Numbers 21:4-9; Psalms 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 March 14, 2021 – 4th Sunday in Lent
We all know how the Passion story of Jesus ends. It ends gloriously…more wonderfully than anyone could have imagined…at the time. Now we look back, sure that the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
This morning we see once again how wrong people are when they assume they knew it all along. Nicodemus has come to Jesus because he sees the great power this man has brought with him to Jerusalem.
One day, Nicodemus will see all that is to happen to Jesus in this world, but that lies ahead of him now. Jesus tells him what he must do to inherit eternal life.
Jesus says he must be born from above to see the kingdom. Nicodemus doesn’t understand how you can be born a second time.
Jesus says there is a difference between flesh and spirit and he is talking about Nicodemus’ spirit. The wind blows where it chooses…you can hear it…but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.
Nicodemus asks him how these things can be. Jesus replies that he has told Nicodemus and the other leaders about earthly things and they did not agree with him. Why should he expect them to understand anything he has to say about spiritual matters?
That’s when we come to today’s passage. The son of Man must be lifted up so that all people might live. Then follows, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life.”
Nicodemus must have left that conversation more confused than he was when he decided to go to Jesus with his questions.
Jesus has simply told him what is about to happen to him and why it will happen and that it has to happen. Jesus sees this very clearly.
Nicodemus will see it clearly some day, too, as this conversation comes back to him after the great events have come to pass. But now his head is spinning in an effort to make sense out of the Master’s words.
Things have to make sense to us before we can understand them. They have to fit into something we already know before we can accept them. Unless we are willing to accept what God has set before us…not what we want to see, but what is there.
People want to believe what they want to believe. The social sciences describe this as one aspect of confirmation bias. We believe what is most familiar, or most common in our lives, what we have seen before, or what we have heard most frequently.
That’s why advertisers repeat their message and politicians say things over and over. In normal times we pick this information up without giving it a second thought.
But we use it to make decisions…little decisions or big ones. And because most of the information we receive in our affluent and highly mediated society comes from people who want us to believe what we want to believe because they will profit from it, we are very likely to arrive at false conclusions. This is how we make bad decisions.
Jesus didn’t come to sell us anything. The office he held was not of this world. His sole purpose in life was to save us from our sins…to show us the love God has for us. He offers us a relationship…not a transaction.
In doing this he fulfills the scriptures, the law and the prophets, in many ways. Today, we see one of the most convincing ways he shows himself as God’s own son.
He tells Nicodemus that he…the Son of Man…the Promised One…must be lifted up as the serpents were lifted up by Moses to save a stiff necked and complaining people.
In one simple sentence he points to both the past and the future. He reminds Nicodemus of an important moment long ago and what is about to happen.
We can see this from our vantage point because we know both of the events he is describing. But Nicodemus only knows one, and he tries to make it all fit when part of the puzzle is missing.
He is referring to the day Moses saved Israel from itself once again. The people are traveling through the wilderness and they have to take a detour. It avoids danger but it is more work.
They have experienced delay after delay and hardship after hardship. This morning it all gets to them and they begin to do what they do so often. They complain.
This time God does not threaten to destroy them. Moses does not intercede with a plea that God show them mercy. God sends poisonous snakes into their midst and they bite the people and many die.
Then he instructs Moses to fashion the remedy: the image of a poisonous snake and put it on a pole. Raise it up and the people who have been bitten are to look up and live.
They are to be confronted by their sins. They are to humble themselves by looking up at the punishment they have received for their sins. Then, when they realize what they have done wrong and are sorry in their hearts for their own willfulness…when they have repented …then they receive mercy and live.
They have to accept the cure with faith and it is their faith that will save them. In the same way, the Son of Man, the image of God on earth, will be lifted up one day to remind the people of their sins…and when they see their sin as sin…they can be saved.
Pilate and the Temple priests think the people will only be shown what awaits them if they disobey the Romans. After Jesus has been raised from the dead, his followers will know that their sin has been to complain against God’s only son, Jesus…as the Israelites have complained against God. They, too, will be able to see their sin…the sin that they were blind to…and they, too, can look up and live.
I am impressed again and again by the many ways the corona virus has required us to reexamine our own actions. We didn’t want to do it, but there were consequences for believing what we wanted to believe instead of looking with a clear eye at the truth all around us.
We could not see what it was doing and were puzzled by the results it was producing. We wanted to believe it was the flu, but it infected so many people and so many of them got very, very sick.
We minimized the likelihood that the pandemic would last for very long or take so many lives, but here we are a year later with 500,000 people dead and variants now appearing around the world.
We complained about having to wear masks to slow the spread of the virus, but when we finally got serious about doing our part, lo and behold, things got better.
We were tired of staying home, so we got out in increasing numbers for social occasions…for our pleasure…and more people got sick. When we pursued pleasure, things got worse. When we humbled ourselves to the mystery around us, we got better.
It is only when we humble ourselves to the truth that is all around us that our world becomes a better place for all of us. When we act humbly with faith, we find grace. There is much that we can do here and now to save ourselves and those we love…and all the other people, too.
We have gained many insights from this, just as the people of Israel learned such important things in their hour of need…things that would save them and continue their story up to the day they entered the Promised Land…up to the day Jesus was born…up to the day he was raised from the dead…up to this day now.
There is a God and we are not him. We cannot decree the truth, but we can discern it if we will listen quietly to the many loving lessons God gives to us… because we are so loved that he sent his only son that we might be saved by grace through faith.
We have learned so much about something that was a complete mystery to us when it first appeared. We are still learning…so long as we seek the truth and are no longer insisting that what we hear the most or what is most common in our surroundings is the whole truth the world has to offer… the only truth we need to respect.
There is a great divide in human thinking. Some people see things the way they think they should be and want to reject or punish any deviation from their long-held views.
Others try to understand the way things are…why they are that way… and seek to make the world better.
We all fall into one of those two ways of making our choices in life…and at one time we have all been in one group …at other times we all have found ourselves in the other group.
It is when we are in danger that we more likely to find ourselves clear-eyed and humble and ready to try to understand more clearly and act more honestly.
We know we can no longer get by on our prejudices and biases…that we have to get it right and we need to do it soon.
That is how we can find out what works and what doesn’t…and do what works and stop doing what doesn’t.
That is how you come up with a vaccine for a novel killer virus in less than a year. That is how you find a completely different kind of vaccine that can be tweaked for variants so we can have a new vaccine for all of them in a very short order once the problem has been identified.
That is how we find a way to vaccinate everyone in a timely fashion, so we give the virus no place to go.
That is also how we come to know and trust the word of the Lord, too. The truth we celebrate and offer freely with our own words and actions…with our own lives…is simply the best way to be in the world…today…yesterday…and forever.
Like this faith in the one God sent to save us all, we cannot be sure the virus is gone so we can all be safe…until all the people of the world are safe. Until all the world believes the world cannot be saved.
We have many public health experts telling us that no one is safe from this disease until everyone is safe from it. We have had many wise people tell us that believing in the one God sent will save us all.
As many and as bitter as our disagreements have been…and continue to be…I am not safe until the people I love…and even the people I don’t love …are safe.
Again, Jesus’ teaching is so important for us. We are to love our neighbors and our friends and our enemies and we are to take the Word he gave us to every corner of the world…just as we are to take the vaccine to every corner of the world.
We think that God in Christ is so mysterious and so hard to understand, but we can do anything we put our minds to…if we are willing to humble ourselves to the truth that confronts us. If we are willing to look up and live.
It is just a matter of a faith that is both judgment and grace…hardship and hope…willingness instead of willfulness…that will see us through to the end that God has waiting for us… and will bless all the people of the earth now and forever.
So we ask again as we close our time of meditation together: O Lord, what is it that want to accomplish in the world through us …through me…this day? Amen.