Sermon for March 11, 2018
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Sermon: "God's Love Lifted Up"
God is love. And God loves you.
Now I'm saying this to you this morning because I know very well every one of you needs to hear it. All of us have a little hollow place in the heart where we worry that perhaps we are not loved, never have been loved, and never will be loved.
Well, I say to you this morning once again: God loves you.
But I have more to say about love. I say to you that if the person next to you, in front of you, behind you, and three rows away from you in this sanctuary does not love you, I want to know why.
Further along in John's gospel after the reading we heard this morning, Jesus says:
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).
All of these words I've said lead into some comments about the familiar and beloved verse we know as John 3:16. It is beautiful gospel. It is the good news that tells us who God is, who we are, and what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ.
It is about God's love -- God's love, lifted up -- for the world.
But pulling out that verse, John 3:16, by itself this morning and not paying attention to all the other words we read this morning -- would deprive us of pondering some exceptional, exquisite scriptures given us this morning.
In the gospel lesson Jesus is winding up a visit from the devout Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish religious council, who has become intrigued by Jesus and wants to know more.
A few verses back, we read that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, after dark -- perhaps because he doesn't want to be seen associating with this rabbi who is causing all kinds of commotion around Jerusalem.
Jesus knows exactly what is in the heart of Nicodemus, and part of the conversation he has with Nicodemus is about coming into the light -- coming out of the dark.
But Jesus begins their conversation with riddles -- word play games -- that fly right above the head of Nicodemus, riddles about being born again that are more effective in the Greek language than in our English translations.
Nicodemus might as well have been hearing another language. He does not understand.
So Jesus, continuing in his conversation with the visitor, turns to an Old Testament story that he is sure Nicodemus will know.
And that is where our gospel lesson begins this morning -- not with John 3:16 but with John 3:14. Jesus sends us back to Numbers, chapter 21, the Old Testament lesson for today.
It is a strange story, this one we read from Numbers.
The people whom God had saved from slavery in Egypt are continuing to wander in the wilderness. And they are continuing to complain -- this time, though, not just to complain against their leader Moses but also against God.
The people want comfort -- and they want it now. They want better food. They refuse to be content, grateful, patient, or obedient -- and they moan and they groan.
And so God sends venomous snakes -- fiery serpents -- among the people. Some people were bitten and died. All were afraid. They repented and asked Moses to pray for them.
Moses did pray -- appealing to God for mercy.
God instructs Moses to make a poisonous snake, put it on a pole, and to lift up the pole so all could see the fiery serpent.
God tells Moses that those bitten by the poisonous snakes should look to the one lifted up on the pole and they will be healed and saved. It worked.
The people were sinful, disobedient; they were fearful; they needed healing; they needed protection from serpents.
How like the world when Jesus came into it.
How like the world today -- the complaining, murmuring people with little regard for the bountiful gifts of God, people rejecting God and worshiping themselves instead, people with no gratitude, no piety, no joy…
I wonder; will you wonder with me? Can we be a light shining into that darkness?
And how clever -- no how beautiful, really, it was for Jesus to take the strange story about the snakes in the wilderness and bring it into his day and age and give it to us for our day and age.
Jesus tries to get Nicodemus to connect that ancient story to the presence of Jesus himself as Messiah. He tells Nicodemus that he is the one who now must be lifted up so that those who believe in him may have eternal life. Here is what he says:
"And just 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." (John 3:14-15)
These verses 14 and 15 -- joined with the more famous verses 16 and 17 -- tell the events of the fateful week in Jerusalem. Jesus reveals that in his being lifted up, God is giving his Son for the sake of the world.
He says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
But we cannot forget the next sentence:
"For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:17)
Jesus lifted up on the cross: God's love lifted up; and that immeasurable love, that greatest of all gifts of love from God, is God's truth, the true gospel and it is there for all to see.
But, sadly, many do not see. And you know very well, God calls upon those of us who do see to reveal God's gifts to those who continue to be blind to God's gospel truth.
It is our call as disciples. As we learn to follow, he calls us to walk along with him.
He calls us to see those who need to hear the stories; those who might be inspired by those stories to open their hearts to God's Spirit.
When we become gospel-telling people, we are not just people who can recite John 3:16. Instead, we are people who are living out the meaning of God's love lifted up for the world.
God's love seeks from us a life lived in gratitude and service. That means:
*A life that gives something back to God.
*A life that responds God's love with lives exhibiting the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
*A life that acknowledges God's free gift of grace; that appreciates the meaning of love, forgiveness, and redemption.
Such a life is one that is lived in the light, not in the darkness.
As Jesus says in the Gospel of John text this morning:
"Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." (John 3:21)
There are many in the world who think there is no God, no love, no mercy, no forgiveness, no redemption -- who do not know how much God loves the world, who do not know that God sent his only Son into the world as a gift of love and grace.
Any who seek to follow Jesus are gathered into his church and there they are taught to share the light of love with the world.
Are we sharing gladly with others, particularly with the stranger and the poor, not just our material goods but our love toward them as a reflection of Christ's love?
Are we responding in love even to those who irritate and frustrate us -- holding our tongues when we know our words might be hurtful or scornful?
Do we need to pray for God's grace to help us be more gracious toward others?
Are we growing in connection, in love with one another within this congregation? Do we say thank you enough to those whose service we've noticed?
Are we faithfully, frequently praying for others and for the world?
Today, Jesus has reminded us that the cross comes before the resurrection. Jesus has reminded us that sometimes the way we arrive at healing and redemption is by going through some darkness and some pain.
But then there is light, God's light. And there is no other place so beautiful, so free, so comforting, and so true as the life lived in the light of our God given in Jesus Christ and in the grace-filled love that was lifted onto the cross on a day to change the world forever.
Let us pray together that God will lead us to live and love in a way that glorifies him and lifts the name of Jesus Christ in praise to the world around us. All glory, laud, and honor be to our great God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.