The Fourth Sunday of Lent

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“Sign of Judgment/Sign of Salvation”

John 3:14-21

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

The world is a wilderness, and its beauty makes it all the more deceptive.  The world is a Babylon, and the temptation to confuse its vacant promises with the wealth of the City of God makes it all the more dangerous.  We look around and say, What wilderness?  This world, filled with all the luxuries of civilization?  This area, with all these nice people?  This country, with good food and filtered water and comfortable shelter?  We can handle this sort of wilderness; and we do, quite well.  In the wilderness between slavery and the Land of Promise, the Israelites “spoke against God and against Moses, ‘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'” (Numbers 21:5, ESV).  But at least they could see things as they were.  They knew, at least, that they were in the wilderness, even if they forgot that paradise lay ahead.  But we are too blind even to complain!  We see the wilderness as paradise, and act like the oasis is a desert.  We revel in the dry and the dusty, forsaking the water of life.  We check in at our leisure and engage God in some casual conversation.  We go on with our days as if we were not dying of thirst.  As if we were not dying of a poison that takes on the flavor, the smell, the texture of the things in which it is found.  Sin, in itself, has no taste.  It has no scent.  It has no substance.  It is always the distortion or the perversion of one of God’s good gifts.  Satan is clever and crafty and experienced; but what he is not is original.  His work is the ultimate derivative, the ultimate generic copy.  Watch many of the shows on television, many of the movies being made, and what you notice is how repetitive the depictions of sin become.  How does this adultery differ from that adultery?  How is this murder any different from that murder?  You don’t even have to see the movies; just watch the previews: it all blends together into one gray, uncreative mass of moral boredom.  But what each piece of soothing, Satanic propaganda has in common is death; it is either a picture of a slow dying, or an attempt to forget that death is inescapable-why do you think that Hollywood celebrates the young and beautiful?  But death follows as inevitably for us as it did for the Israelites who were bitten.  Maybe those who died were pretending that it was only a momentary affliction, and not actually the consequences of their sin leading to death.  Maybe they tried to die with dignity, rather than recognizing the truth of their sin.  And anyway, no one dies with dignity.  But some of them saw the truth and confessed to Moses: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against [Yahweh] and against you.  Pray to [Yahweh], that he take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7, ESV).  God did not take away the serpents, but He provided salvation from their venom.  The bronze serpent, the sign of sin and death, was raised in their wilderness, and as many as trusted the Word of God and looked at the sign were saved.

So: do you see what is happening here?  Do you see death taking its toll, picking off its victims one by one?  Do you see the poison of sin spreading through the world, more contagious than any epidemic, more addictive than any drug?  Because the serpents are everywhere, and their bite causes a sickness unto death.  The problem for us is that we cannot avoid the fangs of this snake; we were bitten a long time ago.  The dying has already started; the venom is flowing.  The only question now is what to do about it.  But that question, too, has already been answered.  It has been answered by the God who created this cosmos, this world.  And the startling thing about the answer of God is that the cosmos to which God sent His Son is the cosmos which is everywhere against Him.  This world hates the Light of God.  Though it was our rebellion that got us here in the first place, our rebellion that turned the Garden of this world into a wilderness, we have the audacity to blame God when things don’t go our way.  But God’s love is bigger than the world that hates Him; bigger, even, than your sin and mine.  What is this love?  Usually we hear John 3:16 as “For God really loved the world, and to prove it, He gave His Son.”  But what Jesus says is: “This is how God loved the world: He gave the only Son, so that everyone who is believing in him would not die but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Jesus is not one example among many, even the best example, of God’s love; no, this is God’s love: the Son taking flesh and being lifted up on a cross for everyone in this wilderness to see and believe.  According to the saving will of God: “It is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up” (John 3:14).  And like the serpent that Moses put on the pole, the sign of the cross, raised up in the wilderness, is, first of all, a sign of judgment.  It is a sign of the judgment that belongs to us, since it was our sin that required its raising.  It is a violent sign, a sign covered in blood and sweat and the stench of death.  When we see the sign, we should see that ancient Serpent, whose bite we willingly accepted, whose poison flows in our veins even now.  But as soon as the people believed the Word of God through Moses, they looked at the sign of judgment and it became a sign of salvation.  So it is for us.  It is the blessed gift of faith that sees the heart, the fullness, of God’s love and salvation in the sign of His judgment.  Unshakeable trust in an unshakeable promise; holding to the crucified Christ in the wilderness of this world.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, ESV).  It is only those who encounter Christ on the cross and reject Him who give evidence that they have already been condemned.  It is only those who encounter Christ without faith who find in the cross a sign of judgment, rather than the sign of salvation God intends.  There is no in-between: it is death or life.  This is death, to reject the crucified Son.  This is Life, to trust Him.  This is how God loves the world, by turning the sign of judgment on sin and sinners into the very means by which He saves those sinners.  So God turns the instrument of execution into the fountain of forgiveness.  God turned the flood of judgment into salvation for Noah and his family; He turned the Red Sea of judgment into dry ground for Israel.  He turns broken Body and shed Blood into the food and drink of Resurrection.  God turns death into life and barren wilderness into a fruitful garden.  That is the way of your God.  His will for you and for every person is salvation, not judgment; life, not death.  You have life, because you are in Him who is Life; eternal life is to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3).  “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24, ESV).

As we “fix our eyes on Jesus,” as we look to the sign of salvation, Christ on the cross, we see that we have this eternal life in the midst of death.  We travel toward the Land of Promise through snake-infested wilderness; we live a Lenten life while we wait for the Resurrection.  And so Jesus has told us: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…[Y]ou have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20, 22, ESV).  In this very wilderness we are nourished by the Son who Himself lived and died here.  Each week we come to this oasis to be refreshed for our wilderness wanderings.  Each day we live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  “Thus says [Yahweh]: ‘The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, [Yahweh] appeared to him from far away.  I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. … For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish” (Jeremiah 31:2-3, 25, ESV).  Thus God sustains you in Babylon; thus you live by grace in this wilderness, until you enter the City of God and die no more.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/17/09

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