To Save, NOT Condemn—–4th Sunday in Lent
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22—–Ephesians 2: 1-10—–March 14, 2021—–John 3: 14-21
When I was about 7 years old, I was playing over at a friend’s house. We were out in the shop with his dad, who was puttering around with an engine. My friend showed me something really cool—a miniature branding iron that he had made by bending a piece of wire into a shape. He heated up the brand part in a little blowtorch, then stuck it onto a piece of wood. It made a satisfying curl of smoke, and branded his little shape into the wood! Of course, I wanted a turn, so he offered me the wire—and I grabbed it where it was still really HOT! It burned my finger (I still have the scar), and I decided it was time to go home. That burn really hurt, but I had NO INTENTION of showing it to my parents. I knew that they loved me, and that they could probably help the pain, but I also knew that they would chastise me for playing with dangerous stuff. So I carefully hid the painful burn from my folks.
My fear of condemnation blocked me from getting the help I needed.
Our Scripture readings for today made me think of this little vignette from my life (about 60 years ago!). The reading from Psalm 107 reminds us that God is loving and good. It talks about people who are sick with sin who cried out to God and God saved them from their distress. Then Paul tells us in Ephesians that, yes, we were dead in sin, BUT by grace we have been saved—NOT by our own actions, but through the undeserved gift of God.
Then our passage in John clarifies this concept, explaining that 1. God loves the world; 2. God gave God’s only Son to save the world; and 3. God did not send the Son to condemn the world. One reason it reminded me of hiding my burn from my parents is that John goes on to say //:“all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”:\\ Fortunately, we now understand that dragging our sin-sickness into the light is part of the healing process!
So, friends, here we have a LOVING God, one who wants to heal us—and we try to hide our need for healing (our sin) from God?! Why is that? And what can we do about it? (Or, better yet, what has God already done about it?) Let’s take a look.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is having a conversation with Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of Israel—a man who came under cover of darkness, looking for some LIGHT. Remember with me the beginning of John’s gospel where Jesus is described: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Nicodemus wanted to be enlightened, to have his questions answered. He gets confused when Jesus talks about the need to be re-born. Then Jesus comes to the text we heard today, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And now we are getting confused! You see, Jesus is alluding to a strange event (recorded in the book of Numbers) as the Israelites are making their exodus from Egyptian slavery, through the desert to the promised land. The people are complaining about the actions of God and Moses, even though they have been rescued from slavery! They don’t like wandering around the wilderness, and they complain. (Whine)
In punishment, Numbers 21 says that God sent poisonous serpents that killed many of the people. The people change their tune, so God tells Moses to fashion a bronze serpent, put it on top of a pole, and let the people gaze on it. And when they do, they are healed of the poisonous snake bites and saved from the serpents. I think you’ll agree that this is a weird story! Especially when you consider that making graven images was strictly taboo!
Jesus tells Nicodemus that just as the people of Israel were saved by gazing upon that bronze serpent, so Israel and the whole world will be saved. Even as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to save the Israelites, so the Son of Man will be “lifted up.”
Indeed, just a short time later, Jesus was lifted up on a cross, the embodiment of God’s love for us. And you and I are invited to gaze on Jesus and let that love flow through us.
Well, since Nicodemus was looking for LIGHT, Jesus then spoke more plainly to him, no longer speaking in riddles or referring to strange pieces of our history. And his words have echoed down through the centuries. He said, “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.” Note that Jesus does not explain to Nicodemus Who he is or exactly How He Will Save the World—so our intellectual curiosity is not satisfied.
Poisonous serpents, a strange snake on a pole that heals, a crucified Savior of the world—I’m sorry. IF you have come here this morning seeking straightforward answers, some simple explanations of the mystery of the Christian faith—I don’t think you’ll get it from this sermon. But what you might get is a vision, a glimpse into the heart of God—a peek at God’s intentions for us and our world. “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Saving the world is God’s job. And what’s our job? It is to behold what God has done, what God is doing, and to keep our eyes open for what God will do! Redemption is God’s decision—a decision born out of God’s faithful love for us. We are saved, not because we deserve it—but because God loves us! That is grace.
Centuries before the time of Jesus, a song of praise was written—and we heard parts of it in the reading from Psalm 107. When those writers pondered the faithful love of God, they were inspired to write a Psalm giving thanks to the Lord! Why? Because God is GOOD, and because God’s faithful love lasts forever! They acknowledge that some of the redeemed had been fools, but they could have truthfully written, “We all were fools because of our sinful ways. We suffered because of our wickedness. God saved us from our desperate circumstances—God healed us and rescued us from the pit!”
And what do these writers suggest that our response might be? “Let us thank the Lord for his faithful love and offer thanksgiving sacrifices and declare what God has done in songs of joy!” (And thus this song!)
I’ll finish today with another personal story. When our kids were young, we took a family vacation through the Southwest, including a visit to the Grand Canyon. Now, Melissa and I believed that anticipation is a big part of enjoying any experience, and we usually tried to prepare the kids for each part of any journey. But on the road, Chris asked, “Dad, what’s the Grand Canyon like?” I tried to find some words that would adequately describe the experience of seeing the Grand Canyon—and I discovered that I could not! I finally said, “Well, Son, I can’t really describe it. You’ll have to experience it for yourself!”
And, indeed, gazing at the canyon and listening to the wind and appreciating the whole thing is the BEST. Experiencing the Grand Canyon is the best way to know it.
The same can be said for God’s love. The Scriptures are full of descriptions of God’s love, and praise to God for that love, joyful songs of thanksgiving for the fact that God loves us and redeems us, but no truly satisfying explanations of that love. It’s something that one has to experience.
You know that Presbyterians tend to have a cerebral approach to our faith. We like to be able to think things through and have a reasonable faith. That’s not a bad thing, but sometimes we need a different approach. Just as gazing at the Grand Canyon is the best way to experience it, you and I need to gaze at Jesus Christ to gain a sense of God’s love for us.
In just a few weeks, we will have Easter—a joyous celebration of the Resurrection—proof of God’s promise of LIFE forever. On that day, we will sing a song called “Lift High the Cross.” It’s a metaphor for making the cross visible to the whole world. It’s not so much explaining our faith as it is letting Christ be seen in us. The whole world will be blessed if it has a chance to gaze at Christ and know that God loves the world and wants to shine the Light of Christ into every corner. Meanwhile, you and I have to decide where we are going to look (with so many competing choices). Here’s some advice from Corrie ten Boom: “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest!”