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Appearances to the Contrary

March 11, 2018
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Appearances to the Contrary
John 3:14-21

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is an amalgamation of our Old Testament and Gospel texts, but we’ll focus more heavily on John’s Gospel account, especially where he writes, [A]s 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.. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends.

If you don’t know the backstory of this more obscure pericope from the book of Numbers, the nation of Israel had been wandering the wilderness for years. They’re sick of the quail and manna – it sustains them, yes, but there’s no variety. They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. They are, in Moses’s own words, impatient. Never minding the inherent contradiction in their complaint – Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food – these people are speaking against God and Moses.

Such insolence, such ingratitude, such arrogance – here, the people have a theophany, a visible manifestation of YHWH, the Creator in their midst as the pillar of cloud and fire … and the people are groaning, complaining about how much better life would be without their God and their leader! Talk about biting the hand that feeds! So God shows them what life would be like without Him, by sending fiery serpents into their midst. These snakes start biting the people, and they start dying. Recognizing their transgression (and, undoubtedly, regretting it), the people cry out to Moses to intercede on their behalf before YHWH, to remove the serpents from among them. Moses does so, but instead of removing the snakes, God orders Moses to give the people the remedy: make a fiery serpent, a serpent of bronze, and set it on a pole.

This is the remedy – no miraculous removal of the serpents as the people wanted, no anti-venom to counteract the poison, no simple removal of the poison from the people’s bloodstreams. No, these things – which certainly would have been easy enough for YHWH to have accomplished by His mere Word – are not the means by which He would save His people from the just discipline He had bestowed upon them. A metal snake … up on a pole, and the promise that all who look upon it will live. THAT is how people would be saved. I can imagine, as I’m sure you can as well, the incredulity the people likely felt at this proposed remedy, as they lay dying, with deadly poisons pumping through their veins. “What do you mean, ‘That’s all I’ve got to do?! How in the world is this supposed to counteract the poisons?! It makes no sense! How can a metal snake on a pole do that?! How can these things be?!”

Well, that’s the thing. Normally, a bronze snake would be just that – a bronze snake. But God used the form of the very thing that was killing His people, elevated in their midst so that all could see, and worked through those means to restore His people to life. Yup, all one had to do was look upon that elevated fiery serpent and they would be cured. They would be saved. Incredulous? You bet. But it did what God said it would do. Though it makes no logical sense, YHWH’s promise held true, and all who gazed upon that God-approved image … who believed the YHWH’s promise spoken by Moses … survived the lethal consequence of their rebellion.

Fast forward about one-and-a-half millennia, and we find echoes of that story in our Gospel lesson. Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who nevertheless recognized Jesus as something extraordinary. Prior to our reading,  you hear him telling Jesus as much, saying things like He’s a great teacher sent from God, and that He wouldn’t be able to do such miracles and things were God not with Him. Jesus responds to this flattery with a similarly incredulous claim: unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. A logically ridiculous notion, Nicodemus asks how someone can be born again – unpleasant as the thought is, if taken literally! But no, Jesus clarifies, He’s not talking about physically being born again; instead He says, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Here, Nicodemus actually asks the question likely raised by the ancient Israelites centuries prior with regard to God’s slithering cure: How can these things be?

Now we come to our text, which acts as the crux between these two incredible life-giving prescriptions. Jesus brings up this very text from Exodus in His conversation with Nicodemus. And 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. “This is Me,” Jesus is saying, “Moses is talking about Me.” Moses formed a snake to be the remedy for the poison of snakes. That snake was put on a pole, suspended between heaven and earth for all to see, and all that looked upon it, those who believed in the promise YHWH had given, would be cured of the deadly toxins flowing in their blood. In order to remove the scourge of sin and death, the Son of Man must become sin … and die. He must also be lifted up, suspended between heaven and earth, not on a pole, but on the simple yet cruel torture machine known as a cross. All who look upon Him … those who listen to and believe His Word, may have eternal life.

Though Jesus, at this point in John’s Gospel, is still a long way from turning His face toward Jerusalem and the cross – make no mistake, He knows what’s coming. He knows the way by which He will make everlasting life available for all people. He knows the travail, temptation, trial, torture, tribulation, and termination that awaits Him. And yet, the Lamb of God goes uncomplaining forth. He presses onward, toward the atonement He will make through His broken Body and shed Blood.

Why would He do this? Why would the Son of Man offer Himself as a bloodied, holy sacrifice on behalf all of the complaining whining sinners who, by their base nature, hate Him? The answer is found in those illustrious words which we all have, undoubtedly, heard at least once in our lives, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God is doing it because He loves the whole world. He’s doing it because, in spite of our wretched, miserable, sinful and spiteful lives, He loves us. So much so, in fact, that He held nothing back, wagering His only-begotten Son to see this mission accomplished. He doesn’t want to destroy anyone. He didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but rather to save it through His work.

This is a faith thing, my friends. This is what true belief looks like. Unreasonable, illogical, or unfair as it may seem, looking upon the bronze snake did, in fact, heal those Israelites of the snake venom. Being born again of simple water and a proclaimed Word of God does, in fact, justify you before Almighty God. You might think, “Well, I don’t feel like I’m saved. I don’t feel like I’m worthy of eternal life. I’m still a lousy, rotten, no-good, stinkin’ sinner; it doesn’t look like my sins are removed from me as far as the east is from the west!” Well, that’s the point. They’re removed from you, from outside of you, because God is doing it to you. The bronze snake didn’t seem like it would heal you, but it did. Jesus has healed you … has made atonement for you … has forgiven you, even though it doesn’t feel like it. All appearances to the contrary, you are fully justified before God, and you can trust in His promise to give you eternal life for the sake of Jesus and His sacrifice.

+ In His holy and precious Name. + Amen.