By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 14, 2021
John 3:14–21 (ESV)
14 And 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Last week we discussed Jesus at the temple armed with a whip and his tongue. I encouraged us to think deeper about this. And I hope we did leave last week and considered how we might be angering Jesus with our lifestyles.
The history of Israel is filled with God angering stories. There are so many stories of God being angry that some scholars have questioned if the God presented in the New Testament is different than the God presented in the Old Testament. I say some scholars, but those scholars usually start from a position of not wanting to recognize the existence of God, so when they see all the stories of God being angry and then look at the stories of Christ, they see a difference. We could spend hours discussing this, but that defeats the purpose. The thing I want us to recognize is that God got angry. And in much of the Old Testament they did not discuss what happened when everything was going well. It is often filled with stories of human errors and how God worked through those errors to preserve Israel, even though it upset Him.
This example is seen clearly in today’s passage. Jesus has finished his display of ire and he has returned to the mode we are used to, the teacher and miracle worker. He continued this through the feast, enjoying the celebration and many listened to what he had to say. Even the religious leaders must have listened to some degree, we know that Jesus had attracted their attention. If someone came in and knocked over our pews and threw books in our Meetinghouse, they would attract our attention too. But as they listened to his teaching, they realized that he was not far from their understanding and that caused them to think a bit deeper about his actions and his teaching.
Jesus goes back to where he was staying. We are not told exactly where Jesus spent his time when he was on his ministry journeys. Maybe he had gone to Bethany to stay with Lazarus’s family, or maybe he just set up a tent and made camp somewhere in the wilderness. I always imagine Jesus in a tent. And when Nicodemus comes to visit, I always imagine that they are sitting on rocks around a campfire. This has little to do with what scripture says and everything to do with what I might like to be doing on a nice spring evening.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night and when he comes, he calls Jesus, rabbi. He acknowledges that Jesus has some authority to teach, and they can only assume that it is from God. Again, I want us to imagine the scene, a wondering pastor in a tent being visited by a theology professor from the most prominent Seminary you can think of, maybe Andover Theological Seminary, which is the oldest seminary in the United States, founded in 1807, which is now in the process of merging with Yale. Imagine a theology professor from that ancient institution, in a suit sitting on a rock by a fire out in the wilderness. And while sitting there on the rock, he is being talked to not as the distinguished professor but as an equal at best, if not a student of this man living in a tent.
They sit and talk and Nicodemus is confused. And Jesus looks at him and says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Here a man that is a respected teacher among the Pharisees is being treated like an erring student. And Jesus explains himself.
Nicodemus was confused because Jesus started this conversation with the concept of being born again or born from above. This idea is something that Nicodemus just cannot grasp and to be honest we have become so accustomed to the words today in our Evangelical teachings that I do not know if we really understand the concept either. To Nicodemus and to most teachers of Israel, being born into Israel meant that you were a member of God’s chosen people. There is not any need to repent or change anything if you respect your people’s customs and live according to the law. This is how most of world things as well. We are good people generally.
Jesus takes Nicodemus back into the history of Israel. He says, “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.” This gets Nicodemus thinking. Israel is not perfect, and they never have been. God redeemed the people from Egyptian bondage, which is what the feast they had just celebrated is to remember, and they go to the boarder of the promised land. They send in spies to get and idea of what they are dealing with, and those spies come back with a report that the people are too big. Egypt was the world’s superpower at the time, and they had walked out of Egypt with Egypt’s wealth because God was with them, and they look at the people in the promised land and think they cannot overcome them because they are too big.
Imagine the annoyance that would have caused to God. He had just brought the greatest nation in the world at that time in history to their knees, and the people do not think He can do the same with a nation that is a fraction of the size and might of Egypt. What does God do, none of them get to go into the land. They then embark on a forty-year wilderness hike. They wonder in circles for decades, and what do they do while they wonder? Well, they complain. While they wonder God is providing them with food, he has preserved their clothing so it does not wear out, and they are walking for forty years, my shoes are wearing out in less than six months and theirs are lasting a lifetime.
They are wondering and eventually that generation begins to die. Aaron died and the people mourned for an entire month. Aaron was their first priest, and they were thinking if their priest cannot even get into the promised land why did they leave Egypt in the first place. They complain even more, “why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loath this worthless food.” God has listened to this for decades, while every day he gave them manna and doves.
God had been protecting them, feeding them, providing water, and ensuring that they were clothed and that they had shelter, yet that was not enough for them. What else could God do to prove to them that he would care for them? He left them alone for a bit.
Why do bad things happen to good people? The answer is right in scripture. We do not recognize the good but focus on the bad. The desert is filled with numerous deadly obstacles. The people did not realize how much God had been doing for them. He provided a cloud by day and fire by night, protecting them from the harsh temperatures of the desert day and cold temperatures at night. But there are also deadly venous creatures. God withdrew his hand of protection for a moment and venomous snake began to find their way into the camp. And people began to die from the bites.
The people became aware that they their complaining, their speaking out against God and Moses was the cause of this situation. And they plead to Moses to appeal to God for deliverance. God again had mercy on them. He commanded Moses to build a sculpture of the serpents and put it on a tall pole so when the people were bitten, they could look upon the sculpture and believe or trust that God would provide for them.
Every one of the people of Israel had been bitten by the snake and deserved death. It is only the grace of God that kept them alive. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of this. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The people in the desert were not saved because they were Israelites, but they were saved because they turned to God. Each person in the wondering camp had to turn themselves to God. Without the turning they would have all been dead. The venom of the snake’s bite course through the veins of everyone because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but to save it. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, just as every Israelite in the desert.
Imagine you were Nicodemus, a prominent scholar among the Pharisees, and you had just heard these words. All the theological understanding available to us is nothing if we do not realize one simple thing. If we do not turn to Christ, we no matter how good we might be will die, because we have the venom of sin in our veins. God is not judging us; we have judged ourselves. We can mope around complaining about how unfair the world is, we can complain about how unjust the world is, we can get ourselves worked up into a pity frenzy but if we have not turned to God, nothing will ever change.
And how could it change? “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
What do we do when no one is looking? There is a saying going around over the past few years, “Dance like no one is looking.” The idea is that when you feel like no one is judging you, you are free to be yourself. There is a lot of truth to that, but then there is a flip side too. Why are we hiding in the first place? Why do we act differently when we think people are watching? Even when we are not doing anything wrong, how often do we sneak an extra piece of dessert and tell people to act like they did not see it? How often do we trip, get up, and look around to see who saw us? This is what Jesus is talking about. When we live our lives in the systems of the world, we live in fear and darkness. We are constantly looking over our shoulders and hiding. How can things change if even the “good” people of the world keep secrets?
No one is good. We live our lives in discontent, dishonesty, and lack of empathy. When the mask mandates were issued what was our first response? For many of us, including myself, we complained. Why? When someone drives a bit too slow in front of you, what do you say? When we smash our finger when we hammer a nail, is it safe for kids to be around you? These are little things, but they point to something bigger. We, even good Christians, are not good enough. That venom still courses through our veins.
We like to hide and we like our privacy. We do not like it when people poke their noses into our business. But why? We fear. We are afraid that someone will see who we really are and our reputation will be ruined. And we perpetuate that fear by how we respond to others.
How do we change? The truth.
Each of us is capable of great good and great evil at any given moment. We like to think that we would never be as bad as the Soviets or the Nazis but the reality is that we are all capable of it. And the only way to change is to recognize who we are and turn to God. When I say turn to God, I do not mean merely going to church. Church is essential or I would not be here, but the church is also filled with flawed human beings and we can become distracted. Aaron, the first priest, could not enter the promised land because of sin, what makes us think we are any better? We need to be honest.
We can be good and evil. We can justify our actions to make ourselves look good, but are we being honest? Look at your lives through the lens of Christ. How good are you?
When Nicodemus came to Jesus that night, Jesus told him that, unless one is born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God. That phrase born again, or born of above, is one we hear a great deal. But do we know what it means? When the people of the desert were bitten by the vipers they knew. If they did not turn their death was imminent. For us we are more like Nicodemus, we have our definition of what it means, but do we live it out in our lives. Do we have a new nature? Do we have a new purpose? Are we living a new lifestyle? Can we see in our world something God loves?
That is the kicker right there. Do we see in our world something God loves? Do you see something worth giving your life for? That is the reality of being born again. It is seeing things with new eyes, experiencing them from a new perspective. It is seeing the things around us not as dire but as loved. So loved that God the Father sent Jesus to redeem it with His life, death, and resurrection. I began by wanting us to consider what would make God angry. I think this should give us perspective. God is angry because we do not care for what he loves. Let us think about that as we enter this time of Centered worship.