Fourth Sunday in Lent – Series B
The preacher who cannot come up with a sermon on these readings today probably needs to hang it up his stole and turn in the keys to the Church building. These are three of the most compelling texts in all of Scripture. God saves his people, despite their sin, from the venomous snakes in wilderness. Paul preaches that we are saved by grace through faith, a gift not of works in the second chapter of Ephesians. John tells us that God loved the world so much that he sent his only son so that the one who believes in him has eternal life.
It almost preaches itself, in fact the danger often is that these text are so familiar that they are like well-worn stones, as if there is no longer something to grab hold of or get any traction on anymore. Familiarity sometimes can make this more difficult to apply meaningfully to the situation which is before the preacher. The hearer is so comfortable with the text he/she has a hard time hearing it another way. But a little study here or there and you might be surprised. There are still a few nuggets worth digging out of these well played mines. The wise preacher also will play on that very familiarity, using it to explore the Gospel more deeply and profoundly.
In terms of the season, we are getting closer to Easter. It is worthwhile to put yourself into the shoes of the catechumens being prepared for Baptism on the night of the Easter Vigil. The first week of Lent showed us a victory, the second week of Lent reminded us that we have a cross to bear. The third week of Lent, last Sunday, brought us the strong message of the law which kills us and the righteous judgment of God which punishes that sin. Today, in answer to that condemnation we get these three lessons about God’s salvation. This fourth week builds on those themes and brings us the potent words of Grace and Faith, but not simply as static concepts which we possess, but as active and living things which shape our lives. The victory which Christ has won in the desert, the cross we bear and the salvation which Christ won even over death is appropriated to us today through faith and because we have it today we are different people. The Israelites look to a serpent and live, Paul speaks of doing the good works which God has created us in Christ to do. John remembers that Jesus spoke of walking in the light.
But this faithful life is not for sissies. The atheist who accuses the Christian of being intellectually weak or who thinks we are taking the easy way out has not understood faith. The children of Israel will pray for the snakes to go away, but they don’t. God gives them another snake whose presence allows them to live. Paul does not mince words with us. We were dead. Faith is not a bandage which is applied to the otherwise healthy human being. It is the relationship in which my whole being is regarded as corrupt and dead, enslaved to evil. This is not a cheerful view of the human being. Jesus confronts a man whose fear has brought him to question Jesus in the dead of night because of his fear. Jesus challenges him and us to walk in the light, despite the consequences.
The preacher will want to have a good grasp of faith here. Remember it is not the payment we give to God so he will save us. That is an old idea which was rejected long ago under the name 2
“Semi-Pelagianism.” Faith is instead the relationship established by God, in which he is the savior, and we are the saved. Within that relationship we may call him Father, we are adopted, we are the branches drawing strength from the vine, we are the members of the body, connected to the head, etc. But faith itself saves no one. God does the saving. Faith is necessary, in much the same way as an antenna is necessary for my radio to make music. It makes no music, it creates nothing, but through it the signal reaches the components and the music flows out of the speaker. Likewise, God saves, and it is through faith that we become the children of God, who are able to do the good deeds he set aside for us to do. But it is no more sensible to think that the faith makes the salvation or the works than it is to think that the antenna on the radio makes the music.
Collect of the Day
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, Your mercies are new every morning; and though we deserve only punishment, You receive us as Your children and provide for all our needs of body and soul. Grant that we may heartily acknowledge Your merciful goodness, give thanks for all Your benefits, and serve You in willing obedience; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Almighty and Father, power and love mixed together. Therein lies the tension of theology. God has all the power, he can do something, and he does do something for us. If we would only call him almighty, we would be right but that power alone is not good news. Simply to pray to the almighty is not the prayer of hope and faith. Power that is not for us may be very bad news. Our hope is that the one who has that power is also named Father and the one we name Father wields all that power. Conversely, the love of God bereft of the power is not good either. We all know what it is to impotently sit by and watch a loved one die or suffer. We pray to the God who holds us in his arms can do something about it, and does do something about it. But he is God and I am not, and I must trust that his answer is best. It might be resurrection at the last day. It might be a miracle today. But this problem is never bigger than he is.
His mercies are new every morning. God never gets stale. His mercy is always fresh. The prayer would have us remember that God’s imagination far outstrips our own. God’s mercies are new every morning: he never plops a box of corn flakes in front of his kids because he has run out of ideas for breakfast; he never exhausts the well of his goodness. Though we do not deserve it, God receives his children and provides for all our needs of body and soul.
But does a father ever receive his children with punishment? Does a father ever receive a son in some anger? Is God ever stern with us? Is that in fact loving? The mature Christian will, with the authors of the NT, understand that behind the stern face of God is our loving Father.
Finally we get to the request in this prayer: Grant that we may heartily acknowledge God’s merciful goodness, give thanks for all the benefits and serve him in willing obedience. That’s the request, but the order of those requests is critically important. For the service which is rendered 3
out of anything other than the thankful heart, a heart which has been transformed by the merciful goodness of God showering down upon it, that service is not what God is after. Anyone can serve God out of a sense of fear or reward, anyone can even think that it is just the right thing to do. That is not particularly a Christian thing. Lots of folks around the world lead externally moral and upright lives without the benefit of the Gospel. What the Gospel does to a person is works him or her through a particular series of events which transform the service into the willing obedience, the joyful act, which God truly delights in.
First, it always starts with the merciful goodness of God. This has to be this way because of the Fall into sin. If it starts with us it is a problem. The infection has simply run too deeply in our hearts. Of course this merciful goodness finds its highest expression in the cross of our Lord Jesus and his empty tomb and all the merciful acts of God flow into that cross or out of that cross. It is the acknowledgement, the faith, which says that this was done for me, that this is my death he dies and he gives me a new life in that terrible day. This life of service starts with that moment in which we look helplessly upon that cross and that broken man who died there and we realize he is our savior, it is my death he dies there. But this acknowledgement hardly ends there. Soon it looks around and realizes that all the goodness is merciful from God. All of God’s favor has been united in that cross, and now it has overflowed throughout my life.
The response to this starts with thanksgiving, the overflowing of the heart in return to the great gift. But that thanksgiving is not a name we check off a list of folks who have remembered us at Christmas. This takes shape in a whole life which is lived in response to the goodness of God. This is the willing obedience which is the pure delight of the sinner in response to a merciful God. This is where we want God to lead us. To get there, however, we must go through that cycle, that sinner forgiven dynamic. We cannot, this side of the grave, ever really forget that, leave that, or think that we have somehow outgrown it.
4 From 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. 5 And 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.” 6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And 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. 8 And 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.” 9 So 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.
The word for “fiery” in this text is “seraphim” the same word to describe the angelic beings who were around the throne in Isaiah’s call vision. What exactly these serpents were, is beyond our ability to parse and one should not go too far with this. At the same time, this is really interesting.
This is simply one of the most bizarre and most wonderful passages in the Old Testament, only made more so by Jesus’ quotation of it in the Gospel reading. The children of Israel, having seen the plagues in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea on dry ground, trembled at the base of Sinai, gotten up every morning to eat manna they did not prepare or produce, still find something to complain about. Is there not something that is just basically idiotic about sin? It doesn’t make sense. One theologian simply calls it “banal.” There is a lunacy to sin, but we don’t have to snicker at ancient Israelites to see that. How much happier would we not be if we simply made an honest attempt at keeping the Ten Commandments and insisted that our televisions, iPads, and smartphones supported us in that endeavor. But is that what we do? Hardly! We look forward to the breaking of the next taboo or barrier just like every other man or woman. The Israelites wonder why God has brought them out to die; besides they are sick of all this free lunch. They seem to say that the God who dried up the sea and humbled the Egyptians must be a loser.
God apparently had had enough of this or perhaps better said, God saw that the people have had enough of this. For their sake they needed this to stop. He sent fiery and presumably poisonous serpents among them to bite them, and they died. One has to admit that when God wants to get your attention, he has pretty effective means. That seems to have focused their attention on what really matters here. Maybe the free lunch wasn’t really so bad after all. The people come to Moses and beg him to pray for them that God would take away the snakes, which apparently Moses does. In a stark lesson that we do not tell God what to do, God does not give the people what they want. God says, “I have a better idea.” He doesn’t take the snakes away. In fact, He tells Moses to make another snake, a bronze serpent, which he should put up on a pole, so people can see it.
Now, if they are bitten by a serpent, goes the plan, they can look up at the bronze serpent on a pole and live. There are several things in this that absolutely intrigue me. First of all, God does not take the snakes away. In fact, the solution looks a lot like the problem! We pray for God to take the problems away, but God doesn’t do that. He simply gives us something to look at instead, something to believe in. He doesn’t remove the cancer he says “stick your hand out and I will put the bread of life in there.” I counter that the cancer or the heart disease or whatever we are praying about is killing me! God says, “Yeah, I know, here is what I am doing about it.” We say we are dying and he gives us body broken and blood shed on a cross. The solution is not at all what I think a powerful God ought to do. He should take away the problem. Instead he redirects my attention to something mysterious.
Then, I love the fact that Moses puts this up on a pole. I don’t know about you but when there are lots of poisonous snakes slithering around on the floor, I know just where my eyes are glued – 5
down! God says, “Look away from the problem to my solution.” That takes faith, one has to trust the one speaking, and one has to believe what he says. Otherwise my eyes are going to stay glued on the ten square feet on which I am standing lest another blasted serpent come along and make things worse. But all the vigilance in the world is not going to make it better once I am bit. It only takes one bite from those things and I am dying. Eyes glued on my cancer or heart disease or problem of the day will not make that one bit less deadly.
The last thing that really intrigues me about this is that God has Moses make a serpent out of bronze. Hadn’t he just gotten done telling Moses and the people not to make a graven image of anything? II Kings 18:4 records that some years later king Hezekiah will have to destroy this bronze serpent because people were treating it like an idol. Serpents are the problem, why does God make the salvation look like the problem? Why doesn’t he have Moses make a bronze mongoose or something that would at least be a symbol of life? Is it not because the salvation of this whole world from the bite of that ancient serpent who is Satan will in fact be Jesus hanging on a cross? It doesn’t look like the death of an innocent man should be the solution, in fact, Jesus’ unjust death on a cross looks like simply the worst thing that ever happened in history. Here was the one guy who did not deserve to die, he is getting the most horrible and cruel sort of execution imaginable. This is the solution? Turn your eyes away from your problems and look to this? Yes! That’s the solution; this is the healing that you need. Look to this man hanging on a cross, and believe that he is not just another peasant caught up in the Roman imperial machinery of death. He is the very sinless Son of God, the righteous sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The serpent on the pole looks like the problem but it is the solution. Jesus on the cross looks like the worst this world has to offer and it turns out to be the best, God’s offering to us.
For the catechumen who was coming to baptism, this probably would have had special significance. Bitten by the ancient serpent in the Fall into Sin, their baptism was a looking toward that one on a cross of whom this bronze serpent was merely a foreshadowing. But their prayers to God, while not unanswered, were perhaps not answered in quite the way they sought. God might not take away the problem, but he will give them a solution, a solution which involves the eye of faith firmly fixed on Jesus, the beginning and end of our faith. This is part of what Jesus meant last week when he said that there were crosses for his people to bear.
This text is seems to be about faith – the LORD is addressing their faith problem – do we have a similar faith problem today? Why don’t people show up in church on Sunday mornings? Is it because the music is not just so? Is our building not appealing? Let’s be honest, is it not a faith issue? If we really believe what we are doing here, how could we not be there? When I kneel at the rail someone puts the very body of Christ, heaven itself, into my hand and he comes into me. If I really believe that I probably would not care if the hymns were fifteen verses long and sung off tune in Latin. I would be there.
How do we connect those outside the community to this? I think it has everything to do with how we worship, how we come here. Is, in the words of the prayer, our service less than willing? Is 6
our thanksgiving less than all encompassing? Is our acknowledgement other than hearty? God gives these people of Israel a real wake up. They have to believe it. Is the reason the outsiders are not flocking in here more about the fact that when we come to this altar we act as if we are going through the motions, when we pray, one has to wonder if we actually believe that someone is listening. Would you go to a church like that? Do you want to go to the one you attend now? What would a church look like where the people heartily believed what they confess? How can we look a little more like that today? How can I live out what I confess and what God has said about me in my baptism?
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! 2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.
4 Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; 5 hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. 6 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 7 He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in. 8 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! 9 For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.
This psalm fits so well and so interestingly with the OT lesson today. The Lord is good and his steadfast love endures forever. We speak that verse as a prayer at our house regularly. He has gathered his people (think Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.) They wandered in the desert, they were hungry and thirsty, they cried out and God delivered them. No mention here that they were being punished because they mumbled against the Lord. No mention of the fact that God was the reason that they were suffering as he had sent the snakes. They cried, God delivered. When it comes right down to it, how I got in the predicament I am in is not nearly as important as the fact that I am in it. Is God so concerned with the fact that this woman’s divorce was caused by her infidelity or is God looking as her broken life and heart? 7
Does he really not hear her prayers because she has committed this sin and suffering its consequences?
If you use LSB in your church or have the Hymnal Supplement, consider “You Satisfy the Hungry Heart” which will pick up the last line of this psalm in a beautiful refrain.
Ephesians 2:1-10 (by grace are you saved)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in 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— 3 among 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. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
I extended the reading for our discussion’s purpose. Paul has specific good works in mind when he writes verse 10. I personally take Ephesians to be Paul’s last will and testament letter. I am convinced by Luke T. Johnson’s reconstruction of this as the most plausible. If he is correct this letter comes at the end of Paul’s apostolic career and his life. He has struggled with the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians for over a decade. The good work which God has prepared for his audience is the good work of living in a unity which God has created in Christ.
In our online discussions, we were very interested in the tension which is latent in verse 10. The Lutheran ethos often struggles with the idea of good works, but this text demands that we address this. Preaching which does not call for those good works, which never addresses sanctification is not the whole story and is not true evangelical preaching. We are preaching only part of the Gospel – and our people are poorer for it. To point to the lives of people and see the handiwork of God is not detracting from God’s role in salvation nor is it preaching the law.
We also thought that the preacher of this text really needed to tell a story, a story of a person who has passed from death to life – the person who had been at the bottom of humanity’s 8
garbage heap to another place. I remember a woman who sat in my church one Sunday and wept and wept. She and her boyfriend, later husband, had headed out from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to get away from all that her parents and his parents meant to them. They had run out of gas in Salt Lake City about ten years earlier and started a life here. Now their children were evoking the very same words from her mouth that her mother had used and she realized she needed what her mom had. She would become the Sunday school superintendent eventually, did great things for us. She spoke eloquently of what God had done to change her heart and her life. We need to make these words of Paul take on life, flesh and blood.
That said, there are at least ten sermons in this text. This is one of the richest parts of the Bible for the preacher. My guess is that every one of our congregations has someone who has verses 8-9 as a confirmation verse. It is my sister’s.
A really interesting exercise to have a bible study do with this text is to chart out what happens to the human being in these ten verses. They start out dead, a corpse. Enslaved to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit at work in the sons of disobedience, we were children of wrath. But then the grace of God came to us. God, rich in mercy and filled with love for his creation, loved us when we were dead. He made us alive together with Christ, graciously, and raised us up with Him and seated us at His right hand. It is a gift, not a reward, you cannot boast about that one. We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good things.
Notice how far we have come. We started out dead, then we were made alive, but this is not life on some sort of a respirator, some cruel mockery of what we should be, this is real ambulatory life. We are up and about, doing the good things that has prepared for us, so we can walk in those good works. It is a total transformation from death to life, full and real life.
This is a great place to talk about the scriptural concept of Grace. That is a word we use altogether too easily but don’t spend the time to describe and explain it for people. One could do a marvelous sermon on just that word. Grace comes from the Greek word. At its root it is all about gift, a free gift, with no strings attached.
But while God’s love is unconditionally given, it is post-conditional. What I mean by that is that while we do not earn the love, the love transforms our condition. I think too many Lutherans have verses 8-9 memorized but have not paid enough attention to verse 10. We are saved, yes, but not like all the junk I have saved and stored up in my garage. We are saved to a real and active purpose. We are saved to be God’s workmanship in this day and age, in this time and place. That is another really important sermon for us to hear in verse 10 as it reminds us that the salvation of God is a real presence in this world and the living of our life.
John 3:14-21 (God so loved the world)
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we 9
speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever 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. 19 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. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But 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.”
This text takes place at night, when Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus and ask him questions. For John this is not just a notation made about the time of day. The nocturnal, dark setting is really important, especially when we get down to verse 19ff. Night is the time of the enemy. In the prologue John said that Jesus was the light which was the life of men. The darkness has not overcome it. The preacher who simply does a word search for “Light” in the book of John is wonderfully rewarded.
John is a masterful communicator. There is not a large or difficult word in this whole text, and yet it is profound and something one could consider for many years without completely exhausting it.
Consider a comparison with the next story in John 4. There a woman comes out at noon to see Jesus. Of course, she is also there for reasons, but the timing is important. She asks the question of whether this man could not be the Messiah. The implied answer of that question is “Yes!” Nicodemus also asks implied questions which completely miss the point that she can see.
The bronze serpent reference in verse 14 immediately immerses us in deep water. Jesus likens himself to this problematic and strange story which is such a challenge for the reader to understand and, as we noted above, leaves us with many questions. Jesus tells us that looking at him in faith is to have eternal life. Are these the heavenly things which Nicodemus cannot understand or are they earthly things, or is this really just an accommodation to the fact that he cannot understand them? And verse 16, perhaps the most commonly memorized verse in all the Bible, is that part of the heavenly stuff or the earthly?
What does this say about the nature of faith? The people looked toward this serpent and lived. Jesus urges Nicodemus to look at him and live. Do we too often mistakenly focus on the faith instead of the object of the faith? Is it the vision that is important or is it what the vision is 10
focused on? Do all people have a faith of some sort? Do we ask completely the wrong question when we ask if someone has faith. Do all people have faith? Is the real question what are they looking at with those eyes of faith?
When we read verse 16, do we say that God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son? Or do we say that God loved the world this way: he gave his only begotten son? Is the emphasis on the amount of the love or on the mode of loving? How do we understand the “so” in the first phrase of verse 16?
Some emphasized the “so much” way to read it. Others look at it the other way.
We also wondered what the “World” was that was saved. Is it the people? Is it the whole cosmos? Is it the system of the world in which we live? Is this a restoration of the relationships we all enjoy and endure together? We have to pull into verse 16 the content of verse 17. To read one without the other seems to seriously miss the point.
Phil’s literal wooden trashlation of the text: Thus did God love world: he gave his only Son.
I John 4:9-10 seems to clarify this for us:
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
If you back up a little earlier in the text, before our reading starts, there is a really interesting little thing that happens in verse 11. The number of the “you” changes. Greek, unlike English, had the ability, by the form of the verb and the pronoun, to indicate whether one was talking to one “you” or two or more “you’s.” Truly ancient Greek (Homeric) even had a dual form which allowed one to know if there were one, two, or more than two “you’s” on the other side of that conversation. What all this Greek suggests to us is that there is an audience shift that happens at this point. Think of watching this little tableau on TV unfolding before you, and suddenly Jesus turns to the camera and starts addressing you and the rest of the viewing audience.
This perhaps then changes the question in the first paragraph above. Is it no longer Jesus talking to Nicodemus but now is it in fact John talking to us? Is John, frustrated with his audience, telling his audience that the story he has just told them is in fact an earthly story and they are not getting it? How can his Gospel go into the real content he has in mind? Has John’s audience, like the Pharisees of old, not received the testimony? If this is the case, should our editor put in a paragraph break at verse 11 and is the “Truly, truly,…” the beginning of a new conversation John is having with the audience? (Remember the ancient manuscripts did not have any punctuation, paragraph markers, or even spaces between the words.) 11
Now, before we make too much of this, it is also possible to say that Jesus is expanding the reference here to include the whole group of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, the friends of Nicodemus.
Perhaps the conclusion of this whole discussion is the reality that this text may not be as cut and dried as we like to make it out to be. An exegetical humility is called for here. But the preacher needs to stand in that pulpit and say something. Mealy-mouthed hemming and hawing is not going to cut it. You will have to decide what you want to do with this, but don’t do it in a way that it precludes another understanding of the text. Offer up an interpretation and application, but don’t feel the need to condemn or otherwise reject what another says. God’s Spirit blows where and when he wants to, says Jesus. Don’t constrain him only to blow in your ways.
Most likely, if we choose to preach this text, we will pretty much lift it out of context and simply preach it as the Word of God to us. And that is not a bad way to take it. It works. John 3:16 is attractive, often called the Gospel in a nutshell, a nugget which summarizes the whole Biblical message. God so loved the world he gave his son so that all who believe might have eternal life. For God is not interested in destroying the world. That is not his desire. He wants to save the world. He loves the world, you see. So much for that wrathful and scary God that a lot of people seem to conceptualize. The operating economy of salvation here is faith. God does this through believing. Whoever believes is already saved. Whoever does not believe, is already condemned. This is not a matter of what one does, it is a matter of what one is.
The judgment is not based on some relative scale or whether one met the societal standard of acceptable behavior. The criterion of judgment is the relationship to Christ. The word for believe here is “pistis” not actually belief but the word for faith, that relationship with God in which God saves us. The contrast with belief should be maintained even though English doesn’t have the vocabulary that allows for it. One can believe without trust, but faith implies that the belief results in trust. I can believe that the pilot will fly the plane to Denver. It is another thing to board the thing and put my life in his hands. To disbelieve (un-pistis) the Christ is to reject the very name of the only begotten son of God. The one who rejects the light and flees to the darkness like some cockroach is in fact a cockroach. He loves the evil, and he does not want his life to see the light of day. He covers it up, either by doing things in secret or by the layers of deception and secrecy which stifle countless people even today. He who comes into the light wants his life to be exposed, wants it to be seen, because it really is not his life that is seen, it is the life which is in God which is seen. As Paul will say in Romans, it is the righteousness of God which is revealed in our lives, we have no room to boast here except in Christ.
1. I like to gripe and complain as much as the next Israelite. I have things in my life I would really like God to take care of right now, and he doesn’t seem to be listening to me. Faith is hard, too hard for me.
2. Jesus says “whoever believes has eternal life.” Does my griping, does my complaining, does my doubt mean that I don’t have faith? Jesus seems to lay a terrible burden on me. Can I know that I really have that faith?
3. God gets frustrated with people, sometimes with dire results, people die. The death we die is not undeserved, nor is it even unexpected. Cut off from the source of life how can I think that I will truly live? Enslaved to the prince of the air who rules this world, my life is not even my own.
4. I must admit that there are parts of my life I would rather keep under wraps, safely in the dark. There are other times when I am afraid to be known for who I am. It might be expensive, it might be inconvenient; it might even be dangerous, at least to my reputation.
5. The result of my spiritual death, my fear, my lack of faith is a virtual paralysis, or perhaps I should say a paralysis of virtue. Even when I try to do something good, I am apt to think that God should notice this. But my attempts to buy his favor are even worse than the pagan who simply does not care. In my self-centered vanity I would cheapen God, turn him into some divine vending machine I can manipulate.
1. God’s call to faith is not a call he makes lightly or impotently. Faith is a gift from him. He gives it, long before we are even aware of it. The infant who knows the loving touch of its mother is capable of faith. That does not mean that God takes away all the problems, but it does mean that the Jesus who came for me is always there in the midst of those problems. They still hurt, but he promises to dry every tear.
2. Jesus has come into the world. He is God’s loving gift to the world. I see him; he is my Savior, he; has died for me. That is the essence of faith, the relationship in which God has reached to me, he has called me his child, he has filled me with his Spirit.
3. God has redeemed me from my slavery to my enemy. I am now a child of God, raised to a new life, seated with Christ in heavenly realms. I am heading to a promised land. I am a citizen of the world for which Jesus has shed his blood, hanging between heaven and earth for all to see. There is another reality to speak about me.
4. Christ gives me the courage to expose, confess, own my whole sinful life. He does that because he has died for the whole of it. there is not a sin in there that he has not died for. This encourages me, literally gives me courage. I do not need to seek him in the darkness
like Nicodemus. I am a child of the light and can walk in the light because he has made me so.
5. All this then results in something good today through me and in me. My good deeds are removed from the economy of forgiveness and salvation. I am the recipient of a gift, now I can act like one who owns heaven, who owns salvation, who is a child of God, who shines with very light of the world. God has saved me for a purpose, a sweet and good purpose, with things to do which please him and through which he works great things.
1. Saved for a purpose (Epistle Reading – That the hearer would rejoice in the grace of God and act upon it in his or her life.)
You may have heard it said that the seven last words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” I am convinced that one of my parishes will actually die with the words “That’s a good idea pastor, somebody ought to do that” on the last parishioner’s lips. God has not saved us like the junk I have saved in my basement and garage, most of which will finally see the light of day when we get around to a garage sale some day. God has saved us to living and vibrant, purposeful life. Those grumbling Israelites would eventually march around Jericho until its walls fell. More graphically, look at what Paul portrays for us today. Just look at how he describes us in the first verses of this epistle lesson, dead, morally, spiritually, enslaved to the devil. Helpless. But God has had grace upon us. He has given a life we could not achieve. We are really good at repeating those words of Ephesians 2:8-9. They are engrained upon our Lutheran minds, but friends follow it through the tenth verse. We were saved to do good. We have heard the past three weeks of Lent about Jesus great victory over our foe. We have heard that our lives, created in the cross of Christ, will take that shape. Last week, we saw Jesus righteous anger at the sins of the world and saw the standard of God’s law. Today, graciously received into the family of God, seated at the side of Jesus, partakers of his very body and blood, forgiven in this absolution, he sends us out of these doors to be His people in this place, to love with his love, to care with his compassion, to serve with his heart, to comfort people with the comfort that comes from him. We are not just feeders at the trough of forgiveness, we are also the thoroughbreds who are carefully cared for by God for a purpose, a race says Paul, a journey. As Jesus says in the Gospel lesson to day, to walk in the light, not in the darkness. Know and believe this: The kingdom of God lives through you and in you when you do the good thing, whatever that may be. You are not buying anything from God, but you are instead living out what he has given you. If you look inside your heart today and cannot find that he has given you anything, please come and talk to me, this sermon is not for you. You need another word from me. But if 14
you can look back on your life and see that God has been blessing you in His Son Jesus, hear the good news today, go out and live it today and tomorrow. God loves to see that.
2. Help there’s a snake in here! (OT lesson – That the hearer would see their problems, pray to God for deliverance, and lift their eyes in faith to the cross where God’s solution for the problems of this world was given to all of us.)
Have any problems? I bet you do. Will we look it up or will we look it down? When someone asks how we are doing most of the time we will say “fine.” But how often isn’t that just a bit of polite niceness. After all, who wants to hear about our problems? In fact, if we talk about them too much we are apt to be shunned at work and lose a few friends. The Old Testament lesson shows us some people with the worst problem of all, people with a God problem. Oh, they had a few snakes in their tents too, but that was just a symptom of their real problem. God had been taking care of them rather well, but it was not good enough for them. I guess waking up to a free meal every day and a pillar of cloud to guide them just wasn’t quite good enough. So they complained, and accused God of mistreating them. They had a God problem you see, they did not see him clearly and they did not trust him. God’s solution involved snakes. Lots of them and snakes of different kinds. Most of them were fiery and poisonous serpents that bit them and the Israelites died. They cried out to Moses, “Pray for us, we have sinned, ask God to take the snakes away.” And God says “No.” He does not take the snakes away because within a week they would have been grousing about the manna again.
Those were not the only snakes, however. He also gave them another snake, a snake of another kind, bronze this time, and not by their feet either, but up on a pole, high above them. The other snakes did not go way, in fact they were still there biting them like before, but now they could look up, see the other snake and be saved, and not die. But there is something that has to happen for that to work. They have to have their God problem solved. They have to trust him. Snakes at my feet usually mean my eyes are glued to the floor. If I am about to look up in that situation, I have trust the one who gives me that command. I need faith. The snakes were never really their problem, and I would guess the things that you might put on your list of problems are not really the problem either. Our biggest problem is vertical, not horizontal.
God has not suspended a serpent on a cross for us to look at this morning, but as Jesus says in the Gospel lesson today, he is hung there between heaven and earth, and he draws all men and women to himself. Will you lift your eyes from the finances and the health, from the brokenness of your family and your relationships, from the worry and the stress, 15
to look to him? When you realize that the blood he shed and the tears he wept for the sins of the whole world, and for all its woes, you will never turn your eyes back to the problems at your feet and see them the same way. The crucified and risen Jesus will dry every tear, you see. This is faith itself – to look at Jesus. If our eyes are glued on the ground and we are trusting our ability to sidestep snakes, we are trusting our nimbleness. That is the object of our faith. But this sermon calls upon us to lift our eyes to Jesus, to let him be the object of our faith, the one whom we “faith.”
Three years ago when we looked at this sermon, we found it helpful to ask, “What is biting you? What is making it hard to look up? What is giving you pain?” However we answer this question, we will want to connect this to the deeper problem which is our God problem.
We also wanted to remember the Hebrews text that said, “Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.” Hebrews 12:2ff.
The way to end this sermon with the Gospel is to take the hearer right to the Gospel where Jesus quotes this story and it leads directly into John 3:16 – God’s love for a broken world means rescue/salvation. Even if I am facing the nasty snake who will kill me, the cancer or the heart condition which will end this life, I will close my eyes in death with them firmly fixed on Jesus who is the resurrection and life.
3. Whosoever believes… (Gospel: That the hearer rejoices that God has sent his Son into his world for his/her salvation.)
We can hear John 3:16 and receive from Jesus a terrible burden. I have to believe in order to have eternal life, there is the load put back on my shoulders. My human nature hears that passage and I am terrified. But look at the passage carefully. The first part of the verse is actually the main verb, it is the real message. God loved the world this much, he sent his son to save it.
This sermon first addresses a serious problem which afflicts contemporary American Christianity: We have become effectively semi-pelagians. We think that we are somehow more acceptable to God because we believe. But it is not our faith that makes us acceptable to God, it is God who does that. Faith does not save us, God does, but he does it through faith. God makes the faith, he is the creator of it.
Another way to say it is to recast the question. The real question is not whether you have faith or not, but whether that guy hanging on the cross is hanging there for you and for your sins. It is a yes or a no kind of question. The one who says that is in the relationship of faith. The good news is for them. They are not condemned, they are in Christ. Remember, however, that looking up to the guy on the cross, does not make the snakes on the ground go away. They are still lurking down there by your feet and they will still bite. God’s solution to my problems is not that he takes the snakes away, rather he gives 16
me this Jesus to look at, promising that in that Jesus who hangs there, that Jesus who gives his life to me and for me, that will take the venom’s sting, eternal life is mine.
I can walk in the light now. Just like old Nicodemus could look on that Jesus, hanging on that cross and come out of the shadows to theP throne of Pilate and ask for Jesus’s body that day. No longer afraid, no longer wondering if his works were enough, no longer afraid of the retribution, scorn of his pharisaical peers. He and Joseph could walk up to Pilate and simply ask, it took guts, the snakes were all lurking down by his feet, but his eyes were on that cross and the body hung there, the body which you receive in your hand today, the cross which stands on the top or front of this building, the very Jesus who spoke to you this morning in this absolution and who hears our prayers today.
Faith is not something which lends itself to this sort of scrutiny. Rather faith is the very act of looking up and seeing Jesus.
4. My works have been carried out in God (Gospel Reading: That the hearer would delight in the Light that is Christ.)
Alternate title: God’s public works dept.
Text: 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But 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.”
This is a sermon of incarnation and vocation. Jesus has declared that he is God’s good gift of this world, to save and not condemn it. But that salvation is a vibrant and living thing right now, not a static thing of the past. The salvation which Jesus works has created new people who live real lives. (See the end of the Ephesians passage as well.)
The sermon will also want to take into account the fact that our deeds are the surest measure of us and they often lead our hearts. We imagine that our deeds are a reflection of our hearts. But in fact our hearts most often follow our deeds. Our lives are the embodiment of our true selves. If we behave cruelly to someone, we will soon have those sorts of cruel thoughts and feelings about them. If, on the other hand, we love someone in deed, we will often find that our feelings and thoughts will be in concord with those deeds.
The third leg of this sermon is the reality that as fallen human beings we cannot please God with our deeds. But as the redeemed children of God, the people for whom Jesus died and rose again, we have been counted as God’s dear children. Our lives may indeed keep the “law of Christ” and therefore be pleasing to God. It is a tension which is difficult for the preacher to maintain. We dare not lose sight of the sinner who always remains. At the same time, we cannot proclaim the sinner and thereby exclude the gracious action of God. He has loved this sinner. He has made him pure and therefore he is pure. We proclaim that work of God right now. 17
Jesus speaks of the one who does what is true. But what is this true thing or deed? What is true? Lent is a great way to speak of truth. Honest and authentic self-assessment will need a great deal of truth. I have not kept those commandments we heard last week. If I do what is true I have to admit that, I have to own that. But doing the true thing also will be to turn to the one to whom my life is owed by creation itself and admitting that. This is the highest and best and most noble worship of God. It is not our beautiful songs or proper liturgics, it is the humble heart in penitence speaking the truth to God – I am a poor and miserable sinner – it is true.
This is how we get to vocation. God has called us to do what is true. Now the rest of our lives are lived in this truth which we have spoken and done in our repentance. Our lives now become an honest truth. We are eager for the Light because our deeds, indeed our whole lives, are the handiwork of God, forgiven by him and redeemed by him. We want the world to see that our lives are that handiwork. We are not boasting in ourselves, but in Christ. We are not putting forth our perfection, but his. This means we will speak of our sins but also and always of his gracious forgiveness of those sins. We will note our failings and his loving work through us his broken people. Too often we have so focused our attention on the first half of those sentences we have forgotten to mention the second half. Broken, we are witnesses to the healing of God. Sinful, we are witnesses to the forgiveness of God.