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What Do They Hear When I Speak? (Sermon March 25, 2018)

Mark 11:1–11 (NRSV)celtic-cross_thin-places-394683_466x180

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

(Mt 21:1–11; Lk 19:28–40; Jn 12:12–19)

11 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ ” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

10      Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 

Last week I posed a question, “what do people see, when they see me?” This week I want to consider a similar question, “What do people hear when I speak?” I might be the only one, but have you ever been misunderstood? You say one thing that in your mind is seemingly innocent, yet those innocent words cause sparks that ignite into a wildfire on the plains on a windy day? What was once an innocent statement has now scorched the earth and is threatening to displace families from their homes.

This week as I studied, I thought about many things. To be honest I read through it all and every initial thought I had, I gave in my sermon three years ago. I nearly wanted to present that same message because It has been a long but good week. If you want to read it you can always find it online, and from what it looks like there might be some congregations hearing it since that sermon has been viewed several times this week. But as I usually do I stopped to breath, and I began to slowly reflect on the passage as I prayed.

This is a prayer method that has been used for centuries in monasteries, it is often referred to as holy reading. The process is much like the Quaker’s open worship. You slow down and center and quiet your mind. Then when you are ready you slowly read the passage, stopping when you feel the need and just letting things soak in for a bit. As you read in this fashion questions often rise in your mind and then it is as if you sit there having a conversation with God. I often begin the week in this way, I read through all the passages of the lectionary and I find one that engages my mind more than the others. Usually it is the gospel reading because I love Jesus and for some reason as I read the gospels it is almost as if I am transported to the scene as an observer. And when I read the other passages I usually end up in the gospels anyway.

That is how I begin my study personally. I have tried other bible study methods, and they are wonderful, but so often I found myself getting into the bible with them instead of the bible getting into to me. I would know how many times a word was used in a chapter and why those words were unique, but often those words would not soak into my soul. Now that being said, I still uses those bible study methods, I still look at the scriptures from a knowledge stand point. I just do not begin there. I begin with prayer. I begin by letting the God that inspired the scripture to be written read those words to me. So, what happened this week? Initially I saw my king riding a donkey. I initially comparison of a worldly king parading through a city in a chariot or on a war horse and Jesus riding a donkey. And I see in my mind the contemporary example of the presidential motorcade coming into town in comparison to the influential teacher who inspires the students of today to become the leaders of tomorrow driving to work in their used rusted out Kia. Our king rode a donkey.

The creator of heaven and earth, the king of kings and lord of lords rode in on a donkey. Just that image in your mind is something quite profound. The splendor of earthly kingdoms demands the king have some symbols of wealth and power, yet the donkey symbolizes commonality and poverty.

But as I reflected on that it was as if God said to me, “nope do not look at that.” And my attention was directed instead to the part of the story that I have always overlooked:

[H]e sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ ” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.[1]

I say I overlook this, but that probably is not the full truth. I know that this happened I read this passage at least once a year I could probably tell it to you from memory without even trying, but It is not the part of the story we generally focus on. It is the dialog that fills space between the more important scenes. It is the conversation that prepares us for the climatic event. All this leads up to Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey, so this is just letting us know how they got the donkey. But it is also telling us more.

What do people hear when they listen to us? The disciples had spent three years walking and talking with Jesus, they had witness his miracles and heard the sermons and parables we love to hear. This portion of scripture gives us a glimpse into their faith.

If we take a step back from this and look at it from a different perspective, maybe instead of as a disciple but as the owner of the donkey, we might have a different view. Two men just walked up to a random house, untied the donkey from whatever it was tied to, and were attempting to take it. They were doing this because Jesus told them too. If we did not know the whole story we would be witnessing theft. Jesus was telling his disciples to go get a donkey so we can take a joy ride. Of course, this is not what is going on, but it looks like it from the outside. Imagine yourself in the sandals of those disciples? You did not have the luxury of centuries of tradition or even a glimpse a couple of hours into the future. Jesus asks you to go into town and get a donkey and if anyone tries to stop you just say the lord needs it and we will bring it back. People have been killed for less.

They did not know what to expect. They could not understand fully what Jesus was about to accomplish. They were just as confused as we would be. It appears on the surface that Jesus is telling them to sin or at least sanctioning sinful activity. Yet these two men did what Jesus said. The point here, the message God was giving me as I prayed was that I do not always understand what he is doing around me but trust him. This past week people asked me questions about why I do things that I do, things that baffle them about my personality and lifestyle. They ask why do you continue? The only answer I can give is because I have not been released to do anything else. I know I was called to be a minister, that is as clear as anything in my mind, there terms and conditions are kind of foggy though. I only know right now this is where I am to be. Just as those disciples knew that Jesus asked them to get the donkey, they did not know why but they knew they had to get it.

Moving now to the next scene. The two enter the town and they begin to untie the donkey. I wonder if their heart was racing, or if they looked suspiciously around. Because I am certain I would be. They were probably praying that no one would see them at that moment and they could just get the job done and get out without any incident. But right as they begin to untie the colt bystanders come and begin to ask questions. “why are you untying this colt?” I am sure you could add a few more questions to them. If someone was trying to get into your car imagine the questions you might as the individual. At this moment I began to listen deeply to the words. “They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.”

What do people hear when I talk, and what do people see when they see me? They spoke the words of Jesus to the bystanders and they allowed them to take the donkey. Do you see just how crazy this scene really is? There is no good reason that telling someone that they lord needs this donkey would appease anyone. If someone said that to any of us our cell phones would be in our hands and the police would be called. Yet that is not what happened. That is not what happened because these men were speaking the word of God.

Often, we read through these passages and we often forget who these men were that walked with Jesus. After two thousand years, it is quite easy to forget that these men were just like us. They were blue collar laborers, white collar government employees, young millennials, and some were even former gang members if not gang leaders. They were not minor gods in a pantheon of gods and goddesses but they were human. The reason we can forget that is because we read their testimonies about life with Jesus and we see them as being great men and women of faith. But these stories were written down in the twilight years of their lives. They did not write them during the event. At that moment they were most likely just as confused as each of us would have been, yet they stepped forward in faith.

They believed that Jesus was who they hoped for and when He spoke they listened when he directed they did what they could to get the job done. At times they questioned him, but only when the feat at hand looked too great, like getting food for over five thousand people in the middle of nowhere. Yet when they spoke people listened. The Lord needs it and the people responded by saying ok take the colt. They could do this because of their relationship with Jesus. Which is why the question today is, “what do people hear when we speak?”

I engage in conversations every day. I am actually a very quiet person and I do not like to talk all that much, so to engage in conversations is actually pretty stressful for me. The times it is not overly stressful is when I speak about my faith or speak through my faith. I have been told that I am a very confident person on many occasions because I will speak boldly in certain situations, for example if I feel that there is an injustice happening I will speak out for those that I see as being treated unfairly, even if it could cost me personally. I can easily speak for hours with other when it comes to scripture or theology, yet what we call small talk is the subject matter, I am spent in five minutes. If you want to speak about deepening your spiritual life of prayer you might have to remind me that I need to eat, but if you are talking about sports other than hockey I will probably find the quickest way out. What do people hear when you speak?

Do we speak out of our relationship with God, or do we speak out of our human understandings? I mention these conversations I have had, conversations about scripture, theology, prayer and spirituality, often those conversations are not with people of the church. In many cases some of the deepest and longest conversations I have had with individuals have been with people claiming to be atheists or even Muslims. They are not necessarily attempts to convince them to my way of thinking but were conversations that they initiated with me because they had a question and for some reason they felt comfortable asking that question to me. Am I a saint like those disciples, no. I have driven people to swear and cuss. I have in my own ignorance started wildfires, I have even said things that threaten my job. Yet for some reason people continue to talk to me. But are we speaking out of our faith or out of our own worldly wisdom?

These disciples could have just as easily told these bystanders to mind their own business. And instead of taking the donkey to the Lord, been taken to the authorities. But they spoke out of their faith. They spoke out of an understanding that this does not exactly make sense but Jesus said he needed a donkey and we are taking it to him. Their lives were devoted to Jesus, when they spoke it directed people’s attention to Jesus and people listened. They took the donkey to Jesus and Jesus took his joy ride. We then see the result of speak in our faith. Those along the road took off their cloaks and spread them on the roadway before Jesus, they broach leafy branches they had cut from the fields and they covered the path before the colt carrying Jesus. What they are doing is the equivalent of rolling out the red carpet so that their king would not be soiled. To do this is not just a sign of respect but it is a pledge of allegiance. I give my own self for their glory so to speak. Their honor is worth more than my dignity or my rights as an individual. This one act would be enough to start an investigation for the Roman officials. That Jesus could enter into the city in this manner with the city literally busting at the seams with people and accepting this kind of praise was a strike against his future. Yet this happened because two people out of their limited knowledge spoke according to their faith instead of their wisdom. What do people hear when we speak?

This coming week we will reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus. The great love he so passionately offered to each of us. We walk with Jesus to the cross where he took on our sin and our shame, dying there on the tree for us. Buried in the grave with us. And then we will celebrate his victory over sin and death as he stepped out of that grave to live again, giving us hope in a life and lifestyle greater than we can imagine. A life freed from the trappings of this world and filled with a hope that trails are only for a time. Common men and women lived and spoke this faith for generations, they spoke it in their words and their actions. Lives have been changed throughout history around the globe, because people somewhere at some point spoke through their faith to them and to each of us. Our life has power to change the world. Each individual is important and significant because they are loved by God. But what do people hear when we speak? Do they hear through our voice Jesus calling them to Follow?

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 11:1–6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Image from: http://www.davidlose.net/2018/03/lent-3-b-a-thin-place-every-place/

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What Do They See? (Sermon March 18, 2018)

John 12:20–33 (NRSV)Wheat

Some Greeks Wish to See Jesus

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Jesus Speaks about His Death

27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

 

Over the past couple of weeks, I have thought about what people see when they look at me. Some of these ponderings are the result of nostalgic musings as I have listened to music from my college and high school years while working in the backroom of the store. But some of the thoughts are a result of the discussions we have had during our Wednesday meetings. Another reason I have thought about what people see because this week one of my coworkers asked why I chose the life that I live. What do people see when they see you? Are they seeing who you truly are or are they seeing a carefully maintained image that we have crafted to hide and protect our vulnerable hearts?

When I looked at this passage this week, the idea of what people are seeing when they look at me stuck. The passage begins by saying that among the people worshiping at the festival were some Greeks. These Greek individuals had a desire to see Jesus, but they clearly did not know how to make this happen because they were not members of the community. If you have no connection, no network of people to rely on, how will you gain access to people of importance? Think of this for a moment, if you wanted to visit with any celebrity, anyone you find as being someone you would want to really sit down and talk to, how would you go about making it happen? You have to know someone. You have to know someone who knows someone that can make a connection which will take you one step closer, and you continue until you have what it is you want. Or you must leverage enough influence to turn their attention toward you. And that type of leverage usually comes from a network of individuals as well.

It is interesting when we think about it that in most spheres of life a relationship between individuals always seems to matter. Providers of goods and services and their customers, professors and students, mentors and disciples, political entities all have to develop some relational format to improve their standing in whatever community they wish to be included in. It is quite literally a myth to think that someone is self-made. Relationships must develop because we are social beings.

Some Greek individuals were seeking to see Jesus, but they were not members of that particular community. They were attending a Jewish festival. They were clearly intrigued by this culture or they would not be there. They had obviously recognized that Jesus was something fascinating because they wanted to see him, but how can they get there from where they were standing? They look at that those who know Jesus.

Who are these people that know Jesus? Simon also known as Peter, his name is derived from the one of Jacob’s son’s obviously a Jewish name. James which is a form of Jacob which was the original name of the patriarch who became Israel. Levi the name of the priestly tribe, Judas a form of Judah another name of one of the sons of Israel, Bartholomew which means son of Talemai which is also a strong name within Jewish history. If we look at all the names of each of the disciples every one has a Jewish origin except one. Each of those names in some way restrict outsiders because names are important. Parents name children according to what is important to them at that time. If we give a child a name we hope that they will live into that name, it is somewhat a prophetic declaration of a parent’s hope for their children. All these disciples were named after strong Jewish identity. And people with strong cultural names tend to be brought up within a strong cultural identity, this is especially true in ancient cultures. So, these names and the meanings they imply to those on the outside looking in became a closed door, except for one Philip. This one disciple we know almost nothing about, was one of the first disciple and he was the only disciple with a Greek name. What do people see when they look at you?

These Greek individuals wanting to see Jesus looked around and they could see who the closest friends of Jesus were. I imagine that they engaged others around the festival in conversation and eventually found out the names of those men. And in that process, they hear a name similar to theirs. Could this person help them speak to Jesus? They took the risk and spoke to Philip. They saw in Philip an opportunity where the others were a closed door.

This idea excites me. The concept that people might see in me an opportunity to assist them to their desires and dreams. I know it sounds a bit weird, but I like to help people. I like to assist people, especially when it comes to them finding what they are looking for. That might be why I work in retail, because I can help you find the food coloring you need for your holiday entertainment. But hopefully there is more, I hope that I might have the opportunity to help someone find who they were created to be.

These Greek individuals wanted more than anything at that moment to have the opportunity to see Jesus. And it just so happened that there was one person in his closest circle of friends that provided access for them. It is fascinating to see how even within Jesus’s inner circle of friends from the beginnings of his ministry provided for this event, this one Jewish man who spent his entire life living in a community of Jewish people carried a Greek name for one reason. Through him the hope of Christ would be opened to all people. Through him access to God would be granted common gentiles. Romans had access because they wielded power, but the Greeks were just common people like you or me. God used the seemingly apostate prophecy of a name. And if he can use that for the glorification of the kingdom what can he do with us?

It is assumed that after Philp and Andrew speak to Jesus, these Greek individuals were brought to Jesus and witnessed first-hand Jesus teaching. Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is an extremely important statement. It is after these Greek individuals come to see Jesus that He announces that everything is now set up for the fulfillment of His given mission. All people now have access to Jesus, Jew and Greek, and through the Greeks all of us. The courses of history were all coming to this point, the rise and fall of Israel, the exiles, the conquests of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, the rebuilding of the temple the infatuations with the peculiar monotheistic religion of the Hebrews in a polytheistic culture. Everything is set for God to make his greatest revelation, and now all various groups of people within the Roman Empire have someone in place to observe. The promise to Abraham is about to be fulfilled, Israel will become the light to the nations, and God will be glorified. And God orchestrates it through a Jewish man burdened with a Greek name.

Jesus goes from this revelation to teach us what his glorification is and in turn what ours will be also:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.[1]

What do people see in me? What do people see in you? I thought about this all week long. I considered it as I listened to the music of my youth, which I was told is now classic. I hear echoes within the lyrics of people seeking something in their lives and they are looking everywhere they can think of to find it. In these artistic testimonies they cannot name what it is they are looking for yet they express they are seeking. Just yesterday at Aubrey’s birthday party more songs were shared from previous generations and the current one, also expressing the same longing. We often think that the world does not seek that they have no desire for faith, yet why do so many of the testimonies of a generation speak of the quest to find meaning and purpose? Why do so many songs of our youth express a longing that so many morn at not finding?

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. What do people see when they look at us? Do they see a friend of Jesus or do they see yet another paper façade? Jesus came to this world, he left the throne of heaven to be born as a baby within a community for one purpose. He taught and demonstrated a life and lifestyle that built up to one central theme. He came to glorify God, he not to condemn the world but to save it so that through him the world would have the hope of life. And he provided the way for that life through his life, death and resurrection. And we have the opportunity of life if we believe and take on his life and follow him.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies. Jesus told the crowd that through one man dying many would live. Through one life, much fruit would be produced. Jesus died. He took upon himself the entire human experience life and death, shame and glory, hope and despair, so that through him we could have true life. But what do people see? That very same life is the life he calls each of us to. It is the life the writers of the music we love seek even without knowing it. It is the life the artists of history depict even though we may not understand. They long for us all to die to self so that many might live.

This is a life of love. Love is not a mere emotion but it is a depiction of who God is. It is giving our life for someone else. We die to our own desires so that we might glorify someone else. When the writers of scripture speak of love they speak of it as submission and the love that Jesus had for the church, both of which places the life of the other as more important then one’s self. The same is spoken of in the love that parent have for children, a truly loving parent gives up their life for the life of their children. Each of these relationships are building blocks for something more. The family is the nucleus of society. When families fail society fails. And men, a great deal of this rests on our shoulders. We have a hard time dying to self, we have a harder time submitting and loving others more than ourselves. A lot of it has to deal with the chemical makeup of our bodies and the hormones that flow through our blood. And when we fail to regard our relationships as more important than our goals we leave the next generation longing and seeking for things they cannot see.

What do people see when they look at us? Do they see something worth dying for? Do they see something they long to have? Do they see an opportunity to obtain that longing within their hearts that they cannot fully express? And are we showing them something worth living for?

This season leading up to Easter, this transition from winter to spring reminds us of many things. Hope, life, resurrection and new opportunities. God’s creation is showing us the Gospel, it is preaching the good news from the seeds that fall to the ground taking on new forms to produce fruit. To the previous lives returning to the earth to nourish the lives of the next generation. From the cycles of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation bringing water to the dry soils. To photosynthesis converting the light of the sun to nourishing substances to be consumed by animals of various kind. Life dies to give greater life. Will our life be lived for the glory of our Creator, who fashioned the cycles of history to bring about his glorification in the life of His One Son, through one oddly named friend redemption of all people. Will you give life?

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 12:24–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Image: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56484

Venom and Life (Sermon March 11, 2018)

John 3:14–21 (NRSV)imagesVI6TYKV9

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

Today’s passage contains probably the most well-known passage of the bible. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” During my lifetime, we have seen this scriptural reference at nearly every sporting event, and when I was in college a professional wrestler hijacked the idea of John 3:16 to build his own persona. Of course, he was not known to grant eternal life but to know people out.

We have read, heard, memorized this verse for years. It is probably the first verse we memorized early in our life with Christ, and more than likely the first we teach the children in our Meetings or church. It has become so renowned that I fear we have lost the wonder within.

Today’s passage is part of Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisee named Nicodemus. This teacher of the law visited Jesus at night and discussed the finer things of faith. Within this discussion we gain some of the most profound spiritual insights mentioned by Jesus. For Evangelicals, we have the foundation of our spirituality of conversion, with the phrase you must be born again. And for many of us this concept we accept but in reality, we probably understand it about as much as Nicodemus did that night. The passage that we read today, is actually Jesus’s explanation of what being born again or born from above means.

By looking at this passage from that light, it begins to take on a different shape. He begins with the image of Moses lifting up the serpent. This is image is something that goes all the way back in Jewish history to the exodus from Egypt. For forty years the tribes of Israel wondered in the wilderness east of Egypt. During this time God provided for their every need. It is hard to imagine just how amazing this would be. For forty years their clothing did not wear out, they were out there walking in the desert and their sandals did not wear through and the cloth of their clothing did not become thread bare. After a couple months at work my khaki pants are ripping out and theirs lasted the rest of their lives. And their food appeared every morning, they would wake up and fill their jars with just enough for the day. If they took more than required it would spoil by the morning, but every morning there was more. The only time they could gather extra was the day before the sabbath so they could gather enough for two days so that they could rest on the seventh according to the law. Their only job during that time was to walk, following a pillar of fire at night or a cloud during the day. They would walk until this guide stopped and they could camp until their heavenly guide began to move once again.

Everything they could possible need was provided for them, yet they grumbled, they argued, they witnessed the miraculous daily and yet they failed to recognized God with them. Shortly after they had a battle with a Canaanite king and were given a victory over their enemies, the people of Israel began to complain. God had given them the victor, he had provided for their daily nourishment and they still complained. So, God allowed the land to become infested with venomous snakes. These snakes began to slither and bite, and many people began to die from the attacks. Just knowing I was in an area with venomous snakes and not being able to leave because the cloud hadn’t moved yet would be enough to kill me but they had nowhere to go. The people recognized that they had sinned against God, so they came to Moses to plead for mercy, and God heard their prayers. God devised a plan with Moses, he was to fashion a snake out of bronze and place it on a pole, when someone was bitten by a snake they could turn to this pole, to look at this bronze snake and the venom would not bring death.

I sat thinking of this story as I was preparing this week. The people of Israel were given a tangible experience to what life of rebellion against God would look like. When we reject God, it is as if we let the serpent in the garden that tempted our first parents bite us and the venom it carried begins to course through our veins till we can no longer function, we are consumed with poison, saturated with the venom of sin. The snakes slithering in the sands of that wilderness reminded them every moment of every day that they sinned, that they had rejected God, that they had stopped following Him and His ways and instead looked to themselves. They grumbled against God for the bread he provided they detested all that he had blessed them with. They wanted to go back to live as slaves in Egypt. This bitterness slowly consumed them, it poisoned them to the point that it threatened their very existence as a people. And God provided a sign for them to gain direction once again.

The idea of repentance is to turn. Usually it is seen as turning around and going the other direction, but some have interpreted it as being a return. A return to God. Israel turned away from God in the desert and when they came face to face with the deadly consequences of their sin they could return to God, looking up to the bronze serpent on that pole and the venom would not consume them. They believed, they trusted in the promise that was given to them through Moses that if they did this they would live, and they did. They put their full trust in that promise because it was clear through their life experiences that there was no other way, no other option to live once they were bitten but to look toward the bronze snake on the pole. There is only one way to restore life, one must turn.

Nicodemus knew this story, he knew it well because he was a teacher of the law. He was a member of the premier class of teachers that we know as the Sanhedrin. When Jesus spoke to him of being born from above this was the type of thing he was speaking about. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All have grumbled and complained. Each one of us all people have turned from God and have been bitten by the snake of selfishness and self. The venom of that lifestyle is coursing through our veins slowly eating away all signs of life. We may not notice it at first but it is there silently killing us until our hearts grown hard and cold. Jesus tells Nicodemus to remember that serpent on the pole and along with him he asks us to remember it as well. The people that were bitten by a snake were defenseless. There was no remedy that they could administer that could stop the devastating effects of the venom. Once they were bitten they knew their life was over. They could do nothing to prolong or preserve their life. But God provided a way to live. Turn and accept the grace from above. At the end of the desert wonderings the venom from these snakes likely touched every member of every tribe. They knew that it was God’s grace not their works that kept them alive. Without God’s grace they would all be dead. Without God’s grace Nicodemus would not be sitting there talking with Jesus because there would not have been a nation of Israel around to await their messiah they would all be bleached bones in the desert.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[1] Just as the ancients looked to the bronze snake and placed their trust in God to overcome the venom of the snakes represented in that image, those that look to the Son of God will also not perish from the venom of sin. God loved the people of Israel, he did not want to see any of them perish but wanted them to be his people and Him to be their God. He wanted them to take on the lifestyle he created them to have in the garden and live that lifestyle within the world so that all would turn to the light of God. Yet they did not follow, they grumbled and they turned. They brought upon themselves their own destruction. But this verse if filled with hope. Everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The serpent was the symbol of sin and death, Jesus is the symbol of life.

The history of Israel continues though. They once again turned from God. After they had entered the promised land they again looked to the world for their direction instead of God. They demanded a king, they desired gods that they could manipulate, and the consequences of those sins were again devastating. The kings took them to wars and withheld the profits of the people to build for themselves grand houses and feasting halls. This self-centered lifestyle lead to the fall of the nation and they lived in captivity. But a remnant remained and they returned to God, they returned to the land, only to start that cycle again. Nicodemus knew the history, Jesus was just reminding him of these cycles. And he continues by saying, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”[2]

The Son of God did not come to condemn the world, because they are already condemning themselves. I have thought of this verse often. I think of it every time someone speaks to me about God condemning people to spend eternity in hell. They always say if God is a loving God how could He do this? If God is a loving God how could he let bad things happen? If God so loves the world why? There really is not a good answer to this. Yes, God could do many things, yet he withholds his wrath. We look at the tragedies of school shootings, and the horrors of war and we demand to know where God is in that situation. Where is he, why has he allowed these things to happen? The sad truth is we are the ones that do it. We are the ones that cause the pain and destruction in our world. Because we are the ones that delegate human life as a means to an end instead of honoring the dignity of all who bear the image of God. God allows us to live according to our own hearts’ desires. We are condemned already because we are saturated with the venom of the serpent. That venom will continue to course through our veins deteriorating our societies until we turn and look at the one hanging on the pole. We will stand condemned until we believe.

The idea of belief is something that we have lost in our modern culture. We have skewed our understanding of this word to the point we no longer even know what it means. We have this idea in our mind that belief a form of knowledge, but the root of this word is trust. Trust in this sense is something that is reliable, something that we can count on to work. The idea is that we not only trust that it will work but we entrust our lives to it to the point our lives depend on it. When the ancients spoke of belief it was not simply an ideology they held to, it was their life. When they said they believed in a divine entity everything in their life revolved around that theological system. They lived their belief. And their belief was their life. Nicodemus believed in God, everything about his life revolved around his belief system. He woke in the morning entrusting his life to that system, he ate according to it, he breathed with it, because some scholars teach that the very name of God cannot be pronounced because it is not a word but the sound of breathing. They were Jews or Athenians whatever deity they claimed as their own not only on a feast day but every day. Why? Because their life was entrusted to that deity. Their very existence depended on that life.

When Jesus says that God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life, He is literally saying that they must entrust every aspect of their life on Jesus. Their very existence is to revolve around Jesus. Their lifestyle is to reflect the life of Jesus. Do we believe?

Jesus also says that He did not come to condemn. This is a hard concept to grasp. So often it seems that condemnation is what those claiming the name of Christ teach. We are sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are worms destined for the fires of hell. Unless you do what I say. We have focused so much on condemnation that when someone questions this concept we condemn them. Listen again to what Jesus tells Nicodemus, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”[3] Those who do evil hate the light because in the light their deeds may be exposed. In the light of Christ things are seen as they truly are. We cannot spin actual truth, we can only spin untruth. If we have a need to twist or skew our words we are doing so because we are wanting people to believe something that is untrue. And we most likely want people to believe that because it will provide us with some greater power over others.

Christ did not come to condemn because we have already condemned ourselves. The venom of the serpent is already there, we were born with it encoded in our DNA. We do not need someone to tell us how we can ruin our lives, or how we can exploit those around us. Just look at a child they know from early on how to manipulate their surroundings to get what they want. This only increases as time progresses. What we need is the remedy to the venom. We need the bronze snake on the pole that we can turn to when we realize we have been bitten. We need to turn, and we need to return again and again.

Do we believe? Are we born from above? Nicodemus wondered at these word, a man that was one of the most righteous of all the holy men of Israel. He wondered because he lived a life not of relational trust in God, but in self-reliant and selfish deeds. Those bitten by the snakes had to rest fully on the mercy of God, they had to entrust their very existence to his word because without him their death was secured. When we for a moment believe that we have control we turn away from God, when we in a moment trust in ourselves more than God we release the venom once again. Turn to God, trust in him, rely on the one who lived for us, who showed us what life with God looked like, and who took our sin and shame to the cross and died, who was buried in the grave and rose again on the third day. He removes the venom we inflict ourselves with, if we turn to him. When we live for him Loving God, trusting the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others we entrust our very existence to his ways. And we do this through worship, prayer, and service to others, not for our own glory but because we were once bitten by the snakes of sin and reverses the course of that venom and brings life.

What do we believe? In what do you trust? We live in a world were fear runs rampant and the kingdoms of the world prey on those fears saying if you only bow down to me I will take that way. Those in Christ are not of the kingdoms of the world our true place is in a kingdom greater than the greatest empire of mankind. A kingdom that stretches across all peoples and all time and will endure through the end of the ages. What do we believe?

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 3:16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 3:17–18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 3:20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Jared A. Warner

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