Bible, Jesus, sermon

When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!

There is perhaps no better known verse in all the Bible than John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).  Tim Tebow wore this scripture reference on his eye black during the 2009 National Championship.  During the game, Google reported over 90 million searches for the verse!  Even though the verse is well-known even by non-Christians, however, many Christians read the verse in isolation and do not consider its context within John’s gospel.  In particular, the two verses that precede it state, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15, NIV).

The story of the snake Moses lifted in the wilderness is in Numbers 21:4-9.  Jesus says that he himself must be lifted up as the snake, so it is important to understand what this snake was and how it functioned in the story of Moses to understand better the love of God for the world and why he would send his Son.

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The Snake Lifted Up in the Wilderness

First, we find that the people rebelled against God.  They grew impatient and questioned God’s ways.  They said he brought them to the desert to die, when in reality he was leading them through the desert to a land promised to their ancestors.  They complained there was no water, even though, by this point in the narrative, God had provided water on two occasions when it was desperately needed.  The people even asserted there was no bread, even though each morning they found a miraculous substance on the ground, a gift from God, which they could harvest, grind, and bake into bread.  But instead of being thankful for this bread from heaven, they despised it and called it “miserable” and “detestable.” 

What the people don’t seem to understand is that God was providing the best for them in the midst of a very bad situation.  They began to romanticize their old life in Egypt.  It isn’t stated in this story, but we read elsewhere how they reminisced about the diversity of food back in Egypt—forgetting they had been suffered as slaves there.  They also ignore the reality that the only reason they are even in the wilderness at this point was their lack of faith.  God had taken them rather quickly to the very edge of the Promised Land of Canaan, but instead of trusting God would help them conquer the land, they rebelled in their fear, so God cursed them to wander for forty years in the wilderness.  Yet despite their complaints and rebellion, God remained with them, guiding them and providing for them daily.

Even today we often think we know better than God and so we go our own way.  Sometimes we make destructive decisions for short-term moments of pleasure.  Other times, we act on what we think is a great opportunity only to discover many hidden traps.  Perhaps worst of all are the times we act like the these Israelites, following God half-heartedly but grumbling the entire time.  We neglect to see how our choices lead to slavery, lifelong consequences, hardened and embittered hearts, and/or even death.  This, however, is what the Israelites soon discovered.

Second, God judges the people’s sin.  Snakes came among the people and began to bite them.  Many of the affected people died.  If they thought God’s gift of Manna was miserable, just imagine how they felt now!  While some see the story as the act of a vengeful or vindictive God, the bigger picture emphasizes God is with the people through both good and bad times.  He is judging them not to punish so much as to discipline them.  Like a parent, he sees the direction their immediate choices will have on their future and the future of their children.  God hopes to correct them now so that they will mature in their faith and enjoy a better in the future.  He want to make them aware of their sinful state and its impact on their relationship with him and with each other.

Third, the people repent of their sins.  They agree with God that their actions are wrong (“we sinned against God”) and they ask Moses to pray for them.  Asking Moses to pray doesn’t mean they need a “professional” to whom they confess their sins.  Rather, it is a recognition that their sin wasn’t just against God but also against Moses’ leadership (“and we sinned against you”).  Asking Moses to pray for them was an act of repentance and reconciliation, acknowledging him as their appointed leader.  What is far more significant than who should pray, however, is what they ask him to pray: “take the snakes away”!

Finally, the Lord provided deliverance.  Moses is told to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.  What God does is take the object of their suffering and affliction—the snakes—and turn it into the source of their healing and deliverance.  Death, in the shadow of the bronze snake, is transformed into life.  Chaos is given order.  Despair gives way to hope as one looks in faith upon the very image of despair.

Notice God says anyone “can look.”  When someone was bitten, they didn’t have to look.  If they did so, it was an act of trusting God, an act of faith. . . . but they didn’t have to.  In fact, what sense did it make?  There was a far more obvious solution: kill the snakes!  Don’t wait to get bitten.  But if you were bitten, there was a a more sensible action: take steps to remove the poison before it filtered through your body!  Imagine if a man showed up in Mariupol, Ukraine holding a staff with a bronze artillery shell on it.  If he told the people there, whenever you hear the whistle of an incoming shell, you’ll be fine if you just look at this bronze shell and trust God, they would think he was mad!  There are far better options!  Find an evacuation route to get out of the city.  Why stay in harm’s way?  Flee to a bunker to ride out the shelling.  Why remain in the open?  But this is just how ludicrous Moses probably sounded to the people back then.  Yet salvation doesn’t come through our own actions.  It comes from God and we need to trust him to provide for us in our times of need.

Also notice that God didn’t take the snakes away as the people requested.  Instead, God gave the people a bronze snake.  We are told that “when anyone was bitten,” if they looked at the symbol, they lived.  But God didn’t remove the snakes, at least not right away.  He provided a way through the situation, a way to bear up under it.  When someone becomes a Christian, they aren’t immediately translated into the Kingdom of God.  Rather, they remain here in this world of suffering, pain, and death.  But now they have been reconciled to God and he promises to provide them a way through the suffering, a way that leads towards healing and hope.  For the Israelites, they endured the snakes for a time.  They endured the wilderness for even longer.  But their story didn’t end there.  The goal was the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan that became the Land of Israel.  So we look to a future full of healing, joy, and life in the Kingdom of God, a hope made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Son of Man Lifted Up on Calvary

Here is the meaning of John 3.  Just as the snake was lifted up, so the Son of Man would be hung on a cross.  In the first century world, the cross was the most humiliating form of execution.  It was purposefully torturous to emphasize why no one should consider rebelling against the Roman Empire.  It was a symbol of rebellion, futility, and death.  Yet today, Christians see the cross as a symbol of forgiveness, hope, and life.  Many wear it as jewelry or hang it as art in their homes.  The snake and the cross were both objects of suffering and death that were transformed by the creative work of God into sources of healing and life.  Both were means of his salvation.  Christians hope for new life because the cross wasn’t the final word.  The cross was followed by the empty tomb, Jesus raised from the dead now seated in heaven.  Jesus suffered and died for us that we might live for him as we look to him in faith.

Just as in the wilderness, God doesn’t want to condemn the world.  He sent his Son to be lifted up so he could draw all people to himself.  But we have a choice, just as the dying Israelites did when bitten by the snakes.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn 3:17-18).  Just as the snakes were already destroying the people because of their rebellion, so we are already separated from God and dying on account of our own sinful actions and choices.  There is only one choice that can heal.  When all is lost, look to the cross!

Father Brian Jordan ministered to the workers at Ground Zero during the months of cleanup after September 11, 2001.  One day after mass, one of the construction workers, Frank Silecchia, approached him and asked, “Do you want to see God’s house?”  Soon, Father Jordan found himself descending with Mr. Silecchia into the rubble of the fallen towers.  After a while, they reached the lowest-most level where the foundation had been lain.  Eventually, they stood in front of a steel column that had survived the destruction.  Attached to the column that rose from the ground was a steel girder, a crossbeam, which held fast despite the weight of the building’s collapse.  As the priest looked into the eyes of the workers there, he saw hope rising within them from this remnant.  In the midst of the rubble and chaos of death and destruction all around them, these two steel beams stood in the shape of a cross.  These beams weren’t not simply part of the wreckage.  They were something far more significant.  These beams were a symbol of hope and endurance.  All was not lost in the shadow of the cross.

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When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!
John 3:14-18 / Numbers 21:4-9

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Called to a Journey of Faith and Blessing

The Bible talks about the calling of Abraham and the subsequent people of God as “called” or “chosen.” Sometimes we see the Israelites and later Jews misunderstand this idea of “chosenness” and Christians sometimes struggle with the same misunderstanding. Being chosen does not mean that you are better than another. It doesn’t mean that you are God’s child and that God doesn’t care about those who are not called by the same name as you. To be called is to follow after God and to trust in him even when the way seems dark or obscure. To be chosen is to be a servant to live your life to bless God and to bless others. God sometimes calls us to a new occupation, a new city in which to live and minister. Genesis 12:1-8 tells us about the calling of Abraham. Much like Abraham, we must must decide if we will accept the call. Will we live the journey God choses for us or chose our own way and reject his call.

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Called to Journey with God

Abraham was invited by God to go into the unknown, learning only later that the land of Canaan is the land promised to him by God. Through the Abraham narrative, we travel to the Western Highlands of Canaan, the Negev of Southern Canaan, down to Egypt, back to the Negev and Western Highlands, throughout the region in a war narrative before settling back into the Negev. Along the way, Abraham built altars to God and prayed to God, he dug wells and planted trees, he worked with his neighbors, and he even fled from famine and set out in war. When he returned to the region after his journey into Egypt, God again told him that Canaan would be his home (Ge 13:14-17). All the way through the story, we see that Abraham was not alone. God was always with him on the journey, through the good decisions and the bad one.

We are journeying through an unknown time right now. It is a time of pandemic and a time of economic uncertainty, a time of political unrest and social upheaval. In your own journey, there may be a path through unplanned cancer or the death of a family member. You may be called to a new job or blessed with a new child. Through whatever situation you face, you are called to journey with God and to trust him along the way, no matter how dark the path or foggy and unclear the future.

Called to Walk by Faith

Abraham had to trust God in order to leave his home land and his family. Because of Abraham’s belief in God, he is considered righteous by God (Ge 15:1-6). The story makes clear that belief is not some sort of checklist of ideas to understand. Abraham is told he will have a son. We read soon after that he and Sarah totally misunderstand this and he has a son through her maid-servant Hagar. We also see that Abraham’s righteousness is not based on any action on his part at the time he is called righteous. If Abraham did anything, he walked out of his tent when instructed and looked up at the stars when instructed. The emphasis of the text is that he saw the stars, heard God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous, and he put his faith in God that God was trustworthy to keep such a promise. We do find that such faith is later demonstrated by action, but Abraham’s righteousness is not based on action.

When the child of promise is finally born to he and his wife Sarah, Abraham must make a painful decision. He must sacrifice his son and through away the promises that were to flow through this child or he must disobey God’s call to sacrifice his son and thereby break covenant with the one who would provide the covenant promises through this son (Ge 22). He was between the proverbial rock and hard place. Abraham chooses allegiance to God over the hope of the promise, but God stays his hand and his son is spared. God then swears by himself that the promises made to Abraham through Isaac would certainly come to be (Ge 22:16-18).

In the New Testament, we are told that we are children of Abraham if we live by faith (Ga 3:7) and so are part of the stars and sand too numerous to count (He 11:12). The journey we are called to is the same type of journey as Abraham. We are called to journey by faith through this land. We are not to be loyal to our land for it is not our own. We, like Abraham, remain exiles longing for a heavenly city (He 11:13-16). Like Abraham living as a nomad in the land promised to him, we live in this fallen world awaiting the day God will resurrect it along with our bodies into the Kingdom of God. It is this but not now. It is here but not yet. We are foreigners and strangers living by faith in the one who calls us. When God calls us to a new city, a new profession, a new marriage, our allegiance is first to God over any personal preferences we might have. Abraham, when told that God’s way was a child of promise to be born of barren Sarah and not the “natural” child born of Sarah’s maid-servant, Abraham questions this and asks, why cannot Ishmael live under the covenant blessings (Ge 17:17-18)? What we want is not necessarily what we need. God is the one we trust.

Called to Be a Blessing

God’s calling to Abraham included a promise that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him (Ge 12:2-3). Throughout his life, we find him blessing others. He was a blessing to Lot, giving him his choice of the land (Ge 13:8-11), rescuing him from captivity (Ge 14:12-16), rescuing him in his prayers for Sodom and Gomorrah (Ge 19:29). He was a blessing to the cities who lost loved ones as war captives (Ge 14:16). He sought to be a blessing to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, asking if God would destroy the city if righteous remained in their walls (Ge 18:23-33). He was a blessing to the Philistines at Beersheba, creating peace between his people and them (Ge 21:22-34).

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, says the promise to Abraham that his offspring would bless all nations (Ge 22:18) was fulfilled in Jesus. If we belong to Christ, we are Abraham’s seed and heirs of the promise alongside Jesus, whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Ga 3:8-9, 14, 28-29). Today, Paul would have added “Democrat or Republican,” for we need to be more committed to King Jesus than to the USA or to any party that seeks to divide the body of Christ. (As Hebrews said above, we seek a better country and should have no ultimate allegiance to our current land.)

We see the promise of Abraham’s seed blessing others lived out in the story of Zacchaeus. When he announces that he will give half his wealth to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he has cheated, Jesus replies, “This man also is a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9). That is, he is a blessing to others. We are called to bless others by being a servant to them. We have lots of opportunities that present themselves each and every day to be a son or a daughter of Abraham. Just a little thing we can do in the pandemic is to wear a mask in order to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves.

Have you ever pulled up to a drive-thru window and found out that the car in front of you paid for your food? Did you feel blessed? Did it make you want to pay for the person behind you so that they could share in the blessing you had experienced? Recently, a man ate at a Colorado restaurant for breakfast. His bill was $20.04. He asked his waitress how many employees were working that day. Seven, she replied. He asked her to make sure that every employee received the same amount of his tip. He wrote on the receipt, “COVID sucks! $200.00 for each employee today!” and tipped $1,400.00. That man was on a journey when he stopped by the restaurant. He saw others struggling through their own journeys. He chose to be a blessing that day. He trusted in something other than his personal resources that day. He trusted in community and enacted Jesus’ teaching that it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Called to a Journey of Faith and Blessing (Ge 12:1-8)

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Jesus, sermon

Blessed Is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

As Jesus entered Jesusalem the Sunday before Passover, the people are said to shout part of Psalm 118, “Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord!”  While the people understood this to mean Jesus was coming as a conquering king, the psalm as a whole is more focused on the role of faith as trust in God through suffering, which Jesus lived out in that week leading up to his death.  The psalm also helps us think through our own response to the COVID-19 pandemic.