, or cheating on his taxes, or lying to his parents, or stealing movies from the internet, or abusing her children because of her addiction to prescription drugs? How many of them believe that God loves and will continue to love a person who commits murder, or robs a bank, or takes people hostage, or harms a child? How many of you who are reading these words believe that God’s grace can be given to those in our society who commit the most heinous of crimes? How many of you really believe this?
Because this is what Paul is talking about when he writes that God’s grace is “not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
I would venture to guess that the majority of the folks in our congregations, and maybe even some of us, ascribe to something akin to what Jeff Paschal calls “Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism.” As he notes about this passage,
This is fundamental Pauline theology, but it goes against what many Christians of our time actually believe and practice. Some Christians believe and practice a form of Pelagianism—a fearful hope that they are reconciled with God by their good works. Other Christians believe and practice a form of Semi-Pelagianism based on the anxious hope of being reconciled with God by having enough faith. (Jeff Paschal, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.)
We don’t want to believe that God can love the people that we can’t love. We don’t want to believe that God has this capacity to love. We want to believe, at some level, that there are those among us who will be punished, perhaps for all eternity, for their wrongdoing on this earth, while others will be rewarded for their righteousness with everlasting lives spent skipping along those streets of gold in heaven with all the people they love.
This is why this GOOD NEWS is precisely what every person sitting in your pews most needs to hear. It is the most important thing we can seek to communicate. And it is the most difficult, but we still have to try. For if God can love the least among us—the most lost, the most unlovely, the most licentious or illicit or lustful or loathsome of humans—then God can surely love me.
Do your members really believe, deep down in their heart of hearts, that God loves them even though they have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Do they believe God will still love them if they have done something terrible?
I hope so. I pray they do. And I pray for you, my colleagues in preaching, that you may be able to somehow help them to hear this incredible good news. Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.