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

Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Watch and Be Ready! (Advent Week 1)

Advent is the time before Christmas when Christians prepare themselves for the coming of Christmas, the coming of Christ. The first week of the advent season focuses on hope. Traditionally, this first week focuses on the second coming of Christ. Christians today wait for the coming of Christ just as Jews in the years before Jesus (and many still today) waited for the coming of the Messiah.

Watch and be ready certainly described how my sisters and I approached the coming of Christmas. Each year we sought to stay awake until Christmas. We kept our eyes open for the coming of Santa. We watched and looked for the signs. One sign that we “saw” each Christmas Eve was the red light of Rudolph’s nose guiding Santa’s sleigh. I would point this light out to my youngest sister through the window where we waited, knowing full well that every other night that same red light was a radio tower! But Christmas was different. We watched for the signs. We waited for Santa. We sought to be ready at all times. Those are the ideas we find in Mark 13:24-37.

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There is an emphasis in the text to observe the signs. Verses 24-25 contain the most dramatic of the signs–the sun darkening, the moon not giving light, the stars shaken and falling from the sky. While some take these images literally, others view them as symbolic expressions shared by the Old Testament prophets for the dramatic turn of events that will occur in the Day of YHWH. When we hear on the news or read online that an election was a “tidal wave of change” or that a new poll reveals a “seismic shift” of opinion or that someone’s death has “rocked the world,” we do not think there were literally tsunamis or earthquakes. Perhaps the same was true for the ancients. The imagery was indicative of great change that would occur. Peter (2:28-29; cf. Acts 2:16) and Paul (2:32; cf. Rom 10:13) both quote from Joel and say that his words have come true in Jesus, yet these fulfilled prophecies are tied to statements about the sun going dark and the moon turning to blood (2:30-31).

Verse 28 says you know it is almost summer when the fig tree leafs out. We wouldn’t know that in West Texas but in Israel, where almost all trees are evergreens, the fig tree becomes a default seasonal marker. Jesus said it was bad to see signs for seasons and weather, “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2-3). So Christians should be interested in knowing the times, but we should not be preoccupied with interpretation of the signs themselves or plotting precise dates for the return of Christ.

One reason we should be careful is that the signs mentioned in the passage (and the rest of Mark 13) are different foci. Some are clearly about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. (For instance, Jesus’ reference to “this generation” in verse 30 and that it is “near” and “at the door” seem to point to the temple destruction by the Romans.) Some may be about the very end of the age (perhaps the stars falling or the angels gathering the elect in verse 27). Several could be one or the other. It is sort of like the dinging sound your car makes. Sometimes it is easy to identify the reason for the warning–say, your seatbelt is not fastened or you have left the lights on and opened the car door. Other times, however, it is easy to see the sign but difficult to interpret its meaning. The most notorious is the “check engine” light. That could mean anything! A clear reason to not rely too heavily on precise dating is that Jesus says not even he as the earthly Messiah knew when the end would be (v. 32).

In Matthew 2, the wise men were able to read the signs (the star), so they knew the essential issue (Messiah was born) but they didn’t understand where they should go (they ended up in Jerusalem. The priests and scribes, however, knew the ins and outs of the prophets (they quickly told Herod the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem) but they couldn’t see the signs. Not a single one of them is said to have traveled the 6 miles to Bethlehem to see if the magi were correct. The magi might have missed by 6 miles, but they were nearer the Kingdom of God despite their (probably) Gentile status.

A second thing we must do is keep our eyes on the Son. While we may not fully understand the signs, we can recognize the direction they point . . . and they always point toward the Son. Verse 34 emphasizes the need to keep watch for the master’s return. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to keep our eyes on the Jesus, because he is the “pioneer” of our faith, as he has walked the path before us, and he is the “perfecter” of our faith, as the one who lived and died in a way that was pleasing to his Father. Hebrews tells us that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus doesn’t mention sitting at the right hand in this passage, but he does tell his followers that some will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power and glory (an allusion to Dan 7:13-14). This could be his resurrection and exaltation. It could an allusion to the fulfillment of his prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction. It could be a reference to his return. But what is clear is that our eyes should be on him. Similarly, the Son of Man is said to send his angels to gather his elect. Is this a reference to the end of time where his angels harvest the resurrected and living? Or (since the Greek word translated “angels” in other places means “messengers”), is this an allusion to the Great Commission of Jesus’ disciples going to all the nations to create a new community, the true Israel?

What is clear is that we need to keep our eyes at all times on Jesus and trues him to sort those things out. Mary does this when the shepherds come to see the infant. We are told that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). She reflected on who Jesus was and kept her eyes and her thoughts on him. If we have our eyes on Jesus, according to the author of Hebrews, we will notice that, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and [so] sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). One thing we see as we look at the one who walked the path before us and perfected that path is that he was humble. Our eyes should be on Jesus and not on politics. Our actions and words should be on humility, healing, and hope (except on occasion to the powerful elites–including the religious leaders!) rather than pushing our power and our views on others.

Not only should our eyes be on the Son, but our ears should be on his words. Jesus makes an outlandish claim about his words in verse 31! “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” To a Jew, such a statement is blasphemous. Genesis 1 tells us that heaven and earth came to be because of the words of God. God spoke creation into existence. But Jesus says his words will outlast God’s! This is blasphemous if Jesus is a mere mortal. If he is divine as well as human, however, then he can make such a claim. In John’s gospel, when many are abandoning Jesus, Jesus asks the twelve if they will also abandon him. Simon Peter said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). We must always keep our eyes on Jesus and our ears on his words.

Finally, we must watch and be ready. In the mini-parable found in verse 34, Jesus tells us that when the master departed for his trip, he gave each of his servants an assigned task. Are you doing your assigned task? We are told to be alert and on guard, that is, we are to be ready at any moment for the return of Christ. Every community should have a fire station. They are wonderful to have near you (you get a discount on your homeowner’s insurance). Firefighters put out fires. They help respond to medical emergencies. Everyone in the community understands that part of their job is to wash their trucks, attend fire safety courses, and other non-firefighting tasks. No one begrudges them eating meals together on their long shifts or fellowshipping with one another during down time. But the community would rise up in protest if they found out the firefighters were ignoring fire alarms because they just put a meal in the oven. The community would not forgive them for delaying a response to a multiple car collision because they needed to finish washing the trucks. But too often, Christians focus on fellowship, Bible studies, and upkeep and improvement of their church property rather than the truly important lifesaving and life-giving activities in their communities and among their family.

We need to be alert and on call at all times. Zechariah was on duty (Lk 1). He was in the temple offering incense to YHWH. He was not prepared, however, for the appearance of an angel beside the incense table. Nor was he ready for the startling news that Elizabeth would conceive and bear them a son in their old age. Because of t his, Zechariah was not allowed to speak until John’s birth. The shepherds, however, were attentive and on guard the night of Jesus birth (Lk 2). They were watching their flocks in the middle of the night. While they were not prepared for the angel’s appearance, they responded immediately in believe and wonder at the news of Messiah’s birth and ran to find the baby Jesus. They understood the true priorities and temporarily left the sheep to find the Good Shepherd and shared the news with others as they returned.

Not only are we warned to be on guard and to be ready for the master’s return. We are warned against him finding us asleep when he returns (v. 36). This reminds me of the Everly Brothers’ hit, “Wake Up, Little Susie.” While the melody is upbeat, the song recounts the horror and dread of a young couple who went to a Drive-In Theater and fell asleep watching a boring movie. They wake up several hours past their curfew and the song talks about what Susie’s parents will think as well as what rumors their friends might spread. The couple are never said to have done anything untoward, but falling asleep placed them in a compromising position! The Church needs to be careful not to fall asleep by focusing on the wrong things or just being lazy. This will give not only the Church and its members a bad reputation in the community. It will speak ill of Christ himself. Instead, we need to be busy with the tasks we have been assigned.

John tells us, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). So this Advent, as we live in hope for the return of Christ and anticipate the coming of the Christmas season, we need to observe the signs, we need to keep our eyes on the Son, and we need to watch and be ready.

“Watch and Be Ready!” (Mark 13:24-37)

Christmas Is Coming. Be Ready! Series