Sunday, March 11, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole. It shall happen, that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’

I went to the grocery store yesterday to buy food for the next few days. While there, I thought about joking with my friends on the East Coast who are facing another winter storm. I was going to post, “For my friends in PA, I’m at the grocery store. Need anything?” I joke because the grocery stores in their area were probably empty of the staples because everyone went to stock up for the time they would be trapped by the blizzard. I didn’t do it because it would have been cruel to play upon their suffering, especially since winter appears to have finished with Texas for the year.

We rush out to the grocery store before a huge weather event because we don’t want to be trapped without food. The trouble is we could probably survive just fine with what is already in our pantries, refrigerators and freezers. In the United States, most of us have more food than we can possibly eat. We go shopping before those storms not for survival, but for comfort food. We want snacks to eat during the movies we will watch if our electricity doesn’t go off. We want brownies and chips. We buy milk and bread, but really want chocolate and wine. We buy food that will sustain us, food that can be eaten even if we can’t cook, but we usually eat the junk food that makes us feel good.

We all have to admit that there are times we go to our pantry or refrigerator and think, “There’s nothing to eat,” despite the fact that we couldn’t fit any more food on our shelves. We can’t find something because there is nothing looks good. Nothing seems worth the work and time it would take to cook it. Everything looks bland and unappetizing. We manage to settle for something, but we think about all the things that would taste better. Sometimes we don’t even know what would satisfy, we just know that what we have won’t.

The Hebrews had plenty to eat, but they were tired of eating the same old manna day after day after day. I can see them as well as I can see myself standing in the pantry saying, “There’s nothing to eat here!” They complained about wandering in the wilderness. They complained against Moses and God. They wanted to return to the slavery of Egypt. Did they really expect that the food would be better in Egypt? After all, they were slaves and would never have received the best of fare. However, when we are not satisfied with our situation we always expect that things will be greener on the other side of the fence. They thought that the food for slaves had to be better than the manna of freemen.

God was disappointed by their lack of faith and trust. The Hebrews wanted control. They, perhaps rightfully, felt helpless. Moses had led them into the wilderness away from their homes and everything they knew. Perhaps their life was not comfortable. They were oppressed and worked to death as slaves to the Pharaoh, and they hated their life. When Moses led them out of Egypt they were excited to be alive and free. But the Promised Land was not right around the corner. Their wandering in the wilderness became such a burden that they began to look back on their sojourn in Egypt with fond memories. It had to be better in slavery than starving and thirsting lost in the desert. Even though God was providing them with all that they needed - safety, food and water - they hungered and thirsted for Egypt.

When I think of the Exodus, I picture a rag-tag mass of people just wandering in the desert for forty years, no direction or purpose. While that is true in a sense, they were far more organized. They became a nation of nomadic people, and while they did move often in those forty years, they weren't constantly in motion. They followed the pillar of cloud in the day and fire in the night as God commanded, but they also set up camp for long periods of time.

They were forced to wander because they did not trust God at Mount Sinai. While Moses was receiving God’s Word for His people, they built a golden calf to worship. This caused God’s anger and a promise that the unfaithful generation would not enter the Promised Land. By the time they made it there, the men and women who left Egypt had died, leaving only their children and grandchildren. They were not happy; they grumbled constantly about the lack of food and water. The journey was meant to teach them to trust in God. It was a hard earned, and shortly held, lesson. God’s people have fallen to unfaithfulness so many times. When they did, God used the world to help them to look to Him again. Whether it was war, exile or oppression, the suffering they faced was given as a gift to bring about repentance and faith.

We can easily get caught up in ourselves, whether it is our victories and dreams or our suffering and pain. It becomes so important to us that we lose sight of that which is more important: God. The Hebrews turned from God and Moses over and over again. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we see the aftermath of one of those moments. Numbers 21:1-3 tells the story of their first battle as a new community under God’s grace. The king of Arad attacked the wandering nation as they passed near to his land and captured some of them.

Their prayer was typical of our human prayers, Israel vowed a vow to God: “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” It wasn’t enough for their people to be set free; they wanted to destroy those who had harmed them. God gave the Canaanites over to the Hebrews and they completely destroyed them. It was by God’s hand and will that it happened, but as with all victory, the people became caught up in their success. They had the power to defeat a great enemy!

When it was time to move on, Moses led them the long way to avoid Edom. They people were not thrilled by this route; they were impatient and thought it to be a waste of their time. Besides, why shouldn’t they go into Edom and use their new found strength to take what they needed? They could find fresh food and water; they could eat something besides manna and quail. As is typical with human complaint, the Hebrews exaggerated their needs. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.” They were sure they were going to die.

The Promised Land was not right around the corner but they weren’t going to die. God provided for them, the manna and quail filled them, and they had enough to survive. They didn’t want to just survive and their desires turned them away from God. The Hebrews wanted control; they spoke against God and Moses. They complained the way we complain when we can’t find something we want to eat in the pantry or refrigerator. Manna was not food to these people, even though it met their needs. They were imagining that back in Egypt they’d be eating chocolate and drinking fine wine.

God was disappointed by their lack of faith. The people exaggerated the dangers they faced in the desert, especially since they had the God of creation, the God of their forefathers, protecting and leading them. All they could see was what they had left behind. Sure, they were slaves, but they had food other than manna and quail. God had to remind them that they were not in control. This story of snakes is hard for us to accept. It doesn’t fit with our modern expectation of God. Why would He do such a thing? Why would He send dangerous snakes into the midst of His people? Why would He allow so many to die? The poisonous snakes were a way of getting the people’s attention before they did more harm to themselves, perhaps even rebelling against Moses and returning to Egypt. Would Pharaoh welcome the slaves back with open arms and a huge barbeque? No, they would go back to their own deaths, and it would be alone, without God. If they turned back to Egypt, they turned their back on God. Returning to Egypt would have been worse than poisonous snakes as it would have led to the annihilation of God’s people.

The snakes did indeed get their attention. They went to Moses and asked him to pray for them. And Moses prayed and the LORD heard their pleas. Did He remove the snakes? That certainly would have been the most logical and loving solution to the problem. But in His mercy, God did not remove the poisonous snakes. Instead, He commanded Moses to create a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bit, they could look at the snake and be healed. Ironic, isn’t it? Looking to the very thing that brought death brought them healing and life. God gave them the sign so that they could have a visible reminder of His salvation and deliverance.

We often ask ourselves why God would allow Jesus to die. Again, it doesn’t fit in with our modern expectation of God. It seems illogical and unnecessary. God could have saved the Hebrews by removing the snakes and He could have saved us by removing from our lives that which continually leads us astray. Would it have worked? Would the Hebrews have kept their eyes on God if they had no snakes to remind them of His saving grace? Would we keep our eyes on Jesus if we had no reason to be saved? God gave us a sign so that we could have a visible remind of His salvation and deliverance.

Jesus reminds us of this parallel in today’s Gospel message. The book of John shows clearly how Jesus is better than Moses in every way. He is better than the Temple that Moses established because He is the Temple. He is better than the Law which Moses received from God because He is the Law. He is better than the prophet because He is the I AM. In today’s passage, Jesus tells Nicodemus that Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to save God’s people, but the Son of Man would be lifted up to a greater salvation.

Look to Him and have eternal life. Have faith in the only Son and you will have eternal life.

John 3:16 is probably one of the most beloved and most quoted (and perhaps even misquoted) verses of the scriptures. Yet, there is so much more to this passage. This is a message about light. Jesus Christ is the light, and without Him we live in darkness. John 3:16, is a wonderful message, a message that many people have used to share the love of God with the world. As a matter of fact, when you see “JOHN 3:16” in the end zone of a football game or on a billboard, you know exactly what it means. We worship a God of love.

This is so very true. Here is where the Christian message begins to trouble us. This God who loves us so much sent His Son to die for us. How can this be? How can the world see love and grace in this horrific death? Why couldn’t God do it in a different way? Why couldn’t He let us do it our way so that we wouldn’t have to suffer? Wouldn’t more people believe if we could show them this God of love? They reject a God that allows the snakes to keep biting without seeing that it is in His gracious act that we repent and return to Him. John 3:16 is worthless without the rest of the story. John 3:17 says, “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” We are saved by the blood of Christ, shed for us and for all those who believe, and by His cross we are set free to live in God’s kingdom for eternity. John 3:16 means nothing without the truth that Jesus saves us from ourselves and the sin that will destroy us. He who was without sin was raised so that the world would be saved.

The world looks at the cross and sees it as a horrific torture device and not a symbol of freedom and glory. Yet, as you read the witness of John, you will see that the cross is where Christ was glorified, because it was on the cross that He was perfectly obedient to the will of God. It was there the world was saved, not in the empty tomb. Our salvation rests in the One hanging on the pole, and it is to Him that we are to look for healing and peace.

The focus during the weeks of Lent has been on covenants, but this passage does not seem to hold to the pattern. Where is the promise in the Old Testament lesson? Yes, the people will be healed, but God never took away the snakes. They will still be bitten and people still died. The only way they would ever be saved is by trusting in God. Though there is not a spoken covenant here, there is an incredible promise: you’ll experience His saving grace when you trust in Him.

Nicodemus didn’t get it. We don’t hear his entire story, but let’s put our passage in context. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but something about Jesus drew him in to have a conversation. He had respect for Jesus, and yet we have to wonder why he came at night. Was he afraid of what others might think of him? Did he want time alone with Jesus? Is the idea that Nicodemus came at night more a statement from John that Nicodemus was stuck in darkness? It is interesting that Nicodemus speaks in the plural, “We know you are from God.” Who is “we”? Is Nicodemus speaking for a group?

Whoever Nicodemus meant when he said “we,” the conversation was very personal and intimate between the two men. Jesus told him that something has to change. He couldn’t rely on his human gifts and experiences to know God. It is only by God’s grace that he could truly have life. Jesus reminded him of the story of the people in the desert: it was only by the grace of God that those people were saved from their snake bites, and it will only be by the grace of God that anyone will be saved from their sinful natures. The new bronze snake would be Jesus Himself, raised on a cross and killed for the sake of the world.

Nicodemus was a teacher, a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council. If anyone knew God’s word it would be a man like Nicodemus. Yet, he understood God only from the perspective of law and tradition, not from grace. He knew only the things of flesh, not the spirit. So, Jesus pointed back to a story Nicodemus would have known very well to show how God would give a sign to His people. Moses’ snake was just a type. The Savior would be lifted, too. Jesus was referring to Himself; He would be lifted on the cross and those who look to Him will have eternal life.

Is the image of the cross any more comforting than that of the snake on a pole? I don’t think so. We wonder why it was even necessary for Jesus to die. Couldn’t God have simply forgiven our sins and let us continue on our journey? No, it would not have been enough. We would have been like those Hebrews eventually. Along our journey we would wonder about whether things were better before we were forgiven. Isn’t it more fun to live according to the ways of the world? Isn’t it more exciting to follow our own desires, to seek the good things in life? Isn’t it better to be in the comfort of Egypt rather than wandering helpless in the wilderness?

God had to do something more than get our attention; He had to finish the work. He had to pay the price. He had to provide His Son who would guarantee eternal life to those who believe. The issue in the desert was not hunger or starvation; it was trust. The issue for us is not living by the law; it is about trusting that God provides true life. Nicodemus didn’t understand how anyone could be born again. He probably didn’t even understand why; he thought everything he needed could be found in good works and right living. He thought he could trust in himself. But just as the Hebrews had to trust in God to be healed from the snake bite, we have to trust in God to be reconciled to Him, even if His method seems out of character.

Thankfully, God gives us something to look at, to remind us of His grace. He could have taken the snakes away, but how long would the Hebrews have continued to trust in Him if He had? He gave them the bronze snake so that they would keep looking to Him. Would we trust in God if He took away sin and made us perfect? Adam and Eve certainly didn’t. How long would we last? How long would we remember God and look to Him? Instead of letting us wander in our own wilderness, in our own selfishness, God gave us something to remind us of His grace: the cross. When we look to Jesus, we know that all God’s promises and covenants are real.

The psalm for today is a call to praise God, given to those who know God’s redemption. The psalm names several groups of people, including those who are wandering in the wilderness, freed prisoners and seafarers who have been saved from a shipwreck. We have to wonder if God really heard the cries of His people in the wilderness. In the wilderness the people were grumbling about the conditions. They were tired. They were sick of the manna. They were thirsty. They were beginning to fear what was ahead. They wondered if the Promised Land would be everything they expected. The wondered what suffering they might experience there. They worried about how many would die along the way. God answered their grumbling with poisonous snakes.

Yet, despite this unexpected answer, God did lead them to the Promised Land. Despite our grumbling, God answers our prayers, too. The answers to our worries are not always as we might expect. We don’t always get healed of our disease nor have our problems solved as we wish. Sometimes the answer is death. What we don’t know is that the answers we want might lead us to turn away from God and from His salvation. He answers so that we will learn to trust Him, give Him control and keep our eyes on Him. The psalmist sings, “Let the redeemed by Yahweh say so, whom he has redeemed from the hand of the adversary.” No matter our circumstances, we’ve been set free to praise God and glorify Him to the world.

Paul begins today’s epistle lesson with a rather strong statement: “You were dead.” They weren’t physically dead; this isn't the first scene from some early version of a zombie movie. As a matter of fact, they were probably living a fairly decent life in Ephesus. They were dead not because their heart stopped beating and their brain stopped working. They were dead in their sin; they did not believe in God.

There is a very real “us versus them” attitude in the words of this epistle. The “you” in verse one is directed toward the Gentiles, those who lived according to the desires of the flesh, following the ruler of this world: the devil. In verse three Paul refers to the Jews who were called to be God’s chosen nation.

Yet, in this passage we see that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Paul writes, “...we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Jew and Gentile are the same; we are all condemned by our will. We are typical selfish and self-centered human beings and we will naturally reject God for our own sake. This is the very reason why it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die on the cross. The world is full of human beings who are sinners in need of a Savior. It took a serpent to bring salvation to the people in the desert, and it took the cross to bring salvation to you and me. It took a man to bring healing and pain. Who would have thought that it would be the Son of God hanging on a cross?

It is on the cross where we truly see the God of mercy. Could God have removed the serpents from the camp of the Hebrews? Of course He could, but He didn’t. Instead He gave them a way to be healed. Could God forgive without the cross? Why didn’t He find another way to save us from our troubles? I don’t have the answer to that question, for I do not know the mind of God. I do know however, that when I’m in the midst of trouble brought on by the consequences of my own sin, the sins of others, or the grace of God sent as serpents to draw me back into His presence, it is the cross where I can most clearly see God's love. I see my sin and my sinful nature and I see His mercy and His grace. Any freedom I have, or peace, or joy, or hope, or even faith has nothing to do with me. It is a gift from God, given not because I've done anything right, but out of His deep love for me. As a matter of fact, I was dead, and He died so that I might live.

“God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The eternal life that comes from faith given by God is not just something to look forward to in the future; it is also in the here and now. It is a life that is lived in thanksgiving and praise. There is hope in a world made up of typical human beings who fail to trust God. His name is Jesus.

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