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A Visible Sign And A Verbal Promise

March 13, 2021 Pastor: Rev. George Fyler

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John 3:14-21 ~ A Visible Sign and A Verbal Promise 

4 Lent, B

~In Nomine Iesu~

[Jesus said to Nicodemus] … 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.

(John 3:14-15 ESV)

~In the name of the Father and of the (✠) Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN~

Dear beloved of the LORD:

The Israelites were snake-bitten.  Venomous fiery-snakes were let loose in their camp.  The people were in agony—dying.  They grumbled.  They spoke against God and against His servant Moses.  They were ungrateful for the manna that fell from heaven and the water that came out of the rock and for God freeing them from Egyptian servitude.  In response, God sent a plague of fiery poisonous snakes.

The people confessed, Moses interceded, and God provided a sacrament—a bronze serpent on a wooden pole.  A visible sign with a verbal promise: “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  It’s a strange sign, don’t you think?  The cure looks like the disease itself.  It was a serpent, an image of that sly, subtle creature that tempted Eve in the Garden.  Just a bronze snake on a stake.  Now there's a bible paradox, and here's another.  In Leviticus (26:1) God said don’t make images; but here He has Moses make an image!  However, both images came about connected to the command and promise of God's Word.

An idol is an image without the command and promise of God, such as The Golden Calf.  Even the bronze serpent later became an idol for the Israelites.  They named it “Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4 "copper snake") and offered incense to it.  King Hezekiah destroyed it along with other objects of idolatrous worship in Judah.  Whenever a sign comes unbuckled from God’s Word, idolatry lies close at hand.

However, when connected with the Word, the sign is a “sacrament,” a gift from God given tangibly and receivable.  Look on the bronze serpent and be healed of your snakebite.  The promise was there, located for you.  And when you burn up with fever and are delirious with poison, you do what the Lord said to do.  You go out of your way to glue your eyes on that bronze snake because it is the only way to survive.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14) Here Jesus foretells His own death on the cross and its benefits.  He is the “serpent” on the wooden stake, lifted up for the life of the world.  All who look on Him through the “eyes” of faith have eternal life.

Humanity is “snake-bitten.”  It happened in the Garden when the shrewd and subtle serpent tempted Eve and injected her with the poison of his lie —the lie that God is not true to His Word … the lie that God doesn’t mean what He says … the lie that we can be gods in place of God, that we can experience good and evil on our own terms, that we can be masters of our own destiny … the lie that we can disobey God and we won’t die as a result.  Eve bit … Adam bit … the serpent bit and his deadly poison invaded our humanity leaving no part undamaged.  Humanity died that day.  They were dead to God and to each other—hiding, ashamed, blaming, and self-justifying.  The poison not only invaded them, but it was also passed on to their children.  Every son and daughter of Adam and Eve is infected with the serpent’s venom.   No generation is skipped.  Not me, not you—each of us is born with the poison coursing through our humanity.  

The apostle Paul says, “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” (Eph. 2:1)  Not sick, not weak, not troubled, not struggling or even hanging on for dear life.  No, you were snake-bitten dead.

How do you cure a deadly case of snake bite?  You need a shot of antivenom serum.  Antivenom serum comes from one who has been exposed to the poison and survived.  God made Jesus the sinless Son to be sin for you.  He became your sin, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God.(2 Cor. 5:21)  He was cursed with the curse against your sin; He was damned for you.  He was exposed to your sin and death.  Jesus took the full hit for you, the wrath of God, the temptations of the devil, the judgment of the Law.  He went down to your grave, and He rose from the dead.  He conquered your death in His Death.  He is the antivenom serum for the sting of Death.  Like the bronze serpent on the pole, all who believe in Him are healed of death and have eternal life.

The medicine you need is here in the church.  The church fathers called the Lord's Supper “the medicine of immortality.”  The cure for death and the curse of sin is Jesus’ own body given into death; Jesus’ own blood shed for your life.  The world looks on the Sacrament as though you have just raised a bronze snake and says, “You’ve got to be joking!  This is how you live forever?  Trust Jesus?  Eat His Body and Drink His blood showing forth the Lord's death until He comes again?”  What other cure is there?  Who else promises life from death?  Who else in the world died and rose from the dead?  Who else says, “Trust me, eating my flesh, drinking my blood, and I will raise you up on the Last Day and give you eternal life?”  Who else but Jesus? 

You need this medicine, this word of forgiveness, this Sacrament of Jesus’ death and life.  You need this medicine because the snake bit you too and without the antivenom serum you will die in your sins.  You need to hear and eat and drink.  And others you know need to hear and eat and drink also.

God loved the cosmos in this way:  He gave His only-begotten Son to die for it.  He raised His Son up on a cross one dark day we have named Good Friday.  It wasn’t a bronze image He lifted up, but His own Son in the flesh in that cruel and bizarre death that even today people would rather look away from.  An empty cross, they can abide, but they cannot abide a crucifix, that instrument of torture.  Who can look at such a thing?  What kind of religion is it that lifts up such a banner with pride and says, “Behold, your Savior and King?”

Here is the love of God.  He loves the world to death in the death of His Son.  God loves by giving His Son for the life of this unloving, unlovable world.  Can you begin to imagine it?  What God tested Abraham to do (offer up his son Isaac) God the Father actually did.  And the world says, “That’s nuts.  How can I believe in a God who would do such a thing?”  You have no other alternative.  This is the God who is lover to the loveless, forgiving to sinners and who justifies the sinner in Christ.  This is the God who is willing to be bruised by the serpent in order to crush the serpent's head.

Many of us know this passage by heart:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  It’s more than a sign people hold up at sporting events.  We should learn verse 17 as well:  “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.”  Judgment comes later, at the end.  Then it’s a judgment in view of what has already been done in the death of Jesus.  “It is finished.”  Look on Jesus and live.  Behold the Lamb of God bearing your sin.  That’s your life hanging there on the cross.  Trust Jesus and live.  He’s not there on the cross or in the Sacrament to judge you.  He was judged for you.  God’s verdict is rendered.  Jesus is guilty, and you in Jesus are innocent … acquitted… justified. 

There is hope for this snake-bitten world.  God has raised up the sacramental sign—the Cross of Jesus—and has made a promise.  Look on Jesus—in your Baptism, in the word of forgiveness, in the Body and the Blood, look on Jesus through faith-full eyes and live forever.  Jesus is your forgiveness, your healing, your strength, your life, and your salvation.  In the Name of Jesus, AMEN 

In the name of the Father and of the (✠) Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

AMDG