For God So Loved [_____]
When I was in college, I studied music. Chord progressions, music history, ear training, musical forms. One form we spent a lot of time learning was theme and variations. A composer would create a melody, a theme and then change it in different ways to create interest within the composition, but you could always find the theme in some form, in some voice of the music.
Today, our Old Testament and Gospel lessons are like that. In our Old Testament lesson, the Israelites have left Egypt and have been complaining in the wilderness about their situation. After wandering for a long time, they were getting frustrated and tired. They had lost loved ones, were hungry and there was no end in sight. God sent serpents among the people who were bitten and died. Then the rest of the people went to Moses and begged him to ask God for mercy for the people. Moses prayed to God and was instructed to create the bronze serpent on a pole. When bitten people looked up at it, they lived.
Our Gospel lesson is like a variation on that theme. Nicodemus has gone to see Jesus in the dead of night, afraid that the other Pharisees will find out, and Jesus is trying to explain to him who he is and what he’s called to be and do. And so, knowing that Nicodemus is a Jew, Jesus reached back to a theme that he knows Nicodemus will understand. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of God be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God provided salvation from the serpents in the wilderness, and he, himself, Jesus will provide salvation from sin and eternal life.
Jesus is making a comparison to one of the most important figures in Jewish history, the one who was given the Law by God, and who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses was the giver of the Law. He spoke to God.
Just as Moses was a symbol of freedom from the bondage of Egypt, Jesus is saying that he will break the bonds of death and open the path to eternal life for those who believe in him.
But there’s an interesting twist, here.
After the Israelites were saved by the serpent God told Moses to create, this bronze object became something they treasured as a reminder of what had happened and how God had saved them. Over time, it became an object of worship in and of itself, until the days of King Hezekiah, who “did that which was right in the sight of Yahweh, according to all that David his father had done, he removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah: and he broke in pieces the serpent that Moses made, for in those days the children of Israel burned incense to it…”
Under Hezekiah’s rule, the land of Judah (there were two kingdoms by then) regained the faith of their fathers from the days of Moses the lawgiver.
There is an important point to be made here: the bronze serpent was an object created by men to serve a specific purpose. To save the people from death. It served that purpose, but because of the power that God gave Moses to use the serpent, over many, many years, this object itself became something to worship. I would suspect that if anyone tried to use it in Hezekiah’s time for its original purpose it wouldn’t work. Moses wasn’t there to channel the power of God through it. But the people didn’t care. It had become an object of worship.
What sort of things do we lift up in our lives to put on a pedestal, to worship? Money, power, status?
They may get us earthly rewards, but they don’t secure our place in God’s kingdom.
Even within the church there are things that we tend to lift up as if they had the power to save in themselves. The Bible for example. The Bible is a collection of writings composed over 1,000 years, in many genres – history, poetry, narrative, correspondence, prophecy, for example.
It was written by very human beings in very specific situations and times and it relates itself to those times. It was definitely inspired by God and God’s Holy Spirit, and tells the story of the people of Israel, and of Jesus of Nazareth who brought the Good News of God’s love for all the world, and died on the cross.
But many people lift the Bible to the status of an object of worship in and of itself. Martin Luther himself addressed this misconception. He said, “the Bible is the cradle which presents to us the Christ child.” In other words, the Bible itself doesn’t save us, but Jesus Christ, God’s only son, who the Bible shows to us.
This is what Jesus was getting at when he was speaking to Nicodemus. He said, “As Moses lift up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son be lifted up that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Jesus compared himself to the serpent, but that serpent only saved the Israelites from physical bodily death. Jesus lifted on the cross saved all of us from bondage to sin and eternal death.
This is done, as Jesus tells Nicodemus because God loves all the world so much that God cannot bear that one person be lost. Every person who has ever lived, in every time and place is deeply precious to God as part of the creation God made and repeatedly declared good.
God’s Son Jesus was sent in human form to show us within our limited human understanding the depths of God’s love and God’s heart. To teach us that when we love one another unconditionally, and without reservation we are loving as God loves. (But God shows his love for us in this, even when we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Romans 5:8) God had no preconditions, no caveats, no reservations to our salvation through God’s love.
This then is the heart of the Gospel and I would say the heart of our Scriptures. God is love. God’s love is so great that there are no boundaries, no barriers.
We all know John 3:16 by heart. But do we know it for ourselves?
Here’s a little exercise: Recite John 3:16. But in place of the words “the world, and whosoever,” add your name in that spot.
For me, it goes: “For God so loved [Kris] that he gave his only son that [Kris] who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Now you try it.
Think about that. God loves YOU so much that God cannot let you go. You are part of a beloved creation that God is continually making new.
You are blessed by God to work with God in making that new creation real here and now. To share that love with every part of, every person in that creation. And there is no greater blessing and calling. Go. Love. Because God loved you first.
Pastor Kris Ross
March 11, 2018
Numbers 21: 4-9
Ephesians 2: 1-10
John 3: 14-21