4th Sunday during Lent
March 11, 2018
Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church
Sioux Falls, SD
Rev. Norman F. Seeger
(Jesus said) …Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
“Looking to the Past, Jesus Shows Us the Future”
1) Jesus, like the Bronze Serpent, must be Lifted Up (Crucified & Glorified
2) Disciples Now Live in Christ’s Light rather than Die in the Devil’s Darkness
Dear living disciples of our crucified but risen Savior, Jesus the Christ,
At night, under the cover of darkness, ‘Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler, comes to talk with Jesus, a teacher whose miracles convinced Nicodemus he comes from God.’ Not willing to let peers see him one-on-one with Jesus at first – the very fact as well as the content of their conversation kept private – a couple years later, when Jesus dies on a cross at Golgotha — with Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus boldly — in the full light of day, we may say – Nicodemus fearlessly asks Pontius Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ body. What cause this day & night difference? What turns quietly questioning Nicodemus into a soul who will live in Christ’s light rather than die in the devil’s darkness? What will lead us to openly confess our connection to Christ if co-workers or acquaintances reject Jesus like Jewish judges plotting to kill an obviously innocent individual? Why will we emulate Nicodemus, while will we quickly & clearly confess faith in Jesus Christ as worldly authorities continue crucifying our Savior in so many different ways today?
God’s faith-working Word is the answer. God’s inspired, inerrant Word – the Holy Spirit creating & increasing faith through God’s gospel promises – turns the darkness of unending death into our soul’s light of eternal life. Why will Nicodemus live in the light of Christ rather than die in the darkness of the devil? Proclaiming a powerful gospel promise, Jesus repaints a picture Nicodemus would know from his Sunday School lessons. Jesus prepares Nicodemus; Jesus prepares us for the future by pointing to the past. Like a bronze snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness, Jesus explains, ‘the Son of Man (Jesus’ description of himself), the Son of Man’ who is at the same time the Son of God ‘must be lifted up’ (to be crucified; to be glorified).
Please notice parallels. Absorb Jesus’ all-important promises as he turns eyes back to a wilderness outside Edom where Israelites are approaching the end of their forty-year desert trek from Egypt’s slavery into the Lord’s Promised Land. As Israel comes up from the south, the Canaanite king of Arad living in the Negev attacks; captures a couple Israelites. Israel vows, ‘Lord, if you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities’[NUM 21] – we will apply instructions God gives for Israel’s army taking possession of their promised land. The Lord listens; the Lord gives the Canaanites over to them.’ Israel is invincible. No country can defy; no earthly people can possibly overpower their God.
Now, when a pillar of smoke & fire visibly picturing God’s presence lifts & guides Israel ‘to go around Edom, the people grow impatient’… ‘people grumble against God; grumble against Moses.’ Why walk all the way around Edom? Why take a seemingly unnecessary detour if Edom is unable to stop God’s people from taking a shortcut right through the middle of their little country (whose people are descendants of Israel’s twin brother Esau)? Regurgitating complaints recycled forty years, Israel grumbles again, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! We detest this miserable food – we detest manna God has miraculously fed us every morning for forty years!’
‘The Lord sends venomous snakes among them. Snakes bite the people. Many Israelites die.’ Understand: Israelites deserve death. Defy God’s directions, dislike, disobey God’s commands; grumble against our Lord’s orders? The wages of sin is death.’[ROM 6] Israelites bitten by poisonous snakes actually get what they unknowingly ask for – but not what they want. Repeating a reaction we thankfully observe whenever the Lord let trouble overwhelm them in the wilderness, ‘People come to Moses; confess, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord & against you. Pray the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ Notice: Israelites see their sin; ask God’s forgiveness. God’s people repent, people plead for mercy; place their hope for rescue in the power of the Lord who answers prayer.
‘Moses prays for the people. The Lord tells Moses, ‘Make a snake; put it up on a pole.’ The Lord announces, ‘Anyone who is bitten can look at it & live.’ Moses makes a bronze snake; puts it up on a pole. Then when anyone bitten by a snake looks at this bronze snake, they live.’ Notice: God’s solution (bronze snake) looks like the sinner’s source of trouble (poisonous snakes). Please realize: bronze is not an antidote to venom. No human would think of treating a snakebite victim by simply telling this person to focus their eyes on a bronze snake they might see in the distance. No medical mystery is revealed. God’s powerful promise is at work. Trusting God’s promise – ‘any snake-bitten person who looks at the bronze snake will live’ – repentant people live rather than die.
Applying this picture, Jesus explains, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ Parallels let us understand: sinners deserve death, spiritual death; deserve eternal death hopelessly separated from God forever. We with our sins produce our own problems. When we dislike, when we defy God’s instructions; when we propose our own shortcut to gain our own goals, not wanting to walk our Lord’s longer path, not willing to serve other souls the same way Jesus first serves us Whenever we disobey any one of God’s commands – when we take other people’s possessions by trickery or by force, if we harm someone’s reputation with our unloving words or outright lies — if we refuse to honor & obey our parents, when we fail to give God first place in every area of our life — whenever we sin, we are all but begging the Lord to send poisonous snakes into our life. Deserving death, we sinners are the source of our own troubles, in time as well as in eternity.
Unable to save ourselves from eternal, spiritual death our own sins deliver, I pray we, with Israel, will repeatedly pray for the Lord to rescue us. Pray like that person Jesus pictures repenting in the corner of the temple, not feeling worthy to even looking toward heaven, but begging, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’[LK 18] Please understand, God will answer, God will always answer our repentant prayers. ‘When we confess our sins, God is faithful, God is just; God will forgive us our sins & purify us from all unrighteousness’ because ‘Jesus Christ the Righteous One is the atoning sacrifice for our sins; for the sins of the whole world.’[1 JN 1]
Notice, God’s solution for sin, like the bronze snake, resembles the problem. Jesus, eternal God the Son, is born of the Virgin Mary, born a human being like us whose sins deliver death – except for the critical fact Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, does not inherit original sin. Born under the law God applies to every human, Jesus will obey God’s commandments perfectly as our Substitute whose righteous life God counts as our holiness. Sinless, deserving no physical death coming as a consequence of his own sins; never acquiring spiritual death where a sinner separates himself from God, Jesus will nevertheless ‘be lifted up’ onto a cross at Golgotha Good Friday to be separated from his Father, enduring hell; absorbing our sin’s punishment – to also reverse our sin’s consequence of physical death by giving up his spirit & bowing his head in death — death he will overpower when he rises to life the third day. As God instructs Moses to lift a bronze snake up onto a pole, God the Father lifts his Son Jesus up onto a cross, promising a solution to sin no human being would have ever imagined: ‘Everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
Please understand; apply the parallels: Just as bronze itself could not reverse venom from a poisonous snake, no wood from any cross will medically reverse spiritual death sin injects into our soul whenever we disobey God. The power of life resides in a promise God attaches to that bronze snake – the power of eternal life lies in a promise God attaches to his Son’s death on a cross as our Substitute, our Savior. God who cannot lie assures us repenting souls, as John memorably explains, ‘God so loved the world he gave his one & only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Our loving Lord emphasizes, ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.’
Believing, trusting Jesus’ perfect life is credited as our righteousness; trusting Jesus’ innocent death is accepted as full payment for our every sin, Christians are not condemned today & we will never be condemned to eternal death in hell because, while it is true, ‘the wages of sin is death,’ it is equally true; more critically true, ‘the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’[ROM 6] Graciously given life in Christ – as Israelites are undeservedly rescued by our loving Lord again & again on their long walk into the promised land, a picture of a faithful journey through earthly life leading us into heaven — with the Holy Spirit using God’s gospel promises to create & constantly increase faith in Jesus our Savior, with Nicodemus we joyfully live in the light of Jesus, ‘the Light of the World’ promising, ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’[JN 8]
Will we openly follow Jesus? Like Nicodemus at the cross Good Friday, will we, with our lips; with our life, quickly, clearly confess Jesus, the crucified but risen Savior is the Lord of our life? Why do anything else? Unbelievers operate under the cover of darkness, not willing to let the light of God’s Word expose their evil actions & wicked words. We repenting, forgiven followers of Christ, however, will live by God’s truth because the Son of Man, was lifted up on a cross to pay sin’s penalty so ‘Everyone who believes in him – whoever believes in Jesus — has eternal life.’