Lent 4b, (March 15, 2015)
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Rev. Todd A. Peperkorn
(John 3:14–17; Numbers 21:4–9)
TITLE: “God Loved the World in This Way”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text for today is the Gospel just read from St. John chapter three.
The Gospel in a nutshell. That’s what we know this verse from St. John’s Gospel as. It is, in many‚ respects, the simplest and clearest expression of who Jesus is and what He came on earth to do. Quite simply, Jesus came to save the world. Save the world from what? Save the world from itself, from Satan, and most obviously, He came to save the world from death.
But here’s the problem, and it is one which Christianity has sought to answer since Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. If Jesus’ conquered death by His death on the cross, why, then, do we still die?
In order to answer that question, we have to turn to the book of Numbers and look at the Old Testament people of Israel. The children of Israel in Numbers chapter twenty-one are wandering in the desert. They are partway through forty years of wandering, where God teaches them how to listen to His Word and trust that He will provide for all their needs both physical and spiritual. But the children of Israel are, well, they are dense, slow to learn, and above all, they are rebellious. they are so rebellious, in fact, that God sends serpents to go and bite them. Many of them died. the wages of sin is death, as St. Paul reminds us. then we read the following:
Num. 21:7 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.
Moses agreed, because he recognized their repentance, and that they knew their sin and need for redemption. So Moses prayed to God and God answered him by giving Moses instructions on how to save the people. the Lord said to Moses:
Num. 21:8 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.”
So Moses does this. And you have to admit, this is rather…odd. Put a snake on a stick? Isn’t that snake the form that Satan took in the Garden of Eden? Yes, it is. And that is exactly the point.
So two things really stand out in the episode from the people of Israel. First is that the form of their salvation and life isn’t much to look at. A bronze serpent, not exactly something to give one a lot of hope. That one we can see. the second point is a little less obvious. the snakes still come. No where in the text do we get Moses leading the snakes away like the Pied Piper, sending them into the river to drown. God didn’t take away the serpents. He gave the people a way out, a way of salvation, so that even though they were bit, the bite did not kill them. Whoever looked upon the bronze serpent in faith, that person lived.
Now fast forward to Jesus speaking with Nicodemus. Jesus uses this event in the life of Israel to show Nicodemus how God works. God works in the world like this. He doesn’t take death away. Not yet, at least. What He does is sends His Son into a world of death, so that He dies in our place. As we hear in verse sixteen, “For God loved the world in this way, that He handed over His only-begotten Son.” (My translation) Who did He hand Jesus over to? He handed Jesus over to sin, death and Satan himself, the unholy trinity that makes up the evil we all live with every day.
Jesus then takes the punishment that you deserve, gives you eternal life which is His by nature, and sets you up as kings and queens in His eternal kingdom. All because God the Father hands Him over to death.
So for you here and now and today, beloved, you still suffer death and the effects of sin. You get sick and injured. Things don’t work as they ought to work. the serpent still bites at your heels. But Jesus Christ has crushed the head of that old evil foe. By His death He has destroyed death, so that what we endure and suffer now is mere after effects, rumblings and grumblings from a foe that has already lost but wants to drag as many down with him as he can.
But make no mistake, dearly baptized. You are Christ’s, and satan cannot harm you. Jesus does not come into the world to tsk tsk tsk at your sins and failures. He doesn’t come to shake His head and urge you to do better next time. He doesn’t come to give you an example to shoot for, or a target to reach. His goals are much, much higher. Remember again verse seventeen from chapter three,
John 3:17 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.
That’s God’s plan for you and for the entire world. He wants to save you, to heal you, to comfort you, to love you and to give you hope that no matter how much the snake bites, you may lift up your eyes and heart to the cross of Jesus Christ, and in that cross, a symbol of shame as much as any serpent, in that cross you will find life, real, abundant life that has no end, because He has no end.
So come, blessed of God, and receive the gifts of the kingdom of heaven prepared for you before the foundation of the world. Come and rejoice in His body and blood, and give thanks for all His benefits, for the mercy of God endures forever.
Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
And now the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in true faith to life everlasting. Amen.