He became sin. . .
The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Lent 4B Sermon – 8am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
Scripture Text: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
I love it when I have the chance to preach
on the third chapter of John.
I mean, actually it's kind of daunting,
because this is the place where possibly the most famous
bible verse takes center stage.
I guess it would be like a music teacher,
trying to find something new to say about Beethoven's 5th,
or an art teacher trying to find something interesting
to say about the Mona Lisa.
I mean, John 3:16 is made famous,
at just about every televised football game,
by someone dressed to attract the cameras.
However could I improve on a guy with a rainbow wig,
with John 3:16 painted in blue on his naked belly?
The good news is, God's word is a living word,
and I have found that there is always some different
way that a passage strikes believers,
when we're open to hearing what God wants to draw out of it,
even in looking at the third chapter of John,
God comes to us in a fresh way in our relationship with Him.
One might say God is able to enlighten us about Himself,
just as Jesus enlightened Nicodemus about Himself,
when Nicodemus came to him in the night.
First let me draw the connection for you
that Jesus made,
Nicodemus would have been very familiar with the story
of the Israelites in the desert.
But many of us are not, which is why we
have the reading from Numbers
as our Old Testament passage today.
Remember, when God spoke to them from the mountain,
shortly after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt,
the Israelites were too afraid of God's presence,
and asked God to speak to them through Moses
from then onwards.
Later in the desert, when things weren't moving
quickly enough, and they got impatient,
they began to complain to Moses and God,
essentially forgetting what God had already done for them,
and rejecting both Moses and God.
So when poisonous snakes came among them,
they recognized their error,
and asked Moses to resume his place for them
and ask God to remove the penalty.
The Lord tells Moses to make a serpent on a pole,
and promises that people who look on it will live.
People who were bitten by the snakes,
by looking at the serpent on the pole,
would not die of the poison.
So Jesus tells Nicodemus,
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.”
Many of the early church fathers, and many since then,
see the story of moses lifting up the snake
as a sort of prophetic act
as well as a merciful act of God.
Because the serpent reminded people of sin, of their sin,
and the first sin in the garden.
And on the cross Jesus took our sin upon himself,
essentially, and as the scripture says,
he became sin, he became like the serpent,
he took on the penalty of a criminal,
so that looking to him, we might be freed from our sin.
So this old, old story, of the people of Israel,
takes on new meaning,
the deeper meaning it was always supposed to have,
when Jesus enlightens it with the connection to
his being lifted up on the cross.
God's people in the desert were not saved because the snake on the pole was some sort of magic wand or idol.
In the book of Wisdom we have a midrash (a teaching)
about this episode in the desert.1
It says “the one who turned towards it was saved,
not by the thing that was beheld,
but by you, the savior of all.” (Wisdom 16:7)
Likewise, when we see a crucifix we are not saved
by the symbol, but are reminded of God's saving work for us,
and those who turn to it, who turn their lives to Him,
recognize the significance of that work and are freed,
from the penalty of our own rebellion.
But there's another new connection, that a member of our women's bible study taught me this week,
maybe it's not new, but it was new to me.
She said, that if the serpent in the desert symbolized sin,
then the salvation from the poison also came
through the action of lifting up their sins before God.
And that is what we do during this penitential season,
we lift up our sins before God,
recognizing both the penalty we deserve,
and even more giving thanks for his mercy,
in freeing us from that penalty.
The important thing for the Israelites was that those
who looked at the serpent that Moses had made,
knew what they were looking at.
It was a representation that Moses was there for them,
that he indeed went to God,
and received a promise in a symbol,
that the people would be spared.
The important thing for those looking to Jesus as well,
is to know what they are looking at.
Jesus, lifted up on the cross,
is not just some great teacher,
not just another religious leader,
is not just some miracle worker,
who was killed when things did not work out.
He is the only son of God,
become one of us,
living and dying as one of us,
taking our sins upon himself,
to bring us back to right relationship with God.
“He became sin,
who knew no sin,
that we might become His righteousness.”
So we too need to know what we're looking at,
when we look to Jesus lifted up on the cross.
It's like Jesus is saying,
remember what Moses did to save the people
in the desert? I'm here to offer my self in an even greater way.
But we also need to know who we're looking at,
in a deeper sense.
I would say that we need to know him
in a Biblical sense,
but that has a connotation I do not want to make.
I mean we need to know him in a relationship with him.
The belief that Jesus is talking about,
the saving belief,
is not just believing that he is the son of God,
for we hear in other passages that even the demons,
those very much opposed to Jesus, believed in him
in that way.
This saving belief, is about putting our trust in Him,
leading our lives for His sake rather than for our own.
And finding the freedom that gives us.
And yet, this is a very challenging balance to make,
one that Catholics and Protestants
have argued over for hundreds of years.
This faith in him is not our own work,
or because of our action,
but it's accepting the relationship that he freely offers us.
That's what Paul means when he tells the Ephesians,
“for by grace you have been saved, through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Our knowledge and understanding of God,
our relationship with him
grows and evolves throughout
our lives, that is, it will, if we but turn to him.
Just as the understanding of God has evolved,
among the people of God
as described in the progression
through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Jesus wants to bring us more and more out of the darkness
and into the light,
and to reveal more and more of himself to us
in that relationship.
Remember, God wanted to be in relationship with His people,
directly after he rescued them from Egypt.
But they were too terrified
and asked God to relate to them through Moses.
Later God relates to his people through Judges,
Kings and Prophets,
but always desiring that personal relationship.
And then he came among us as one of us,
it seems God was hoping that if he became one of us,
we wouldn't be too terrified
to be in direct relationship with Him.
But while Jesus came into the world to bring light
to God's desire for us,
and to reveal to us what God really wants,
people were still afraid,
maybe they were afraid that their wrong-doing,
and wrong-thinking would betray them,
if they were brought into the bright light of God's truth.
Jesus says “people loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were evil.”
So maybe this fear of relationship with God is not just because of his greatness over us,
but because of his holiness,
and his intolerance of evil,
and our awareness that we are not quite right.
Jesus, in his desire for relationship with us,
frees us from that fear,
for we are reassured
that he comes for our sake,
and that the light will only reveal that we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God.
We don't need to shirk around in the darkness,
afraid that if our true selves our revealed,
then we would not be acceptable,
but trust in Jesus, have faith,
that he intends to right all that is wrong with us.
The enemy is still at work,
trying to make us afraid,
for the enemy is one who has seen the light,
and rejected it.
He is the one who is condemned,
and we do not need to be,
in “Christ there is no condemnation”
so we don't need to be afraid of condemnation.
Take a look at it this way,
look what people do in the darkness,
all kinds of bad things,
these days the internet with its perceived anonymity
is a place of darkness for some people,
and they go around on there engaging in all kinds of
hateful or perverted behavior.
We hear in the news occasionally about people
whose hidden lives are discovered
by people online.
Yet there are people there as well
who are walking in the light
as well, using the internet for good,
for spreading goodness and love among people,
for sharing the truth, and bringing understanding to others.
Usually they are out there with who they are,
and their intention is good.
People can see, that their deeds are done
in the source of truth, and love, in God.
We don't do the good works we do to somehow achieve
to make ourselves pure.
That has been done for us by Christ.
We do them because that is what we were created to do,
and it is right to live live the way God
prepared for us to live it.
In this gospel passage Jesus ever so subtly criticizes
the pharisee who came to him with questions,
because Nicodemus came to him at night,
so that his seeking guidance from Jesus would
not be discovered by his friends who were suspicious
And Jesus warns him about doing his deeds
in the dark, because actions like that,
are so often ways of hiding our evil.
Jesus calls him out,
and he calls out you and me.
Live in the light.
Let your good deeds testify to your faith in Jesus Christ,
and beware of those times
when you want to hide from God.
Let the light of Christ reveal, that you are saved.
1Brown, The Anchor Bible John page 133.