Lent 4 2018
Today’s gospel is the final verses of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus and it comes right before the Samaritan woman at the well. The lesson itself is a recasting of our Old Testament lesson for today, Numbers 21:4-9, that talks about God telling Moses to make a bronze image of a snake to put it on a pole and when the people are bitten they shall look at it and live.
In Numbers you have the problem of poisonous snakes on the ground, the cure is to put up a serpent on a pole. In our lesson from John 3 the problem is a poisoned humanity living together badly and the answer is to lift up Jesus on the cross. I think that at the simplest level, this lesson is telling us that there is a problem with us and that Jesus on the cross is the solution.
So if we are collectively and individually the problem, what is that problem? If we are the problem we can’t be the solution. The solution has to come from the outside to change us.
Any power that the bronze serpent had for the Israelites came out of the Israelites. In looking at the bronze serpent it was the gaze of the people that gave the bronze idol its power not the other way around. It was mind over matter.
The cross overpowers whatever we might think it is because it is so saturated with meaning that it overwhelms us with our sharing common guilt for the death of the son of God.
Jesus as the living forgiving victim of our sin so overwhelms us that he changes us. He leads us by his forgiveness to transcend ourselves and as he gives us his faith he allows us to see his Father instead of a dead bronze god. He makes possible real confession.
Most often our confession goes like this. I am bad because of my deeds. The problem is that I have lied, so I had better stop lying. I said something cruel; so, I must stop that and say kind things. Whenever the problem is defined as doing something bad the solution is to stop doing the bad deed or to start doing good deeds. Salvation becomes nothing more than doing the good and avoiding the bad. This solution doesn’t even need Jesus; he is in this scheme just a static role model, something like the bronze serpent. This way of seeing the problem avoids facing that we are bad, not that we just do bad things.
The Numbers lesson doesn’t say that the snakes stopped biting the people. It says that God provided a way for the people bitten to continue to live. In John 3, the lifting up of Jesus on the cross doesn’t stop our sinfulness, but God provides a way for people who are sinners to experience the presence of God in their lives now.
Luther taught that since there is no avoiding sin that we must trust in the faith of Christ to cover our sin so that we can continue to live. Luther expresses this when he taught that we are “simultaneously justified and a sinner.”
We live in a sinful world and consequently we will sin. But God is the justifier of sinners. His relationship with us is dynamic. He comes to us and makes us different. Because we are different we can relate to him in a new way. The new person sees Jesus differently and this two step process becomes a rising spiral of grace. Grace is what we call the undeserved love from God. Only in this way can we be set free from anxiety and guilt so that we can become the men and women God made us to be.
After meeting Jesus Nicodemus was dramatically changed. Meeting Jesus makes you different. When you look at a bronze serpent you are giving the power to the serpent, when you look at Jesus he makes you different.
Nicodemus was the upright leader of the Jews. Later he sat as a judge in the trial of Jesus where he advocated giving Jesus a fair trial. Nicodemus along with Joseph of Arimathea were the two men who wrapped Jesus in burial cloths and laid him in his tomb. (Jn. 19) Before meeting Jesus, Nicodemus had the Jewish Law on his pole. When he met Jesus he walked away from his idol and became focused on the true God.
Nicodemus stopped looking at the Law as his bronze serpent. When he spoke up for Jesus at his trial and said that it should be a fair trial, that was the beginning of his end. In going with Joseph to take Jesus’ body and burry it he switched what was on the top of his pole from the law to Jesus.
What is on the top of your pole, what makes you, you? Whoever and or whatever is on that pole tells you who you are and you will slavishly conform to the wants and desires of whatever holds that place in your life.
That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Being “born from above” means that Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and in this new matrix he makes it possible to relate to one another as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a power that can overwhelm us.
It is an experience that makes it possible for us to live as children of Jesus’ father. Looking at Jesus on the pole of his cross allows us to see truth among the lies and God’s grace even in the midst of our sin. On the cross God draws us all to himself, he offers to make us authentic every time we look up to his Son, our Lord Jesus on his cross.
1. What did the serpent on the pole do for the Israelites?
2. How did the change occur in Nicodemus?
3. How does having the faith of Jesus give us life in his new Kingdom?