Second Sunday in Lent

TEXT:  John 3:1-17

“And 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.” (John 3:14-15)

“John, three, sixteen.” Even if you’ve never actually read the Bible, chances are you know that verse by heart, probably in King James English: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

And I suppose that, if you were only ever going to memorize one Bible verse, that’s a pretty good one. Martin Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” because it expresses the core of the Christian message, summarizing what God did for us in Christ.

However, there are more than 16 verses in this morning’s gospel. And they tell quite a story. They tell us about Nicodemus, the Pharisee who believed in Jesus. They contain Jesus’ cryptic remark about being “born from above.” And in verse 14, we hear these puzzling words:  “And 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” (John 3:14-15).

Did you catch that reference? It’s from the Book of Numbers, chapter 21. In this Old Testament story, the children of Israel are in the Sinai desert, half-heartedly following Moses on the 40-year-long journey to their new home in Canaan.

They are following half-heartedly because after all this time they have begun to lose confidence in their leaders. By now, they’re wondering whether there is such a “promised land” at all. Moses’ motley crew of former slaves has begun to “murmur.”

In other words, they are complaining. They’re bellyaching. They’re fed up with the hardships of the desert. They’re sick of manna and quail.

But then, things get much worse. Somewhere out in this seemingly God-forsaken desert, there is a plague of “fiery serpents”—poisonous snakes—which attack the Israelites, so that many people die.

Moses prays for the people, and—in response—the Lord tells him to fashion a serpent out of bronze and place it high upon a pole; “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8).

Strange as it sounds, it worked. Those who had been bitten gazed at the bronze serpent that Moses had made, and they were healed. It was a miracle.

End of story? Well … actually … not! Leaping ahead some 500 years, we hear about this bronze serpent once again, in the 18th chapter of the Second Book of Kings.

By now, the people have been settled for many generations in the Promised Land, where they had decided they wanted to have kings like other nations did. So, they got them. Now, many of those kings were faithless and corrupt—but one king came along who was different. His name was Hezekiah, and he set about cleaning things up. Cleaning up the government. Just like modern politicians promise to do—except better. (Probably … a lot better.)

In fact, the Bible tells us that—among the many great things Hezekiah did—“He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole.”

What he did was destroy the pagan worship places—abominations which had cropped up all over the country. But listen to this:  “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it …” (2 Kings 18:4).

Do you see what had happened? Five centuries after Moses had made the bronze serpent as an instrument of healing, they still had it!

But they had turned it into an idol. What had once been a means to an end had become an end in itself. Instead of pointing toward the God who had ordered it made, it now pointed toward itself; and the people worshipped the serpent instead of the Lord. But good King Hezekiah put an end to all that.

These two Old Testament passages about the bronze serpent point out something important. What had been helpful and healing in one era had become an idol in another.

You know, I can’t help but wonder:  how many things are there, in the life of our church, which—even though they used to be helpful and healing—have now outlived their usefulness? How many old traditions have we turned into idols?

As somebody said:  “Tradition is the living faith of dead people. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.”

But, I digress. We haven’t heard the last of the bronze serpent.

Even after good King Hezekiah smashed the idol, the original idea behind the symbol—and faith in the God who had it fashioned—survived. It was still alive in the memory of Scripture hundreds of years later, when a man called Nicodemus, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus under cover of night. Nicodemus, evidently, was a genuine seeker after faith, and he had urgent and searching questions to ask Jesus.

“Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

With these words of Nicodemus, a door is opened—and Jesus steps right through it.

“You must be born from above,” Jesus says; but Nicodemus is confounded. Because the Hebrew can be taken either way, Nicodemus thinks Jesus has said, “You must be born again.” And so he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (John 3:4) 

We see that Nicodemus is almost as much of a literalist as some of us are. Jesus is not, of course, speaking about physical birth at all. Rather, he is trying to lift the eyes of this religious leader to take in higher things, so that he might begin to see his life from a different spiritual perspective. You must be born from above!

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he “must be born of water and spirit.” Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! There’s more to life than you know about.

Then Jesus lays it on him. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.”

There it is! The bronze serpent has reappeared in Scripture—right here in John’s gospel. That old bronze serpent fashioned by Moses is raised up again, some 700 years after Hezekiah broke it to pieces. It is raised in this conversation between the Lord and the Pharisee.

Jesus’ point is not that a snake on a pole can heal you. But he is saying that—just as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to heal—so also must Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, be lifted up on a cross to save. You gotta lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! You must be born from above. You must step into the amazing world of the Spirit. And if nothing else will lift up your eyes and your heart … then the sight of Jesus will.

This meandering story of a snake on a pole has taken us quite a distance: from the desert wanderings of Moses’ rag-tag band, through a time of idolatry and reform, all the way to Calvary’s hill. And there, upon that hill, we lift up our eyes to see the one who saves us—and who gives us abundant life.

The bronze serpent has led us to that favorite verse, that “gospel in a nutshell”:  “For 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.”

And then, we hear this great, final word:  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Maybe you’ve been coming to church all your life. Maybe you’re a newcomer to faith. Maybe you’re a seeker like Nicodemus, checking Jesus out under the cover of night. Whoever you are, remember this: he did not come to condemn you—but rather, to save you and give you life.

Lift up your eyes. Lift up your hearts. And be exceeding glad. For God still loves the world. Amen.

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