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Sermon for Sunday 14 March 2021

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Psalm 107:1-9

1Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever. 2Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe. 3He gathered them out of the lands; from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. 4Some wandered in desert wastes; they found no way to a city where they might dwell. 5They were hungry and thirsty; their spirits languished within them. 6Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 7He put their feet on a straight path to go to a city where they might dwell. 8Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children. 9For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

1You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Gospel: John 3:14-21

14{Jesus said to Nicodemus,} “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. 16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Stop and Consider our Salvation

The fourth Sunday in Lent is a bit different from the other Sundays.  On the fourth Sunday in Lent, we take a bit of a break from the heaviness of the season.  I’ll say a bit more about this at the 4:00 service, but today is considered Laetare (LA-tar) Sunday.  Laetare means rejoice.  With that in mind I’d like to lighten things up a bit with some humorous things to ponder. 

This question was asked of Miss Alabama in 1994: If you could live forever, would you and why?  Her answer: “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever,”  I think she went on to be a politician! 

This was a statement made by singer Mariah Carey: “Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry.  

I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”  Brooke Shields had this to say:  “Smoking kills.  If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.”  Say what?

According to Winston Bennette when he played forward for the University of Kentucky Basketball team:  “I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body.”  Really!  And this gem comes from the illustrious mayor of Washington DC who made this claim:  “Outside of the killings, Washington DC has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”  According to former vice-president Al Gore:  “It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment.  It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”  And speaking of the environment, Lee Iacocca had this to say: “We’ve got to pause and ask ourselves: How much clean air do we really need?”

Finally, this comes from a letter sent to an individual from the SC Department of Social Services:  “Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 2020 because we received notice that you passed away, May God bless you.  You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.”  Do you feeling like you just added some IQ points after hearing these?

            As I said, today we take a small break from the Lenten season; we get to take a moment to catch our breath before we enter the final stretch that includes Holy Week.  Four weeks ago, we began the season with Ash Wednesday and at this is the point in Lent, most folks are beginning to do things by rote.  We’ve stopped listening, as carefully as we should, to the words in our liturgy.  We’re not paying attention to the stern warning that comes at the end of our Confession and Absolution.  We no longer ponder the words of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed that Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, that He descended to the dead.  At this point in the season, we’re on autopilot looking forward to Easter.  Who could blame us?

So today we hit pause and give ourselves a chance to relax and then refocus our attention on what this season is about; Lent is a time of reflection, a time of not only pondering our short comings, but also reflecting on all that God has done in our behalf.  However, we need to make sure we don’t relax too much, because even as we listen to the promises made in our Gospel reading for today, we also need to pause and hear the law as well.

            In our gospel reading today, I read what is probably one of the most recognizable Bible verses for people today.  You know the verse I’m referring to, it’s John 3:16.  I’d even go so far as to say, that this verse may have been the first verse you every memorized, except for the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.”  We’ve seen and heard John 3:16 enough times that we understand that it’s the gospel message in miniature.  The problem is, it’s such a hope filled, joy filled verse, that most people don’t stop to consider the context.  People want to hear the about the love of God and the promises that come with Jesus’ coming in the flesh, but they fail to listen to the story behind it and what Jesus taught Nicodemus, an aged Pharisee, the truth of His coming. 

Sadly, we’ve heard John 3:16 quoted so many times as a standalone statement, that we either don’t know the situation surrounding Jesus’ statement anymore, or we no longer hear the entire message Jesus was teaching the religious leader.  Maybe Nicodemus too had heard the Bible stories so much that he was now simply going through his duties by rote, not stopping to listen to the lessons that he was responsible for teaching.  It was after dark when Nicodemus found Jesus; he had purposefully looked for an opportunity to catch Jesus away from His disciples. 

Nicodemus came seeking Jesus by night, so he wouldn’t be detected.  He didn’t go to Jesus on official business.  He hadn’t come to test the controversial Rabbi as others had.  He was there because he had questions.  He had hit pause in his routine, and he began to listen again to the scriptures he knew.  He also realized that what Jesus was saying in public wasn’t against the teachings of the scriptures.  In fact, His words seemed to be bringing new light to the passages.  But Nicodemus was still cautious. 

If the other Pharisees and religious leaders found out he had met with Jesus, it could soil his reputation.  The beauty of this story is, it’s a reminder that we, from time to time, we need to reexamine what we’re doing, we need to stop and ask why.  We need to pause and pay attention to what we say we believe, and pay attention closely to our readings, our liturgy and our hymns.  What we may find is, that we, like Nicodemus, need to adjust our thinking.  We need to stop doing things by habit and think about what we’re saying.  Jesus was saying something important, and it caused Nicodemus to pause and ask why?  So Nicodemus comes by night to question Jesus. 

The two had barely gotten into their conversation when Jesus cuts to the chase; Jesus refocuses Nicodemus’ thinking from what he had been doing by repetition, by recalling a great scriptural story.  You see, Nicodemus’ problem was that he was failing to tie the Law and the Gospel together.  As we’ve come to realize, or should have realized is, you can’t have one without the other.  Without the law, there is no restraint: without the gospel, there is no hope.  We must recognize, admit and be sorry for our sins, before we can receive God’s forgiveness.  We must admit we’ve failed in thought, word, and deed and confess it, before we can experience God’s amazing grace! 

Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the story of the people’s rebellion during the exodus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.”  It was a story Nicodemus had heard from his earliest years.  In our Old Testament reading for today (Numbers 21:4-9) we’ll hear, “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom.  But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  There is no bread!  There is no water!  And we detest this miserable food!”   First, we need to hit pause here and consider the absurdity of their complaint.  Next, we need to reflect back on all God had done for the people. 

Even before leaving Egypt, God sent plagues upon the Egyptians while the Israelites were spared.  God brought them safely through the Red Sea on dry ground and the pursuing Egyptian army was drown.  When they needed water, God provided.  When they needed food, God gave them Manna and quail.  The truth is, the reason the Israelites were in the situation they were in, was because they were the ones who kept refusing to listen, trust and obey.  They were the ones who sinned, and for that, they received the punishment they deserved.

The people would conveniently forget to consider the consequences of their actions and would instead blame God for their problems, even though they were the cause of their problems.  So, this time the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  Only then did the people admit their sin and go to Moses: “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.  Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  Moses then prayed for the people.  Sin has consequences, and we must accept the consequences for our sin.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  So, Moses obeys the Lord and makes a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.  Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze serpent, they lived.”  As I said, Nicodemus would have remembered this story.  No doubt, he could have pictured the bronze snake on the pole.  

He could recall the context of the passage, that his ancestors had once again rebelled against God and were punished.  They complained that Moses had taken them out of their pleasant, peaceful life as slaves in abject poverty with little to live for, just for them to die in the desert.  It amazes me how much the wandering Jews romanticized their lives in Egypt.  They often wished to go back.  But that’s human nature isn’t it?  We want to see the glamorous, but we refuse to acknowledge the dark and ugly truth of the situation.

In the early 1980’s Keith Green became one of the leaders of the Christian rock movement.  One of his classic songs was a parody of this desire to go back to Egypt.  It was entitled “So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt.”  If you get a chance, bring up YouTube on your computer and give it a listen, it might help you understand the insanity of their wishes in a humorous light.  One of the best images Keith Green conjures up is about manna: eating manna morning, noon, and night.  You should look up the lyrics, they’re very catchy.

Nicodemus would have understood this story and the symbol for it is clear, Salvation came when the serpent was lifted up.  It was shocking, I’m sure, that Jesus was now claiming to be the salvation of the people, that this was why He had come.  Jesus told Nicodemus that God the Father had sent Him to be lifted up so all who believed could have eternal life.

Much like that serpent raised by Moses on a post, those who recognized they would die once bitten, had to look at and receive the antidote God was giving them for their sinful acts.  But Nicodemus still struggled with this simple explanation.  He struggled because he had slipped into old habits, he was in darkness.  He needed Jesus to show him the light.  Jesus again cuts to the chase for Nicodemus when He reminds him, and this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (vs. 19).   The problem was, Nicodemus loved the comfy convenient life he enjoyed more than the answer he received.  

When Nicodemus heard he would need a new spiritual birth, he couldn’t conceive it.  He was a learned Rabbi, a religious leader of the Jewish people, he knew the law and he followed it.  He was a good person; wasn’t that enough to prove his love for God?  It’s really not that much different from the questions people ask today.  I go to church.  I serve on the council or as part of a committee.  I give my tithe.  I even visit the sick and the shut-ins.  Isn’t that enough to prove that I am a believer?  No, would be Jesus’ answer.  We cannot earn salvation, no matter how good we are; we must look to Jesus and believe.

Just going through the motions isn’t enough.  We must recognize our sin, and with a repentant heart, look to the Son of Man lifted up on the cross and believe that He was offered up to pay for our sins.  Anytime we come to God with a truly repentant heart, it’s then that our Lenten journey truly begins.  It all points to Jesus nailed to cross, dying for our transgressions and then was resurrected on Easter.  We must recognize the need to tie the entire story together, we sinned, He died, we are forgiven.  We need to hear the law which reveals our sin and need for a Savior, before we can truly hear the gospel and receive God’s unmerited grace.  That’s what this season is about.  We must, in faith, look up at the Son of Man, believe in Him and then we can be saved.  Saved not just for this world, but for all eternity.  Sadly, Nicodemus missed the point.  

This learned religious leader couldn’t see past his own inability and see his need for salvation.  So, Jesus was quite direct.  He let Nicodemus know that he couldn’t see his need because he was spiritually blind.

Nicodemus had undoubtedly studied the scriptures, the law, and all of the Old Testament, from his youth, but he was blinded by his inability to see the Truth standing right in front of him.  So Jesus explains in further detail, Nicodemus couldn’t understand the spiritual implications of Jesus’ teachings because he was not born of the spirit.  In other words, he was still spiritually dead.

Nicodemus was confusing his ability to simply go through the motions, to say the right things, to do the right things and his position as a religious leader with the need for a spiritual life.  The problem was he had the cart before the horse.  He thought that if he did all the right things, that meant he had a spiritual life.  Jesus told him, no, you must be born again spiritually for those things to mean anything.  Having a spiritual life comes first before the labors of the faith.

Thankfully, many historians believe Nicodemus got the point and later came to understand his need to believe and look to Jesus for his salvation.  Today we need to stop and reflect on why we do what we do, say what we say, and believe what we believe.  Are we simply going through the motions, believing that if we do and say the right things then that’s all we need for eternal life?  I hope this isn’t the case. 

This is the law; we are sinners and unless we recognize and confess our sins, and then, in faith, look to the One crucified for our salvation, we will continue to walk in darkness.  It’s only then gospel gives us hope, “For God so loved the world, He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”


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