March 12, 2024

March 10, 2024, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 10, 2024, The Fourth Sunday in Lent


From the 3rd Chapter of John:

To explain the salvation of God to the religious leader, Nicodemus, Jesus refers to the scripture passage quoted in today’s first reading. Just as those who looked upon the bronze serpent were healed, so people will be saved when they behold Christ lifted up on the cross.

[Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”


Remember Jesus is talking to Nicodemus.  The story takes place at night, the meeting seems to be done somewhat in secret, and most of Jesusrhetoric to Nicodemus seems calculated to confuse, bewilder, shock and awe. Then Jesus brings up one of the oddest stories from the Old Testament about a magic bronze serpent on a stick that Moses made.  And likens that cure to be lifted up and looked upon, to himself, the Son of Man.  And in the midst of this weird late night secret meeting – we have one of the most popular verses of scripture.

I’m not sure where it started to get ground into our cultural consciousness – but the problem is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is so terribly counter cultural that we have had to do a pretty good job of taming it and making it fit.  In all reality, these words are a little terrifying – and would be very off-putting if they weren’t so darn familiar and comforting.  The mystery and majesty of it all is hard to fit on a bumpersticker, though we try hard.

But for each who could quote 3:16, how many know 14, 15, or 17 and 18?  Even our familiar translation may leave out details of that one important verse that would help us keep it in perspective.  And knowing what’s the deal with the snake on a stick could certainly help too.

Most bibles translate this Greek word intoso,” as in God so loved the world.”   The problem is that many of us hear that so” in the wrong way.  We hear it in terms of degree:  “Soooooo big!”  Soooooo much!”  But thats not the way John meant it.  Another meaning of the English word so” is the sense of in this way” or in this manner.”  Thus and so –  For this is how God loved the world.”

The Gospel writer is talking about the way God loved the world, which points us back to verse 14. Now the Moses and the snake stuff makes a little more sense. God loved the world in this way.  The way that God showed his love to the world is through the gift of Jesus to heal and save.  And God lifted up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness — at least according to the theology of the Gospel of John.

Did you ever wonder what happened to that snake stick that Moses had made?  What happened to it on the journey, if it was so powerful?  It is mentioned in 2 Kings, when a new King, Hezekiah, “does what is right in the eyes of the Lord.”  He takes away all the little idols and pillars that the Israelites had started worshipping, cause their neighbors did.  And he broke that darn snake stick into pieces.  Why?  Because the people started coming to it, making offerings to it, and gave it a name!  It became a thing.  a formula.  simple.  if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple.   Look at it.  Talk to it.  Give it a gift.   Aaaaaaand suddenly we’re back to idol worship.  Funny how that happens.

Perhaps for some Christians, John 3:16 has become this same sort of formula: read this verse and youre saved.  But reducing salvation to any sort of formula – reduces the God who created the cosmos to something manageable and human – and something we have CONTROL over.  Go to church.  Talk to him.  Bring him a gift.  Say the magic prayer.  Get your wish.  The God who forms light and create darkness, who make weal and creates woe – will have none of that.

Unfortunately, Jesus isn’t speaking to some other folks out there, loving the darkness, some degenerates with problems – he’s talking to us.  Jesus describes our struggle between light and dark, life and death, salvation and condemnation, belief, and unbelief. No one is immune from this struggle. Nobody gets a free pass.  So what do we do?  How can we fight it?

Just as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent in the desert that healed people merely by looking at it, so today we only have to look to the love of God in Jesus. There’s nothing else we can or should do.  In his little epistle, John strips away all pious pretense with a shocking admission: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us.” The only thing I’m asked to do is “to know and rely upon the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:10, 16).  Paul says the same thing this week in Ephesians. I experience God’s favor “by grace through faith,” apart from any human merit. His goodness is a free gift, not a reward for my spiritual efforts. And my faith? Luther compared faith to “the beggar’s empty hand” that receives a gift.

Our salvation.  To trust Jesus is to trust God, and trust God’s love.   But we don’t trust that love do we.  We don’t trust a gift like that, freedom given to us, just because we are God’s children.  There’s gotta be a catch.   Turns out the catch is us.   But in the words of Taylor Swift – “it’s me, hi.  Im the problem, it’s me.”

We want to be able to atone for our wrongs and make it right ourselves.  We want to fix the problem.  And while that might be a good instinct in and of itself, the fundamental nature of our sin is not something we can fix in ourselves.  The solution must come from outside.

Through the Cross.  Which is a dangerous instrument of death.  It is a mystery to behold and not a concept to grasp.   It’s easy to misunderstand a mystery, to pretend like you have the whole thing in your hands.  It’s too slippery for that.  It eludes our grasp. Pretending that we can own it, tame it or keep it in our hands.  We take that verse about taking up our own cross and keep grabbing for Jesus’ cross instead.  To possess, to understand, to have for ourselves, and think perhaps we might just be able to climb up there to, with Jesus, to help out a bit with the whole saving the world thing.


We want to play some part in our salvation, but what does God require of you – that you do justice love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.    Which is a lot more complicated.  And very much not in our control at all.  Which requires us to trust him.   Time and time again we get opportunities to practice that trust, and because we tend to love and grow used to the darkness, the light seems more beautiful each time it draws us back.

The bronze snake of Mosess day was not magical.  It was not meant to be idolized.  Neither is the cross we contemplate during this Lenten season.  But insofar as the cross invites us to look up, to reorient ourselves, and to depend wholly on God to bring life out of death, light out of shadow, and healing out of pain, then the cross functions as a sacrament.  A means of grace.  A path to the divine.  It reminds us that belief” is far more than a cognitive exercise, but a living relationship. A covenant promise for which God upholds both sides.  In the gift of his son – and in the gift of faith.

Luther’s explanation of the 3rd article of the creed puts it into words for us to take to heart.

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.

Pastor Erin

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