4 Lent 2012
John 3: 14-21
Pastor Chris Enstad
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
These are the most famous of the famous texts in the Bible is it not? It appears on bumper stickers and billboards, in end zones and painted on athletes faces.
John 3: 16 is often called the “Gospel in a nutshell”. I, however, would have to disagree. Yes, this verse is important and, yes, if we were to ever memorize any of our Bible at all I would want this to be at the top of the list of required verses.
However, the context in which these words appear is just as or even more important for us to know.
For instance, to whom is Jesus speaking? Do you remember?
He is speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Remember that Nicodemus came to Jesus Christ at night, a very important thing for John who was ever concerned with the things of the light and the things of the dark, with good and evil, with insiders and outsiders.
Recall that in its early days Christianity was not the dominant religion of society or culture, indeed it was a persecuted system of beliefs. When John wrote his Gospel there were small communities of Christians and they were living cut off from friends and family for rejecting the faith of Israel. But within the synagogue there were secret believers, those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ but were afraid of confessing that faith so they they too would not be expelled from the synagogue and also cut off from their families.
So, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the dark and confesses that he knows that Jess is a teacher who has come from God for no one could do those signs apart from the presence of God.
And Jesus begins to teach Nicodemus using metaphors that helped paint a picture not just of faith but of life in God. He used common words to paint a picture of an uncommon occurence, that is, having faith the God was here in the flesh and moving amongst his people, who, John tells us, knew him not.
But Nicodemus knew. Or he thought he did.
No one could do these things apart from God, Nicodemus says.
And teaches proceeds to teach him about going to heaven after being born from above.
One must be born again from the Spirit. Nicodemus could not grasp this new, radical understanding of conversion and absolution. How can I be born again?
Jesus turns him back on his own knowledge, hey, buddy, you are a teacher of Israel how can you not understand these things. I am testifying to you and you aren’t receiving me.
Here, how about this one:
And then Jesus takes Nicodemus back into one of what a friend of mine calls a “deep track” of Scripture. A story that people knew but probably didn’t do much with.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
And then Jesus goes on: 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.
The community of believers that John was writing to was small. Though these versus are often now used by a strident and over confident Christianity in a way of forcing people to believe, the community that read and heard these words was weak, small and at constant danger of disappearance all together. Hear those words in that context and they take on a whole new meaning.
Now we think to our Lord, Jesus Christ, as the serpent on the stick that we heard from Numbers this morning and we will examine more closely on Wednesday at our midweek services. And then we know that these verses in John are not about us, they are about Jesus. He is teaching Nicodemus, and us, not just about our faith but about himself and why he had to die.
The people in the wilderness of Numbers are us. We are a sinful humanity by nature. When confronted with a choice we will more often then not choose our own needs over and against the needs of our neighbors. When the people of Israel were in the wilderness they complained about the food and God sent the serpents to kill the people. We too are in the wilderness of sin, a wilderness that can and has overwhelmed either ourselves or those we know and love.
And then Jesus compares himself to the brazen serpent. This was not a serpent made out of Gold, it was worth little to nothing. How could something like a serpent on a stick save the people, they must have pulled their hair out figuring that out.
Likewise, how could Jesus Christ, a man beaten, whipped, and and killed be the savior of the whole world?
And, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and us, he must be lifted up. And we, too, prepare ourselves in Lent for the crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This man whom we love and adore must be put to death on a cross put to death by the humanity he came to save. That is why our faith, especially in the Lutheran church, is not a faith of glory but a faith that is delivered to us from this symbol of death. It is a theology not of glory but a theology of the cross.
So when the waves threaten to overturn you, when life is poisoning you or those you love, let us pause and look to the cross. Look to Christ. The whole entire world but tell you that you are worthless, that you cannot accomplish much, and that all that you have done is for naught, but it is from the cross that Christ preaches to you today, you are worth this much, that God loves you so much that he sent me to die for you. For you.
Let us find ourselves gathered always as a community around the foot of the cross looking to it for our faith, our hope, and as the essence of the love we share with each other and our world.
Thanks be to God.