Sunday, March 26, 2006

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.

Paul begins today's epistle lesson with a rather strong statement. "You were dead." Oh, 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 that day and place. 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 verses 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 – condemned by our will, our nature which will naturally reject God for our own sake. We are selfish. We are selfish from birth. Take a child, a little baby. We look at those innocent adorable faces and can't imagine that this being could possible be a sinner. Yet, from the moment the child enters the world, he or she demands fulfillment of all his or her desires. Yes, food for the stomach and a clean diaper are basic needs that must be met. We also need to be loved and feel safe.

A pastor friend of mine was giving counseling for her first baptism to a young single woman whose mother insisted that she take the baby 'to be done.' To them, baptism was a duty, something to be done like giving the child a name. When my friend talked about sin, the woman said that her child wasn't a sinner. She asked, "Does your baby cry?" The woman said, "Sure, that's how he lets me know his needs." "How would you feel if he was still doing this when he was 47?" Of course it would be selfish them, he's too old to still be wearing diapers. He is old enough to take care of himself. And of course, when a baby is still a baby, it is our responsibility to meet their needs.

However, that child, like the 47 year old man is selfish. It isn't the crying that makes the child a sinner – it is the self centeredness. And we are all born that way. We are born believing and trusting that the world was created to meet our every need and desire. We eventually grow out of the crying, the diapers and the need for mom to spoon feed us our food. Yet, many people never outgrow the selfishness. They still need to be spoon fed, but now it is other things.

Take, for example, an issue that came up recently at our church. We had planned a fellowship event that runs monthly throughout the summer. We decided to begin the season a month earlier than usual, and to change the weekend that it would be held. Because of these changes, we advertised the event in the newsletter and for a month in our bulletin. The day after the event, someone commented about it and quite a few people realized that they had forgotten. Someone complained about the lack of communication. "Why didn't I receive a phone call reminding me of the event?" Another complained that they were unaware of the event details, even though it had been widely published. "Oh, I don't read the newsletter," was the reason. Some people expect to be spoon fed information and want to lay the blame on others when they miss an event.

This was really a very minor event in the course of our ministry, but it caused a great deal of hurt. The complaint came anonymously; the leadership wondered how we could do a better job of communicating. What if we made the newsletter look different? Perhaps that would make them open it to read inside. Should we put notes in their mailboxes? Maybe we should establish phone lists and make phone calls before every event. The whole event was quite petty, and yet it caused a great deal of trouble in our congregation.

Yet, pettiness is probably the most destructive thing that can happen to a congregation. I've known churches to survive financial collapse, scandals involving leadership and division caused by a major disagreement. Yet, I've also seen churches fall because there are a handful of people that will fight tooth and nail to keep church to exactly one hour or to ensure that the color of the carpeting is a certain red. Pettiness comes from a selfish desire to be in control of every little detail. Control over the little things means control over the big things too.

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.

"And the people spake against God, and against Moses, 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 began to complain. Perhaps it isn't as notices with this American Standard language, but can't you just hear your teenager looking for a snack in the refrigerator? "Mom, there's no food in this house. All you have is healthy vegetables and it stinks." Manna was not food to these people, even though it met their needs. They were imagining that back in Egypt they'd be eating steak and drinking fine wine.

God sent the poisonous snakes. It is really hard for us to hear this story because we live in a time and a place where God does not send poisonous snakes, so we'd rather skip over that part and ignore it. Yet, is it something we should ignore? How could God send poisonous snakes to bite the people He chose and loved? 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 did indeed get their attention. They went to Moses and asked him to pray for them. And 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.

I have a cousin who spent many years in prison. When he was young he was involved in all sorts of horrible things – drugs, excessive drinking, and criminal activity to support his habits. One night he was with a friend and they were so high that they did not know what they were doing. There was an abandoned house on their street, an eyesore and health hazard. In their drugged state they decided to do the neighborhood a favor and rid it of that house. They set it on fire and watched it burn. Unfortunately, they did not know that a homeless man had been sleeping inside the house. He was killed and they were caught. My cousin was tried and sentenced to many years for arson and murder.

He wrote me on more than one occasion that he was thankful to have been caught. He knew that he was as good as dead living the life that he'd been living. Prison helped him see the reality – that he was a sinner in need of salvation. He needed to be set free from his selfishness and pettiness so that he could live truly free in this world. He saw that his trouble was not only that his actions were sinful, but that his attitude was a reflection of his sinful nature. Arrest and imprisonment was not pleasant, but it was like a poisonous snake meant to call his attention to the truth.

He was dead, but God raised before him a snake on a pole – or should we say a Savior on a pole. He'd grown up in a Christian home and knew Jesus as a child, but his selfish nature got the best of him in those youthful years and he lost sight of the Lord. It is like he went back to Egypt, turning his back on the One who would meet his needs in a much more real way than the drugs and alcohol. His poisonous serpent did turn him back to God. He remembered the love, the mercy and the grace of God. He's been released from prison and he's finding his life again, freed not only from the bars that held him captive, but also from the selfish desires that nearly killed his flesh.

Now, I've also known people who have seen every bad thing as a sign from God. Every illness, every failure, every loss is a poisonous snake sent by God. However, sometimes our dis-ease is caused by our own sin. We are not only sinners in need of a Savior, but we also sin and we have to take responsibility for our sin. If we smoke, we are going to get lung cancer. Lung cancer is not a sign from God, but rather a consequence of our smoking. If we drive fast, we will probably get in an accident. If we have an accident, it is not God who has caused it to happen. Sometimes our pain and suffering comes from the sins of others, just as our sin sometimes causes harm to others.

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?

We are very 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, a remembrance of what Christ did but also a reminder that He rose again. We like the empty cross because the crucifixion goes against our image of a loving God. I've heard from too many people say that they can't believe in the Christian God, because the god they know is a god of love. A god of love would not require sacrifice.

We don't want to say it, but according to Jesus, they stand condemned. They aren't condemned because God has seen fit to punish them for some sin, but rather because they have turned their back on the God of Creation. John writes, "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 don't want to preach this message because it does not line up with what we want to believe.

No, we'd rather believe in the God found in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life." This 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 endzone of that football game or on a billboard, you know exactly what it means. We worship a God of love.

This is so very true. Our God loves us so much that He sent His Son for us. However, how many people understand that God sent His Son to die? They look at the cross and see 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 look for healing and peace.

I'd much rather see John 3:17 posted on that endzone. "For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him." 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.

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 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 – whether it is the consequences of my own sin, the sin of others or serpents sent by God to draw me back into His presence – that when I look to the cross I know 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. Paul writes, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them." Good works are the appropriate response to the saving grace of Jesus.

This includes telling people what God has done. It is pointing to the cross of Christ. To reject the cross is to turn your back on the God of mercy and love. For it is only at the cross and in Jesus where the world will find healing and peace. To believe is to have life eternal. We were dead and now we live by the grace of God. Thanks be to God.

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