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Sermon for Sunday 25 May 2018

FIRST READING Isaiah 6:1-8

1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”


PSALM Psalm 29

1Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. 3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. 4The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor. 5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon; 6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox. 7The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 8The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare. 9And in the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!” 10The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King forevermore. 11The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.


SECOND READING Acts 2:14a, 22-36

14aPeter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them:
22“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — 23this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. 34For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, 35until I make your enemies your footstool.’ 36Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”


GOSPEL John 3:1-17

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And 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.”



Not long ago, I read the story about a married couple who seemed to have lots of sharp disagreements. The husband it seems never seemed to be satisfied with anything and was critical of everything that went on in their lives. What makes this couple interesting is that despite the differences and constant critiques from the husband, the wife somehow always seemed to remain calm and collected. One day her husband commented on his wife’s restraint. “When I get mad and complain about things,” “you never lose your cool. How do you control your anger?” The wife said: “I work it off by cleaning the toilet.” “How does that help the husband asked?” She said: “I use your toothbrush!” I for one am glad God isn’t vindictive and His forgiveness is unconditional!
In Matthew chapter 18, Peter asks Jesus a very complex question. How often should I forgive those who sin against me? Seven times? No, I tell you seventy times seven (vs. 21-22.) And while forgiving someone who wrongs us isn’t easy, we are commanded to forgive. But what about the people who never seem to be satisfied? What about those people who no matter how much they seem to have or how much we do for them, they seldom, if ever, have a good word to say? This is exactly what was going on with the Israelites during their desert wanderings. When you read the Exodus event in the book of Numbers and Deuteronomy, it’s apparent that no matter how much God did for His Chosen People, they were never satisfied.
Now in an effort to follow Luther’s teaching about the Eighth Commandment to put the best possible construction on the situation, we, when reading these Old Testament books, must concede that life with God for the children of Israel wasn’t a life free from struggle. And what needs to be noted here is, that what was true for Israel then, is also true for the people of God in any age. As children of God, we’ve been grafted into His family through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This means that the stories of and about Israel are part of our faith heritage as well. Therefore, the Old Testament stories speak to God’s people in every age; they speak to those who seek to live a life of faith amid the difficulties we face everyday.
If you were to look at the 21st chapter of Numbers you’d read the story of Israel praying for God’s help against a Canaanite king. God answers their prayer and they were victorious in battle. But the people suffer from short memories. It isn’t long before they’re back to their old tricks. Starting in verse 5 the people become impatient and speak out against God and Moses. So, God sent serpents among them to punish them. The only way to survive the snake bites was to look at the Bronze serpent on a pole that God commanded Moses to make. Jesus, in our gospel reading, points to this event to connect God’s saving power then with His saving power in Jesus. But for the moment, I want to focus on two basic concerns that stand out in the 21st chapter of Numbers.
First, the Israelites have again become dissatisfied and complain against God. Second, because of their sin, they’re now experiencing God’s judgment. Yet despite everything, one thing remains absolutely clear: God didn’t give up on them then, nor has He given up on us today. And just as God continually reminded the Israelites of His presence with them from the cloud, God continually reminds us of His covenant and promises made through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. The problem then is the same problem we often times experience today. We forget to stop and recall all God has done in our lives and appreciate the blessings we’ve been given.
Once again, the Israelites have forgotten everything the Lord has done for them and are complaining about their situation. Yet the reason they’re in their current situation is they refused to trust God. A few chapters back in Numbers 14, the people refused to enter into Canaan out of fear of the people who occupied the land. God commanded them to send spies into Canaan so they could see the richness of the land and the gifts that the Lord was going to give to them.
The spies returned 40 days later and reported that the land was full of figs, pomegranates and that the grapes were so plentiful that it took two men to carry a single cluster. God wanted them to see their future and the blessings He was providing for them. Yet the people doubted and refused to go in and occupy the land. And because they doubted and refused to enter Canaan, God decreed they would wander for an entire generation.
What amazes me is that these are the same people who saw God’s power in Egypt. They witnessed the plagues God brought against the Egyptians, they witnessed the first Passover as the angel of God slew the first born in the land and they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with dry feet as the Pharaoh’s army was destroyed. These were the people who saw the presence of God in the cloud that went before them, and it was from the cloud that God spoke to them. These weren’t stories that had been handed down from generation to generation. These people actually witnessed these events. Yet with all that God was doing among them daily, they couldn’t trust God to go before them as they entered into the Promised Land. This is why the question that is repeatedly asked in the Good Friday service Bidding prayers is so important for us to hear: “What more could I have done for you? Answer Me.”
Because of their disobedience, God extended their time in the desert one year for each day the spies spent in the land of Canaan. You would think they would learn, but like so many people today they soon forget the blessings and lessons of the past and soon begin to complain again. This was the case with the Jewish people throughout their history. The Israelites were forced to wander in the desert, yet the Lord, because of His promise, never rejected or abandoned them and continued to prepare the land for them to occupy.
King Arad ruled in the Southern part of Canaan and went out to fight with Israel and in the process took some of them prisoner. The people prayed to God and God delivered Arad into their hands. Now they’re on their way to Edom. The people again become dissatisfied and begin to complain against God. All this time God has provided for their physical and spiritual needs. Yet, this is the second time they complain about the lack of food and water. The first time they complained about the manna, God provided quail for them. When they were thirsty, God twice demonstrated His power, love and patience by providing water from a rock. Yet, instead of simply asking God for what they need they begin to complain. This time the people complain against God and against Moses.
Again, looking at Numbers 21 verse 5, the people claim they have no food or water yet in that very same verse, they say they detest the manna that God has given them. Out of curiosity I looked up the Hebrew word they used to describe how bad the manna was, it means miserable, detestable, worthless or contemptible. My first reaction was, how can anyone view a gift from God as miserable, detestable, worthless or contemptible? Yet that’s exactly what the Israelites thought about the manna.
Now the Bible isn’t clear about what prompted the people to become disgruntled. Maybe the people began to think about the figs, pomegranates and grapes that the spies had brought back. The Bible just says they became impatient. Some people just never seem to be satisfied. The problem was the people never seemed to acknowledge that the reason they were wandering around in the first place was their own sin, their mistrust, their disloyalty. Like so many people today, they refused to accept responsibility for their own actions. You know, it’s always someone else’s fault. Now, because of their sin against God, God sends poisonous snakes, among the people to punish them and a large number of people died from snake bites.
I did a little research and found that the bite of the Asp is not just deadly, it’s a painful death. Unless the affected member, the finger, hand, foot or what ever was bitten wasn’t amputated right away, the person would quickly develop a fever, become excessively thirsty and would soon die from the fever and venom. So again, the people come to Moses to intercede for them and ask God to forgive them and remove the snakes from the camp.
God in His compassion once again listens to their pleas and intercedes. However, this time God commands Moses to do something different. God directs Moses to cast a bronze serpent and set it on a pole so that anyone bitten by a snake could look at it and live. Why a serpent on a pole? Clearly the cast image had no healing power: Cast images have no power. Obviously, the healing came from God. So why put a serpent on a pole? There are at least two reasons for this.
First, God wanted to visually remind the Israelites of their sin and the punishment that comes from sin; death. Recall that in the Garden of Eden, it was satan in the form of the snake that tempted Adam and Eve to sin and because of their sin, because of their desire “to be like God,” (Gen.3:4-5) death entered into the world. In Romans 5:18 Paul clearly states; Therefore, just as one man’s trespass (that is Adam’s) led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness (that is Jesus) leads to justification and life for all.
Second, God wanted to remind the children of Israel, and us for that matter, that we must look to God not only for our healing, but as our only source of salvation as well. Sin brings death, but Jesus came to bring us life. This is the good news that Jesus came to share with the Jewish people and this was the message that seemed foolish to the religious leaders. In our Gospel reading this morning, it was the religious leader Nicodemus who approached Jesus that evening in an attempt to make sense out of Jesus’ message.
Jesus knowing Nicodemus was a Pharisee and knew this story well, used this event from Israel’s history to illustrate the type of suffering and death He was going to endure. Jesus is teaching that His death is also a reminder that because of our sin, our mistrust and our disloyalty He was to be crucified. The penalty for our sin is death (Rom. 6:23.) But instead of you and me paying the penalty, Jesus Himself took our sins to the Cross and paid the price for us. He was lifted up on the Cross to remind everyone the cost of sin and that it’s only by the mercy of God that we can be saved. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, this is the foolishness of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18.)
But the Cross is more than the law, a reminder that we are all sinful, it’s also gospel as well. When we look at the ugliness of the Cross we’re convicted of our sin while at the same time reminded of God’s promise. God’s promise of salvation and the gift of eternal life for those who put their faith and trust in Christ.
The foolishness of the Cross reminds us that our healing and salvation can only come from God Himself. Human wisdom would say that because of our self-centeredness and misdirected trust, it makes no sense that God sent His only Son to pay the price for our sin and to reconcile us to Himself. It would have been so much easier for God to have simply wiped us out and start over.
But God is a God of mercy, a God of compassion, a God of patience and love. And when God makes a promise, He is faithful to His word. This is the promise found in the blood of Christ. The new covenant God made with us in the shed blood of Jesus. Each time we gather around the altar to be feed, nourished and sustained with the body and blood of Christ, we’re reminded of this covenant. Each Communion Sunday we hear the words of Jesus, “This is my body given for you and this cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin”. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. All his life he had been taught that one had to earn their way into heaven.
For a person to gain salvation they had to obey the law, do charitable acts and observe all the religious rites. Yet there was something in Jesus’ words that bothered Nicodemus. Jesus’ teachings turned all the traditional Jewish wisdom upside down. The message of Jesus that one must be born again made no sense to him. While good works are necessary and should be accomplished, they’re not necessary for salvation. Salvation is God’s free gift to everyone who will confess their sins, accept His forgiveness and believe in His endless mercy. Good works are not a requirement of forgiveness they’re the results: obedience and good works is our response to God’s grace and mercy.
Whether we read the story of the snake on the pole or see the Cross of Christ, we’re reminded of the high cost of our sin. But God in Jesus paid the price for our redemption. Salvation isn’t something we earn or achieve, but we must confess our sins and accept responsibility for our actions. When we do this and turn from our sinful ways, God’s gift of grace is freely given; given by a merciful, patient and loving God. He provides everything; the means and the method. He also sends the Holy Spirit to call and provide the faith we need so that anyone who believes in His Son can enjoy the promise of eternal life. This precious gift of eternal life begins at Baptism and comes into fullness when we leave this world.

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