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4th Sunday in Lent, 03/11/2018

Sermon on John 3:14-21, by Ryan Mills

A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-2, by The Rev. Dr. Ryan D. Mills


[Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.   16“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.   17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” –John 3:14-21, NRSV.


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

            Well welcome to Trinity Lutheran Church on this fourth Sunday in Lent, which also falls on the Connecticut high-holy day of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, that Patron Saint of Ireland whom the Church remembers on the calendar this Saturday. Someone sent me a card this week with a picture of St. Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland. St. Patrick was there, all properly dressed in his bishop’s vestments, but in the driver’s seat of a car, and in the back seats were a bunch of snakes, complaining, “He hit me,” “I’m thirsty,” and “Are we there yet?” Driving the Snakes out of Ireland!

            Today in our first lesson we hear the account of the Israelites on an even more uncomfortable journey, wandering in the desert for forty years, led by the Lord God and his servant Moses, towards the freedom of the promised land. And along the way the people in the back seat started to become impatient, they begin to grumble and complain against the Lord and against their leaders--good thing this type of thing is just ancient history and would never happen in the Church today! They complain: “Why did you bring us out here to the desert? There’s no food, no water, and we detest this miserable food!” God brought them out to the desert to free them from slavery and death--they seem to have forgotten that part—and God has fed them with manna, bread from heaven, and quail meat, and sweet water from the rock, and whatever they needed. Sometimes we demand champagne and filet mignon when God is faithfully serving up meat and potatoes. But then as they lift up their complaints, something terrible happens—what Martin Luther called the Deus Nudus, the “Unclothed God” goes on a rampage. This is not the controlled, domesticated, milquetoast God who never offends anybody. This is not the God who fits comfortably into one hour per week, whom we can keep on the back burner of our lives and do what we want against him and who will just keep taking it. This God has bad manners, this God is the one who made the heavens and the earth, this God is on a mission to get his people to freedom, life, and salvation, and he won’t stop for anything, not even our complaining, so the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, we’re told, so that many were bitten and many died. “You don’t like what’s for dinner, how ‘bout this instead!”

            The people quickly repent, there’s nothing like an urgent need or disaster to bring us quickly back to prayer, and even though he may not have wanted too, Moses prays for them too. And then in this strange little twist in the story, God says, “make a statue of a poisonous snake, and put it up on a pole, and everyone who is bitten and looks at it shall live.” Moses did what was commanded, even though the very 1st Commandment says don’t make any idols like this, Moses still raised up a bronze serpent, and whoever looked at it would live. Those of you who are in medicine will know the caduceus, the snakes on a pole with wings, the ancient symbol of healing. One of our members who worked at Yale New Haven Hospital told me this week that even the hospital logo is supposed to be reminiscent of a snake on a pole, it’s there if you look closely, but not too clear, after all who wants to look at a snake to be healed?

            A couple of years ago, our son John and I were outside in the grass, when he picked something up and held it up to me—a snake—dead, but still a long and scaly garter snake, its eyes still black and glassy. You wanted to look more closely, even though it kind of made you shudder and look away and the hairs go up on the back of your neck. For Christians, “to look upon the snake” is to look at the image of our sin, to see what we have done, like a mirror it shows us ourselves, we who since our first parents were tempted by that old serpent of the devil have all been bitten, with that poison of unbelief in us, of un-love, of hardness of heart towards one another, that venom is in us. And so to look at the snake shows us the consequences of our sin. Relationships broken. Spirits wounded. Families torn apart. Communities aching. Souls sick. A world at war. But, God promised to Eve, “One day one your children will crush that old snake’s head, one of your sons will crush the evil one. And the one who looks upon the serpent will be healed.”

            Jesus knew this story, the story of raising up the bronze snake. And today, in perhaps the most famous verse of the Bible, he picks up the story from there. John 3:16, the gospel in a nutshell. But look at the verse before it, John 3:15, “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.” God set up the bronze serpent to reveal sin’s consequences AND to show his mercy, to take the crushing blow of sin AND to grant healing and life, and now Jesus says, the Son of Man, he himself, Jesus Christ must be lifted up on a pole too, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

            For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

            For God, the greatest subject ever, in the greatest act of the greatest affection—love--ever, so loved the greatest object ever, this whole world, that he gave his greatest most precious self, his own most precious Son, so that the greatest number ever—everyone—who in the greatest gift of trust ever --believe in him may be saved from the greatest danger ever—perishing—and instead have the greatest reality ever—everlasting life.

            See, on the Cross God has raised up his Son. And there on the Cross we see the consequence of our sin, we see that he died because of me and you, because of this world, but as we look upon him, as we are overwhelmed by his love, as we are flooded by his amazing grace, as he takes our unbelief and absorbs it into his Cross, well then we find the venom in us flowing out, we find on the Cross the anti-venom for our sins, we come in faith to see that yes, God did so love the world, he did so love me, that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever--even me, even me who has just a mustard seed of faith in him—whosever believes in him including me, shall not perish, but have eternal life.

            See, Christ takes into himself the venom, so that we might get the anti-venom. He is crushed, so that the old serpent will be crushed. He takes the sickness, so that we might get the cure. He knows the bitterness, so that we receive the sweetness. He goes to death, so that you and I shall live.

            We were dead in our trespasses, Ephesians tells us today, stuck in our poisoned flesh, sick with ourselves, but God who is rich in mercy, even while we were still dead has made us alive with Christ, by grace you have been saved, and this is not your own doing, this is the gift of God. The gift of God, who loves you, and gave himself for you, gave his only Son so that you would not perish, but have eternal life.  

            So come now, and gaze upon the Cross, gaze upon the serpent, and see and admit the consequences of your sin-- come now and gaze upon the Cross, gaze upon the serpent in faith, and you will be healed, you will be saved, you will be forgiven, you will live. Take into your hands, the only Son, who gave himself for you, and find yourself made his son, his daughter. Take that medicine, that anti-venom, take that cure into yourself, and you shall live. Taste his bitterness, which makes you sweet. Taste his suffering, which makes you whole. Taste his death, that makes you live.

            For God so loved the world, for God so loved you, that he gave his only Son…so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

            And the Peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Ryan Mills
New Haven, Conneticut, USA
E-Mail: Pastor@TrinityLutheranNH.org