Jesus Lifted Up
Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Our sermon series on our Lenten weekends is focused on “Jesus on His Way to the Cross.” Three weeks ago we saw Jesus entering his public ministry by submitting first to baptism in the river Jordan and then the devil’s temptation out into the desert. Two weeks ago we heard Jesus speaking hard truths about the necessity of him suffering, being rejected, and getting killed before there could be a resurrection. Last weekend, we watched as Jesus overturned the moneychanger tables, drove out livestock, cleansed the temple, and defended his Father’s house from those who would turn it into a place of personal profit. Today we see Jesus predicting that the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross, much as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.
“I knew he was rooting for me.” When Serena Williams won the Wimbledon tennis tournament for the first time in 2002, a reporter asked her if she was bothered by the fact that many of the English fans rooted against her. “No,” she said. People had rooted against her all her life. “Besides,” she added, “my dad was sitting in those stands, and I knew he was rooting for me and I wanted to please him.” For Serena, the fact that her father was rooting for her more than balanced off the fact that all kinds of others were rooting against her. Romans 8 language comes to mind, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Our lessons for today are jam packed full of evidence that the Almighty God of this universe has been rooting for us, He is rooting for us in these very chapters of life we are living, He will be rooting for us all the way into eternity. In today’s Old Testament lesson, God was rooting for Israel to repent, in today’s Epistle lesson, He is rooting for sinners to be receiving His grace with the ultimate purpose of them doing the good works he has prepared for them to do in advance, and in today’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus rooting for Nicodemus to be born again. Jesus rooting for the world to be saved and not condemned, Jesus rooting for evil to be exposed and for the light to be chasing away darkness.
Jesus Lifted Up is our theme for today, three lessons to be learned about how beautiful life can be as we fix our eyes and will not be distracted away from Jesus Christ crucified, buried, risen, ascended, and coming back again.
Lesson #1 comes from Numbers chapter 21 where we see A fiery serpent lifted up for impatient people (dying). Serpents have caused great problems for mankind. It was true in the Garden of Eden, and it was true at this event which took place near Mount Hor. The surface and obvious problem in this story was the poisonous snakes, but the underlying problem was the impatience of God’s chosen people. After nearly 40 years of God providing for their needs, they again complained about he situation that they were in. They were weary of the travel, they detested the food that God gave them each day, they were rejecting the providence of God and his acts of deliverance.
God was in fact rooting for his nation to repent, and his way of getting them to stop their murmuring and to trust in him was to get their attention in spectacular fashion. Luther has this to say about these verses, “In that country, where the heat is so intense, such serpents are called asps. When they bite a man, he swells, turns red, and his whole body becomes so feverish that he is soon past help unless the bitten member is amputated at once. For if such a serpent bites into a finger or a foot, the limb must be amputated immediately. Otherwise the fire or fever will penetrate the whole body and affect all its parts, and death will be inevitable.”
We think of Hebrews 11 language, “11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. We see that it was not the Lord’s will to kill these Israelites. It was his desire to have mercy on their souls. He had made a promise with them, and he would keep his promise, even though they kept on going their own way in life. His remedy was not to crush the serpents, it was to have Moses make a fiery serpent and lift it up for these dying people.
These people were asked to look at the serpent physically, sinners in all generation are invited to look spiritually and in faith to Jesus lifted high on the cross. They were cured of bodily poisoning, we will be delivered from eternal poison. They recovered from physical ailments, we from spiritual disease, and even worse than disease, apart from Christ we are dead in trespasses and sins.
The kingdom of God is like a man regretting so deeply his failed marriage. His habits of drinking too much, working too much, and caring for his wife and children too little had come back to bite and wound all concerned. But once again he looks upon the cross where His Savior died. He’s humbled by his mercy and he’s broken inside. Once again he thanks Jesus for being lifted up, he marvels at a grace which makes him alive, a new day is rising up on the inside of his heart.
Lesson #2 comes out of today’s New Testament lessons, where we see A Father’s Son lifted up for a dead man (walking). Nicodemus wasn’t just a good person with a lousy theology, he was by nature a child of God’s wrath who needed to be born again. He wasn’t just a Pharisee caught up in legalism, he was a dead man walking. That’s Ephesians 2 language, where Paul the former Pharisee had come to understand that he wasn’t just a misguided religious fanatic, he was spiritually dead, the only way he could be made alive would be for the Son of Man to be lifted up on the cross.
Humanly speaking, the crucifixion of Jesus would never have happened if the Jews had been an independent nation when the Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty and condemned Him to death. According to Jewish law, he would have been executed by stoning But the Roman Empire ruled, and the Romans executed non Romans by crucifixion. And so Jesus spoke of being lifted up, and pointed to the bronze snake on the pole as God’s prototype of this. Elsewhere, John quoted Jesus, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to Myself,”, and then John commented, “He said this to show by what kind of death He was going to die.”
The kingdom of God is like a young mother who lost her temper with her children this past week, again, and this morning, she is feeling one more time like a bad mom. It’s like a grandpa who has more patience with his grandchildren than he did with his own children. And every so often he wishes he could do it all over again, maybe he could do it better. The kingdom of God is like a successful retired person, who is realizing more and more than so very often over the years he has been full of himself, he has chased the almighty dollar at the expense of his family, and this morning, he wonders if there is some way he can make up for lost time, he wonders if he can somehow make it up to God and loved ones. This morning, one more time, this young mom, this grandpa, and this successful retired person are drawn to the cross where their Savior died. They are humbled by his mercy and broken inside. One more time they thank Jesus for being lifted up, they marvel at a grace which makes them alive, a new day is rising up on the inside of their hearts.
Lesson #3 comes out of our Gospel lesson for today, A Great Light lifted up for people (preferring darkness). Jesus often goes from one metaphor or simile to another, and today’s text is no exception. John 3:16 is one of the two or three most familiar verses in the Bible. Say it with me, if you will, in King James language, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Luther had this to say about this Gospel in a nutshell, “Look at the words, I beseech you, to determine how and of whom Jesus is speaking…No one is here excluded. God’s Son was given for all. All should believe, and all who do believe should not perish. Take hold of your own nose, I beseech you, to determine whether you are a human being, that is, part of the world, and like any other man, you belong to the number of those comprised in the word, all.”
One can imagine the mind of Nicodemus spinning fast as Jesus first explains why he has to be born again, then says that the Spirit is like the wind which blows wherever it wishes, then scolds this teacher of the law for not receiving the very testimony they had been waiting for, then teaching the necessity of the Son of Man being lifted up, then making a sweeping statement about how believing in the Name of the only Son of God, and finally, pronouncing the verdict, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”
On the one hand, Christ died for all, on the other, many are not saved. On the one hand Christ made satisfaction for everyone, on the other, salvation requires the tgift of faith that holds to Christ. Although the light is for everyone, many, for one reason or another, or for no particular reason, will prefer darkness.
The kingdom of God is like a couple in their 60’s who came to church as little children, pretty much against their will. They were drawn to the church when it was time to get married, drawn to the church which is like a city of lights set on a hill when it was time to get their children baptized, drawn to the church when it was time for their teens to be catechized, drawn to the church when it was time for weddings and funerals, but other than those special occasions, they are realizing this morning they have preferred darkness, they have wandered into lukewarm Christianity, in so many ways they have lived in the shadows instead of letting their Gospel lights shine. This morning, they hear one more time that which they have heard a thousand times, they are saved by grace, through faith, it is a gift of God, not of works, lest any should boast. They drawn to the cross where their Savior died. They are humbled by his mercy and broken inside. One more time they thank Jesus for being lifted up, they marvel at a grace which makes them alive, a new day is rising up on the inside of their hearts.
Dear friends in Christ, know that no matter how often, as Pastor Muther would say, you have slapped away the gift of your God’s grace, no matter how frequently you have preferred darkness, it is still the truth that your God is rooting for you. He is rooting for you to repent, to be in the Christian faith, to be strong in that faith, to be growing in that faith. Even more than that, to know that you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for “Good works prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Story of a pastor friend of ours and his wife who has since August of last year been walking through the valley of brain cancer. Walking through more doctor visits and chemotherapy treatments than can be counted, walking through stem cell cancer, through nausea upon nausea, in these very days through tiredness, frailty, and more days of trouble than the average. A few days ago we explored Ephesians 2:8-10 together, I suggested that the sermon they were preaching as they suffered patiently the afflictions laid on their shoulders was a powerful sermon, more powerful than sermons preached by pastors traveling through smooth sailing times in their life. The good work prepared in advance for them is one they would not have chosen, but by the grace of God, they are doing it well. May God give everyone of us the grace necessary to do well our own good works, prepared by God in advance, in all the chapters of our lives. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther