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To Save The World

“13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  – John 3:13-17 NIV’84

Public Prayer In The Name of Jesus

These are interesting times in our community.  Unless you have been away on a long vacation, you are no doubt aware that the American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to our county Board of Supervisors threatening them with legal action because they have in the past opened their monthly meeting with prayer, a prayer that has been offered to God in the name of Jesus Christ.

According to the ACLU, that makes it a Christian prayer, and therefore it is a sectarian prayer that violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 The part we are interested in here in Pittsylvania County right now is, of course, the first 16 words –

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

I discovered while doing research for this sermon that although the First Amendment was thought only to apply to the federal government initially, a series of rulings particularly in the 20th century, applied the First Amendment prohibition against state-sponsored religion to all governmental entities, which would include the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors.

So, what should we make of all this?  Do we agree with many that our personal freedoms, including freedom of religion and speech, are being violated by the threats of the ACLU?   Do we believe that the ACLU is in one letter writer’s opinion “The Anti-Christian Litigation Union?”  While that might have been a clever appropriation of the ACLU initials, it doesn’t seem to do much to clear up the issue.

Baptists And Religious Liberty

You also might be surprised to learn that Baptists historically have fought like, well…Baptists…over the issue of state-sponsored religion.  We experienced that right here in Virginia, when Baptists were outlawed and Baptist preachers like John Leland (1754-1841) were persecuted for their faith.

John Leland is a Baptist hero for his work in persuading Thomas Jefferson and others of the need for a Bill of Rights that would guarantee the freedoms on which the young republic had been founded. One rather amusing story about John Leland is that he was given the responsibility for delivering a mammoth round of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson. Apparently the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts drew milk from every cow in town to craft the 1600 pound cheese that was their gift to Thomas Jefferson.

Why did they send President Jefferson this huge chunk of cheese?  Because they were afraid that recently-elected Jefferson, being part of what they called the “French Revolutionary School,” would destroy all their churches, and forbid religious practice.

Reverend John Leland disagreed with this fearful line of thinking, and so after some deliberation, John Leland was given charge of the mammoth cheese, which he delivered to President Jefferson as a kind of goodwill gesture.  Upon Leland’s arrival, and I assume the safe transfer of the cheese, Leland was invited to preach to the President and to Congress. Leland said of the three week trip to Washington, DC, that he preached there and back.  Typical preacher not to miss any opportunity to preach.

Oh, and just so Jefferson got the message of the cheese, the town’s people had engraved on the top of the round of cheese, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”

Leland would be among the Baptists who would influence the addition of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment which guaranteed freedom of religion.

But, even in the colonial period of the history of the United States of America, there were those who argued that America should be constituted as a Christian nation.  Listen to what John Leland said in reply –

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” – John Leland, A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia. (courtesy of Wikipedia).

This issue of religious liberty is as old as our own constitution, and older than our nation’s history.  We as Baptists sprang from the Radical Reformation in the mid-1500s.  Objecting that the reforms of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin did not go far enough, our Baptists forebears believed that Christian baptism was reserved for those who had made their own confession of faith.  Therefore, infants should not be baptized because they had not yet reached an age where they could of their own free will make the decision to follow Christ.

Baptists also insisted that anyone could read and interpret Scripture, and that the Holy Spirit would guide each follower of Jesus Christ.  These and other views espoused by this radical group were unacceptable to Luther, Calvin, and the other leaders of the Reformation.

“If it’s baptism they want, then they shall have it” said their persecutors.  And so these early proto-Baptists were often sentenced to death by drowning for their unorthodox views.  For you see, in the days following the Reformation, lines of loyalty developed into political fiefdoms.  If the prince of your area was a Lutheran, then all within his jurisdiction were Lutherans.  Conversely, if your prince or king remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, all of his subjects remained Roman Catholics.

Of course, this does not mean that all were practicing Christians.  And, even within each province or country, there were those who dissented, who sought to follow their own conscience.  But for the most part, citizens went along to get along, because death was frequently the punishment for not complying with your state’s religious stance.

These Anabaptists (re-baptizers) eventually fled from England to the Netherlands in search of religious liberty, and finally found a home they hoped would be free from persecution in the United States of America.

But, even in the fledgling United States, old patterns of religious practice had begun to prevail.  Baptists in Virginia were forbidden from preaching, their marriages were not recognized, and many were accused of child abuse because they refused to have their new babies baptized.  As Baptists in Virginia grew in number, the established civil and religious order tried to stamp out this rag-tag religious band.  Bruce Gorley reports that Baptist preachers endured the following, just because they were Baptists.  They were…

“pelted with apples and stone”
“ducked and nearly drowned by 20 men”
” jailed for permitting a man to pray”
“meeting broken up by a mob”
“arrested as a vagabond and schismatic”
“pulled down and hauled about by hair”
“tried to suffocate him with smoke”
“tried to blow him up with gun powder”
“drunken rowdies put in same cell with him”
“horses ridden over his hearers at jail”
“dragged off stage, kicked, and cuffed about”
“shot with a shot-gun”
” ruffians armed with bludgeons beat him”
“severely beaten with a whip”
“whipped severely by the Sheriff”
“hands slashed while preaching” (This happened to Samuel Harris right here in Pittsylvania County).

— Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia:

But preachers like Samuel Harris also used humor to answer their opponents.  Once when Harris was preaching to a crowd outdoors, part of the group suddenly pulled back and started making a commotion.  Obviously, this distraction had been planned, just like some of the others I read to you earlier.  Samuel Harris was not deterred, however.  He paused for a moment, looked at the group of rowdies, and then addressed the crowd in his booming voice.  “Never mind those disorderly people,” he said, “there are enough going to heaven without them.”  Observers later reported that the disorder stopped immediately!

Here in Virgina, the Episcopal Church was the official state church until it was disestablished in 1776, but it wasn’t until 1786 that Thomas Jefferson’s idea of religious liberty was adopted by the commonwealth of Virginia.  And, it wasn’t until 1791 that the Bill of Rights was ratified, based largely upon the work that John Leland, other Baptists and Presbyterians, and Thomas Jefferson had done.  (courtesy of The Baptist Index)

Of course, that is too brief a description to do the whole thing justice, but you get the idea – Baptists have always been proponents of religious liberty because they wanted freedom of conscience for themselves and others.

Down through the years, Baptists have fought not only for their own rights, but for the rights of others to follow the dictates of their own conscience when it comes to matters of faith and practice.  And, Baptists have always been suspicious of any government involvement in prescribing religious activity, including prayer.

The Board of Supervisors last week made it clear that prayer prior to their meetings was not part of their official government function.  The county attorney, in conference with the Board of Supervisors, crafted a resolution on prayer that removed the opening prayer from the official agenda.  Of course, the ACLU this week said that was not sufficient, so we will see how this all turns out in the days ahead.

Lifting Up The Snake in the Desert

So, how do we as Christians navigate the difficult terrain of conflicting civic opinions, and yet remain true to our faith.  We do it by lifting up Jesus, which is why we are looking at this passage of Scripture today.

I do not think there is a more relevant passage for us to think about, commit to our hearts and minds, and meditate on during these days here in our own community.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, according to John.  Nicodemus recognizes that “Jesus is a teacher who has come from God.”  No one could do the things you do, Nicodemus says, unless that were true.

But Nicodemus is just like we are – he is locked into his own system of belief, and he cannot understand who Jesus is, or exactly what Jesus is doing.  Still, he is strangely drawn to Jesus, even though he came in the dark of night to see Jesus, probably so others would not see him.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born again, or born from above, to see the Kingdom of God.  Nicodemus is puzzled by that, and asks how he as a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born.  Jesus explains that this “new birth” is a spiritual birth, a birth of the Spirit of God.

Nicodemus is still confused, and so Jesus refers to a story from the book of Numbers, a story that Nicodemus will know.  It is the story we read early this morning, the story of disobedience, death, and deliverance.

In Numbers 21, the people on their way to the Promised Land, grew impatient.  They spoke against God and against Moses.  The NIV translates it this way –

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?  There is no bread!  There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

God’s rebuke was swift, and deadly.  Numbers says that God sent poisonous snakes among the people.  Apparently, there were lots of snakes, who bit lots of people, and tragically some of the people died.

Quickly, the nation realizes what it has done.  They come to Moses and say, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.  Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  The Bible says Moses prayed.

In answer to Moses’s prayer, God gave them a remedy for their snake bites.

“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  So Moses made the snake of bronze, and lifted it up.  When anyone was bitten by a snake, if he looked at the bronze snake, he would live.

Lifting Up Jesus

That’s the story Jesus told Nicodemus, and then he said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Of course, we understand Jesus to mean that he will be lifted up on the cross.  Whether Nicodemus understands this or not, we aren’t told.  But then Jesus explains why this must happen, why he must be lifted up just like the bronze snake was.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

“For God so loved the world…”  When Jesus says “world” here, he is not referring to the world order that is opposed to God, which is how the New Testament sometimes uses the word “world.”  Here Jesus means creation, that which God set in motion in the opening verses of the book of Genesis, and after everyday’s creative act stops and says, “That’s good.”

God loves his creation, including the apex of his creation, humankind.  Men and women, boys and girls, people of all races, people from all time – God loves what God has made.

And because God loves this world, and everything He made in it, He sent Jesus God’s only son.  Whoever, Jesus says, commits himself or herself to Jesus, God’s son, trusts and believes in him, shall not perish like the world is perishing, but will have life eternal.

Then Jesus says something that we often do not quote, after we have quoted John 3:16.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

In other words, God’s purpose isn’t to pronounce judgment, and kill everybody, and destroy His handiwork in the process.  God’s purpose is to save the world.  To draw it back from its own self-destructive behavior, to pull it from the brink of self-annihilation, to save that which He has created.

Jesus is God’s antidote to the poison of our sin.  Jesus is God’s answer to our questions, the relief for our sadness, the purpose of our lives.

I often wondered why God didn’t tell Moses to make a bronze angel, or bronze bird, or anything but a bronze snake.  And then one day it hit me, in what I hope was a moment of spiritual insight.

God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up, because the thing that kills you is the thing that saves you.

Let me explain:  I am sure no one in the camp wanted to be reminded of snakes.  But the snakes were God’s punishment for their sin.  When they looked at the snake that Moses had lifted up, they were reminded that God could take the instrument of their punishment, and turn it into the remedy for their disease.  God could take judgment and infuse it with life.  God could take that which had killed them, and make it the only way to redemption.

When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, God showed us a man, a man who in all of his humanity was tempted, was accused, was attacked, was beaten, was ridiculed, was tortured, and finally was crucified.

Looking at Jesus we see our own handiwork.  We see our own disobedience that inflicted the pain of the scourge in Jesus’ back.  We see our own selfishness and hatred and fear that lived in the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and lives in us today.  We see all of our own sins, our own barbarism displayed in the bruised and scarred body of Jesus.

And when we look at Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that someone must save us from ourselves.  We are reminded that if we would kill the Son of God, there is no crime that we would not commit, no deed too dark for the human soul, no act too horrific for us to participate in.

When Jesus is lifted up, we must first see our own failure, our own sin, our own helplessness, just as the nation of Israel did in the desperation of the desert.  For unless we do, it will not help us to lift up Jesus in public or private prayer.  Unless we look at the result of our own sin, the marred visage of Christ, just as the Israelites had to look at the bronze snake, we will miss what God is trying to tell us.

But we also see in the lifted up Jesus the possibility for which God has created us.  We see the capacity for self-giving love that Jesus demonstrated.  We see the sacrifice he made so that others might also live.  We see the best that Jesus calls us to in living out the values and commitments to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus does not need anyone to defend him, for he did not even defend himself.  What Jesus seeks is the same thing he offered to Nicodemus. Jesus seeks those who will look at him on the cross, and will see themselves reflected in him.

And it is those who look and live who will go out to lift up Christ so that others may see themselves reflected in him, too; so that others may measure their lives by his and realize that there is no life without Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me.”  Let’s lift up Jesus as the hope of all humanity.  Let’s lift up Jesus as the answer to all of the world’s terrible predicaments.  Let’s lift up Jesus as the model for a selfless life, lived to serve others, lived to save the world.