Monday, March 23, 2009

Lent 4 Sermon -- John 3:14-21 (LSB Lent 4B)

March 22, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

[Jesus said]: “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.”

Serpents have caused great problems for mankind. It was so in the beginning and is now, but it never shall be world without end. For the promise has been given to mankind: “[The Christ] shall bruise [the Serpent’s] head, and [the Serpent] shall strike [the Christ’s] heel.” The fiery serpents near Mount Hor struck the heels of the Israelites, bringing death with their mouths, just as the Serpent had spoken the death-causing lie to Eve. But in the Garden and in the wilderness, there was no one to crush the heads of those serpents.

You heard that “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” The event near Mount Hor was divine punishment for the unbelief of the Lord God’s people. Though the Lord God had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and had provided for their welfare during their journey: “The people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses.” They had rejected the providence of God and His acts of deliverance.

For such people, there is nothing but death. The source of life has been rejected and human wisdom has been substituted for divine will. And when the Israelites realized that, they recognized their guilt: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He may take away the serpents from us.” The Israelites’ despair had turned them back in penitence to the One who was their Deliverer and Provider.

It was not the Lord God’s will to kill all the Israelites in the wilderness. He had made a promise, a covenant with them, one that He wished to keep, even as His people were not faithful. The Lord God hears what His people say in repentance. And to them He provides a remedy for what afflicts them. In the wilderness, the Lord God does not provide something to crush the serpents striking the Israelites, but He does give them a remedy that removes the serpents’ venom: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’” Life is given in the midst of human death: “So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

The solution was given for the problem the Israelites faced. Believing in the Lord God’s promise, they could look at the statue and live. Once again, the Israelites were restored. They heard what the Lord God said and saw what He did, and this time they did not grumble and complain. They did not speak out against Moses and the Lord God, but believed and trusted them. And through faith, they were saved. As they believed, they looked to the ensign of salvation and received it.

But what of those who continue to be bitten by serpents, and not the earthly kind? What of those who suffer the poisonous effects of sin and evil, the venom of Satan’s lies and their own depravity? To whom do they turn? Where can they look to be saved? You suffer like the Israelites in the wilderness. You are struck by sin, death, and Satan. Your afflictions may be the result of your grumbling and complaining, your speaking against the Lord God. Other times, it is the result of your unbelief, your rejection of the providence of God and His acts of redemption. And still other times, it is simply the random snakebite, the unexplained affliction that happens in this off-kilter and chaotic cosmos.

St. Paul mentioned the situation of people’s nature as it really is: “You were dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” The description is comprehensive. Paul’s words detail the venom of sin that courses through mankind, through all people who are bitten by the Serpent.

So to whom do these people—do you—turn for aid? What has been set up for you to look at? That is what Jesus tells you: “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.” Jesus identifies Himself as the ensign of salvation. Those stricken by sin, victims of Satan’s venom, are to look to Him who was lifted on a pole, and there they will find forgiveness and redemption.

The Bronze Serpent remedied the problem that the wilderness serpents caused the Israelites. But Jesus says that He is the solution to the universal problem that the Serpent brought into the world beginning at Eden. Jesus is the promised Serpent-Crusher, the One who brings righteousness to those who lacked it and life to those who were destined for condemnation and death. Jesus acts like that statue in the wilderness, but what He brings to effect is of much greater benefit. It is not simply a temporal aid, but an eternal one.

John explains this eternal benefit that Jesus brings. Many of you know these words so well: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 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.” There is ample reason for the Lord God to condemn the world, just as there was to kill all the Israelites. But in mercy, the Lord God acts in a much different way, bringing salvation to a dying, poisoned cosmos.

And just how is this done? By the “lifting up” of Jesus to be the ensign of salvation for the world. And that “lifting up” is not done in glory, but through the brute, crass actions of Roman auxiliaries and through the duplicitous conspiracy of the Sanhedrin. Crucifixion of Jesus brings the way to salvation for those who have been victimized by Satan, by sin, by their own depravity. For in this way, the Serpent is crushed, so that his poison flows out without the ability to eternally harm. The foot of cross lands solidly on the Serpent’s head.

This is what the Church has confessed for centuries in the Lenten liturgy: “On the tree of the cross You gave salvation to mankind that, whence death arose, thence life also might rise again and that he who by a tree once overcame likewise by a tree might be overcome, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Life comes to you poisoned people, an eternal antidote produced from the fruit of the tree of the cross. For as the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection are dispensed to you through Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Word, and Holy Supper, the venom of sin is counteracted and you are revived.

Then like the Israelites, you are led on pilgrimage to the Promised Land. And on that pilgrimage, you are given that remedy for sin again and again in this wilderness of the world. On that path of life that you walk, following the way of the cross, you also are given great things to do. St. Paul reminds all believers: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Christ’s death brings you the benefit of eternal life. But until you fully receive it at the Last Day, the Lord God also gives you ways to manifest His life that is in you. This you do by your actions that the Holy Spirit leads you to do.

So then the truth of your salvation is seen. The light of Christ shines in you and through you. For you no longer are destined for death. You no longer have reason to complain or speak out against the Lord God. He has delivered life to you and set you on a path to Paradise. There was ample reason for your condemnation, but the Lord God waives it since His Son has removed your guilt, crushed your Accuser, and has given you the newness of life. His will for you has been carried out. And the expression of your new life is shown through what you do in truth, the works you carry out in God, walking in the perfection and righteousness He has given you.

Serpents have been a problem for mankind. With good reason you fear their venom. But the Ancient Serpent, the one who leads people to eternal death, has been crushed. And you have been provided salvation as you look to Him who was lifted up to give you life. “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.” It had to be that way, so that you who were poisoned by sin may life. And so what had been promised for us men and for our salvation has been done by Jesus.

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

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