Sunday, March 15, 2015

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

For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.

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 times.

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. There weren't many places to go in that desert, so it is likely that they camped for long periods of time between movements. We know that 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 story from the Old Testament, 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 thou wilt 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, eat something besides manna and quail. As is typical with human complaint, the Hebrews exaggerated their needs. "Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread." They were sure they were going to die.

They weren't going to die. God provided for them, the manna filled them, and they had enough to survive. They didn't want to just survive, and their desire turned them away from God. 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.

Have you ever taken a long road trip with small children? Have you ever done it with older children? Even adults quickly lose interest when stuck in a car for hours at a time. No matter how good the destination, within hours they begin complaining. "It is too hot." "It is too cold." "He touched me." "She touched me first." "I'm bored." "Are we there yet?" You can fill a hamper with all their favorite snacks, but they are never satisfied. You can bring all their favorite toys, but they want the one that was left on the playroom floor. What parent hasn't threatened the whiners? "I am going to turn this car around and we won't get to do the fun thing we were going to do!"

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.

The snakes got their attention. The people went to Moses and asked him to pray for them. Moses did pray 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 sent not the 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. He who was without sin was raised so that the world would be saved from that selfishness and pettiness that destroys.

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.

When we are in trouble God does hear our cry, but His answer is not always the answer we are looking to receive. Sometimes the best healing is the worst thing we can imagine: death. Sometimes God gives the redemption that will be eternal instead of a temporary return to whatever we think is normal. Those in faith who face death have not been forgotten by their God, but have been given the greatest healing possible: eternal life. And so, when we experience the healing hand of God, whether it is when we get over the flu or when someone we love breathes their last, we are called to join together with all people who believe in the One who was raised on the pole, to praise God for His enduring love that lasts forever. He redeems His people, in so many ways, and for this we give thanks.

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. Just as the savior to the Hebrews in a desert was the very thing that brought them the pain, so too it would take a human to be lifted up 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 us without the cross? Why didn't He find another way to save us from our troubles? I don't think I 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.

The eternal life that comes from faith given by God is not just something to look forward to in the future. As a matter of fact, that eternal life is also in the here and now. It is a life that is lived in thanksgiving and praise. The psalmist sings, "Let the redeemed of Jehovah say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the adversary." We've been set free to praise God and glorify Him to the world. That is our witness and our purpose. 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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