Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
John 3:14-21 “” Ephesians 2:2, ASV
… wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience…
There is a commercial for a microwavable snack food that starts with a picture of some boys staring into a refrigerator. One calls his mom. “We are dying.” She answers, “No you aren’t; you are just hungry.” But the boys can’t find anything to eat. The mom directs their attention to the box of snacks and they get very excited. They were staring at the food that would satisfy their hunger all along, but they couldn’t see it without the help of the mother.
How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and looked inside at an overabundance of food overflowing from the shelf, and yet still say, “I’m hungry and there is nothing to eat.” I can tell you that I do it regularly, sometimes daily. It isn’t that we have no food in the house, but I just can’t find something that will satisfy my appetite. Do you ever regret what you’ve ordered at a restaurant after you’ve seen delicious food delivered to other diners? They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and that certainly seems to be true when it comes to food.
The Hebrews certainly felt that way. Granted, they didn’t have the selection we have in our refrigerators today, but they were not starving. They had food and water and yet they had nothing they wanted to eat. They were used to the food they had in Egypt, and even if they had to pay a high price for that food. They were free, but they had to eat the same thing so long that it had become detestable to them. They weren’t starving; they just didn’t like the food they had to eat.
It seems so petty, but we are just as good at grumbling. We hate the weather, no matter what it is doing outside. Even when we have the most perfect day, we are thinking about how it will be too hot or too cold or too wet tomorrow. Our car is never good enough. Our house is never nice enough. Our teachers are never smart enough. Our bosses are never compassionate enough. We always have something that makes us grumble.
It is really hard for us to hear this story because we just don’t see God being so unmerciful, so we’d rather ignore it. We don’t understand or accept the concept that God would send poisonous snakes. Yet, is it something we should ignore? The poisonous snakes were a way of getting the people's attention before they did more harm to themselves. Their grumbling could lead to a desire to return to Egypt. They would forget the reality of slavery in the memory of that former life. 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. If they turned back to Egypt, they would turn their back on 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. They could not see how this journey in the wilderness could possibly lead them to a better life. Their life in Egypt was not comfortable; they were oppressed and worked to death as slaves to the Pharaoh. They hated being slaves; 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 and Moses had become a disappointment. They had a hard time believing in this God that would make them suffer so much. They were expecting a land of milk and honey.
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, they hungered and thirsted for Egypt.
Which would have been worse; death in Egypt apart from God or death in the wilderness with a promise from God that He will make all things new? God stopped them in their tracks with those snakes. They had to be reminded that they were being guided by a gracious and merciful God, and that His grace and mercy might not always be what we expect. Returning to Egypt would have been worse than poisonous snakes as it would have led to the annihilation of God’s people.
We’ve been talking about covenants during the past few weeks of Lent, but this passage does not seem to hold to the pattern. Where is the promise in this story? Yes, they’ll be healed, but God never takes away the snakes. They will still be bitten and will still die. The only thing that only way they will be saved is to trust 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 the story that comes before our text for today, but it is good to put it in context. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but something about Jesus drew 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 is very personal and intimate between the two men. Jesus tells him that something has to change. He can’t rely on his human gifts and experiences to know God. It is only by God’s grace that he can 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 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.
We are bothered by the image of Jesus on the cross. As a matter of fact, we are so bothered that we often prefer to have the cross empty. We are willing to remember the crucifixion, but we prefer to see it after the resurrection. The crucifix is an image that goes against our idea of a loving God. I’ve heard too many people say that they can’t believe in the Christian God because the god they know is a god of love and a god of love would not require such a great sacrifice.
Jesus tells us that they stand condemned. They aren’t condemned because God has seen fit to punish them for some sin, but because they have turned their back on the God of Creation. We love the message found in John 3:16, but the promise is found in the next verse. John 3:17 tells us that God sent the Son to save the world. John 3:16 means nothing without the truth that Jesus saves us from ourselves. John continues, “He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.” We who believe are no longer under the judgment we faced before we trusted in God.
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.
Paul begins today’s epistle lesson with a rather strong statement: “You were dead.” They weren't physically dead; this isn’t the opening scene from some zombie movie. As a matter of fact, the Ephesians probably led decent lives. They had good food, entertainment, comfort and peace. They weren’t dead because their hearts stopped beating or their brains stopped working. They were dead in their sin; they did not believe in God. They followed the ways of the world, enjoyed the life they wanted to live.
Could God have removed the serpents from the camp of the Hebrews? Of course, but He didn't. Instead He gave them a way to be healed. Could God forgive us without the cross and cause us to live as He desired? Yes, but He didn’t. Why didn’t He find another way to save us from our troubles? I don't have the answer to that question because I do not know the mind of God. I do know however, that when I’m in the midst of trouble I see God’s love in that old beloved cross. 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 because He loves me. I was dead, but He died so that I might live. I was in darkness, but He died so that I might live in the light.
The Hebrews wandering in that wilderness were chosen by God. The people to whom Paul was speaking were not Jews; they were Gentiles who were discovering through the Gospel the God who saves His people. They were very different: one lived according to the Law and the others lived the life they knew apart from that Law. Yet, Paul tells us there is no difference between the Jew and the 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: condemned by our will, our nature which will naturally reject God for our own sake. We are selfish. We want what we want, and we want to be in control. We want to trust in ourselves.
When we turn away from God and try to do it on our own, we suffer the consequences. Paul tells the Ephesians how God lifted Christ up for our sake. We are no different than those in the desert, or even those in this world who make the news or have misplaced loyalty. The only difference between believers and nonbelievers is those who believe know where to look for salvation. We are made alive—healed and rescued from the grave—through Christ Jesus. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.”
God did not take away sin. He did not take away the things that will bite us in this world. He did not make us perfect, or make the world perfect for us today. However, He gave us something to look toward. He gave us something in which to hope. He made a promise and He is faithful. We will have eternal life. We do have eternal life today.
We live in a messed up world, one that has been messed up since the beginning when Adam and Eve tried to go it on their own. We still try to do things our way, to rely on ourselves and put our trust in the things of this world. But there is no need to despair. We have the one sign we need, the cross of Christ, toward which we can look for healing and peace. When the world seems to be falling apart around us, when we seem to be wandering in a wilderness without end, we can trust in God’s grace because He has and will continue to save us from the gates of death.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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