A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that those who believe in him may live.

That one piece of scripture may be the most well-known passage globally. Billboards, stickers, coffee mugs, T-shirts, signs at football games, tattoos. You name an object and John 3:16 has most likely been emblazoned on it.

But the verse just ahead of it harkens back to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness…

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.

Moses and the serpent stick, as I call it. Not a widely familiar story.

Have any of you as a kid gone on a long car trip? Or have you been the parent in the car for a long car trip? Maybe you have lovely memories of idyllic scenery, group singing and delicious snacks. I can recall some happy time spent the far far back of our station wagon, which had roughly more square feet than my first apartment. Lounging around on pillows with my feet in the air.

But mostly I would tell you that long car trips meant pain and suffering to me as a kid in which I complained for a good 90% of the trip. And I suppose as the Lord’s gift to my mother, this pattern repeated once I became the captain of family trips.

The Israelites were on the most miserable of long trips. A trip made more miserable because they had no idea where they were headed. At least at the end of our long trips there is the promise of a welcoming friend or family member, a clean bed. They had none of these certainties. And they were afraid. And they murmured. Their fear turned into anger, and they complained to the management, a lot.

There are five murmuring stories in Numbers. This is the last one of them. Prior to this the Israelites had spoken to the management about bitter water and the Lord instructed Moses about how to sweeten it. Then they were hungry, so the Lord sent down manna. But then they were thirsty again and God told Moses to strike a rock and they were provided with fresh water. But then they wanted meat, manna was boring. So, God sent quails to them.

Does this pattern feel familiar to any experiences you may have with children?

And just like my mother who had just about enough of me, God gets fed up with their complaining, really fed up. And he sends venomous snakes who bite them and if bitten, they die.

Then the people do something different. Something I certainly never did during the course of a car trip with my parents. They repent.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” And Moses graciously, and I really mean graciously because they have not been easy at all, prays for his people.

God tells him to make a bronze serpent and place it on a stick. When the people are bitten, if they look up at it they will live. And it worked.

I can’t make the part about God telling Moses to make something that seems a lot like an idol any less weird. It just is. Although it does not appear to be idolized here, it eventually had some kind of power ascribed to it. They carried that thing around for a long time. It was still in Jerusalem centuries later. The serpent stick appears in 2 Kings when Hezekiah demands it be destroyed.

But this odd story is precisely what John harkens back to in today’s Gospel.

Jesus in this passage is speaking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus, the Pharisee and leader, who comes to Jesus in the night trying to figure out just what is going on with Jesus. And before Nicodemus can even ask Jesus any questions Jesus just lets loose.

Have you ever been in a conversation, and you say one thing and then all of the sudden the person you are talking to starts in on a dissertation about something you have no idea what he’s talking about? That’s kind of what happens here to Nicodemus.

And what Jesus says to Nicodemus has been taken and, as I see it, has made into an idol, made into some kind of gatekeeping passage about who is in and who is out in the Kingdom of God. As if just gazing up at a John 3:16 billboard, as the snake bitten Israelites looked up at the serpent stick, will save us.

Whoever believes. Believing in Jesus is not a nice thing to just think about. Believing in Jesus means acting in the world as Jesus would have us act. Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into a life of belief in him. A life that although filled with hope can lead one straight out into the wilderness where things are hard and uncertain.

In the last few gospel readings this Lent believing in Jesus means…

  • not storing up treasures on earth
  • repenting because the kingdom of God has come near
  • picking up our cross and carrying it
  • Losing our lives for the sake of the gospel
  • flipping the tables, challenging those whose business exploits others

I don’t know about you, but I’ve not managed to do those things well in the last three weeks of Lent or for the other 51 years and some odd weeks of my life.

Believing in Jesus means that we are to do the things He told us to do…

  • Be as merciful as the Good Samaritan
  • Love our enemies
  • Forgive those who trespass against us
  • Give without expectation
  • If someone sues you for your shirt, throw in your jacket, too, without hesitation
  • Don’t worry about tomorrow
  • Reconcile, live in peace with one another
  • Humble ourselves and get down and wash the feet of others
  • Love others the way that Jesus loves us

These actions are BELIEVING in Jesus. These actions push back the darkness. These actions reveal the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Who among us lives each and every day in a way that reflects the wideness of his mercy and the wonders of his love? I mean really, fully. I myself spend a lot of time complaining to the management rather than living into Jesus’ way of love.

Nicodemus gets beaten up in lots of interpretations because he is cast as the bad guy who just can’t understand who Jesus is. He does not have a John 3:16 T-shirt or bumper sticker by the end of this conversation with Jesus. He goes away into the night.

Nicodemus does appear again in the Gospel of John. And his story deserves to be told every time he comes up in the lectionary. Because he is extraordinary. Nicodemus’ last appearance is at the foot of the cross.

At the foot of the cross where not one of the disciples who went around telling people to believe in Jesus are. Not one of them.

But Nicodemus is. He’s there and with Joseph of Arimathea he collects Jesus’s dead body and cares for him. They took down the body of Jesus and wrapped him in linen and laid him in the tomb.

Does Nicodemus fully understand who Jesus is at that point? Does it matter? Or does his belief lead him to act the way Jesus would want, with mercy, courage, and love?

But 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. 

For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Saved through him, by living as Jesus teaches us to live.

This is the invitation that Jesus gives to Nicodemus; this is the invitation Jesus gives to us.

We want to be disciples who follow Jesus, and we can be. But we can also be like the disciples who abandon Jesus at the cross.

We are also the Israelites in the desert, murmuring and able to return to God and repent because we are constantly in need of God’s grace.

I think we are called to be like Nicodemus too, ready to show up in mercy and courage and love even if maybe we don’t fully understand yet what being a believer means.

Lent is a time to remember to live like Jesus wants us to, not only with our lips but in our lives. To admit the ways our lives do not align with what believing in Jesus looks like. To admit our murmurings and recognize the inestimable grace that God offers to all of God’s creation. To look to the cross, lifted up, as our hope of new life and as our call to Love as Jesus loves.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that those who believe in him may live.

Amelia McDaniel