Tag: nicodemus

Sermon: To Save The World

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.

Sermon for Sunday, Feb 17, 2008: Born From Above

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 17, 2008, the second Sunday in Lent. The text is John 3:1-17, and the title is “Born From Above.” Hope you have a great day tomorrow!

Born From AboveJohn 3:1-17 (NRSV)

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.

What We Think We Know About This Text

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, and we come to a very familiar Gospel reading today. This passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3, contains what is probably the most famous verse in the New Testament — John 3:16:

“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.

Immediately, we think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I know what that means. God loves me, Jesus died for me, and I have accepted him, so I’m saved.” And, certainly those ideas are there in John 3:16. But, the verses that surround this most famous verse give us the real clues to what this conversation was really all about. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, maybe because he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, or maybe he waited for a time when the crowds around Jesus had drifted back to their homes for the evening. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus is certainly the nicest Pharisee we meet on the pages of the New Testament. Now, before we get into the story, I want to offer a disclaimer, and here it is: I’m using the phrase “born from above” intentionally, rather than “born again.” The text can be translated either way, but the term “born again” has taken on meanings that aren’t here in the text.

“Born again” has come to mean a person has had an experience of being saved. But, it has also come to mean “born again” Christians from evangelical churches versus mainline Christians from Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, and other expressions of our faith that do not place the emphasis on the “crisis experience” of becoming a Christian, but also allow for a more gradual “growing into” faith. I don’t want us to think about those distinctions today, so I’m using the term “born from above,” and I think you’ll see why as we look at this passage more closely.

The Conversation in Four Parts

Have you ever spent an evening talking to a friend, and the conversation flows from one topic to another, until finally someone says, “Well, how did we get off on that?” This conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus has that kind of flow, moving from one idea to the next related idea, until we wind up in a totally new place. Here’s the first part of the conversation:

Part 1: Born from Above

As I said a moment ago, Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus one evening and says –

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

This statement in itself is amazing. Here is a Pharisee, and a leading Pharisee at that, saying that “they” know Jesus is a teacher come from God. And, Nicodemus goes on to reinforce that statement by saying, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” This is the only time a Pharisee will come anywhere close to saying that Jesus ministry is of God. At every other encounter with Jesus, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus, challenge him on his observance of the Law of God, and prevent him from becoming more popular with the people.

So, just the act of sitting down with Jesus is a big stretch for a Pharisee, but Nicodemus not only sits with Jesus, he acknowledges that Jesus is from God, and doing the work of God.

Now at this point, you might think that Jesus would say, “Well, thank you, Nicodemus, that’s the first time a Pharisee has ever said that to me.” But, Jesus makes a strange reply that at first glance seems to have nothing to do with Nicodemus’ statement. Jesus says,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

What does that have to do with Nicodemus’ statement to Jesus. Nicodemus is not asking “how can one see the Kingdom of God?” Nicodemus is making a statement to Jesus that he believes that Jesus is from God, and that God is with Jesus as he performs signs of God’s presence. But, in reply Jesus says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

The conversation then continues on the topic of being “born” with the following exchange:

  • Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after they are old? Can they enter a second time into his mother’s womb?”
  • Jesus: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

So, the first part of the conversation is about being born from above, and Jesus explains the difference in being born “of the flesh” and being born “of the Spirit.” But, back to Nicodemus’ question — how does one get “born from above?” Jesus has the answer –

“It’s like the wind which blows where it will, and you hear the sound of the wind, but you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes.” And to make this even clearer, Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Let’s stop and recap here:

  • Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God.
  • Jesus says to see the kingdom of God, you must be born from above.
  • Nicodemus doesn’t understand.
  • Jesus says, being born from above is like the effect of the wind — you hear it, but you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going.
  • Nicodemus still doesn’t understand, and asks, “How can these things be?”

Here’s my take on this:

  • Unlike every other Pharisee, Nicodemus recognizes and confesses who Jesus is.
  • Jesus’s comment to Nicodemus is much like his comment to Peter later when Jesus asks Peter, “But who do you say I am?” To which Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” To which Jesus replies, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father has.”

I think Jesus is saying the same thing to Nicodemus. I think Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you have it exactly right. You’ve been born from above by the Spirit of God. That’ how you know who I am and what I’m about.”

Of course, all this talk about being born from above, born anew, is confusing to Nicodemus. He can’t hear what Jesus is saying to him, because he’s stuck back at the concept of being re-born. But it is the Spirit of God who has blown over Nicodemus. Nicodemus doesn’t fully realize it yet, but the evidence — his words — show that God’s Spirit has re-made him, given him new life, changed his perspective, opened his eyes, given him fresh insight into who Jesus really is. That is the work of the Spririt of God.

I know that this isn’t how most folks see this conversation, but it’s the only interpretation that makes sense out of what Nicodemus and Jesus are talking about. But, let’s look at the second part of the conversation and see if the flow continues.

Part 2: Earth and Heaven, Flesh and Spirit Meet

Jesus appears to change the subject when he says –

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

Jesus is referring to the conversation about being born of the flesh and born of the Spirit — one earthly, the other heavenly. Nicodemus obviously did not comprehend that point, so Jesus simply asks, “If you don’t believe what I’m telling you about what happens here, how can you believe about what happens in heaven?”

I heard a preacher not too long ago, I think it was David Jeremiah, who said something like, “If we believe God can save us and take us to heaven, we need to start believing that God is at work in our lives here.” Same idea. Jesus has explained to Nicodemus that being born from above, born of the Spirit, takes place here on this earth. But, Nicodemus doesn’t understand how God can do that. Jesus point is — if you don’t understand how God is at work in your life here and now, how can you possibly understand how God is at work in heaven, in eternity, in the future?

We have the same problem today. We trust God to save us in the future and take us to heaven, but we’re short on what God is doing in our lives now. Then, continuing this line of thought, Jesus says,

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended, from heaven, the Son of Man.

In other words, Jesus is saying I’ve been there, in the presence of God, and now I’m here to show you what that means. Which is another way of saying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, says that in Jesus, heaven and earth meet. And, also flesh and Spirit meet. Jesus is the intersection of God and Man, flesh and Spirit. He has been born of both physical birth, and Spiritual birth. Jesus is the new Adam, born both in the body and in the Spirit.

But, as they say in the Ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait! There’s more!”

Part 3: What Kills Us Saves Us

Jesus doesn’t stop with the notions of earth and heaven, he uses a real life example. He says,

“And 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.”

What does this statement have to do with being born from above? Well, to understand that we have to understand the story that Jesus refers to, the story of the poisonous serpents, found in Numbers 21. The nation of Israel has left captivity in Egypt (the Passover), and is on their way to the Promised Land. But, the story of their getting to the Promised Land is a story of disobedience to God over and over again. We’ve been talking about that on Wednesday nights as we moved through the first books of the Old Testament. On one occasion, after having to fight their way through a particularly aggressive army, the people begin to complain to Moses — “Why have you brought out here in the wilderness to die? There’s no food, no water, and we hate this manna!”

This did not please God, and so poisonous snakes invaded the camp. If you were bitten by a snake, and many were, there was no cure. You died. Well, the people got the message real quick, and realized that their impatient complaints to Moses were disobedience to God. So, they came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” Then they asked Moses to pray to God to take away the serpents.

But God does an interesting thing — God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole. If anyone is bitten, all he has to do is look at the serpent and he’ll live. So, God doesn’t remove the snakes, but sends a way to be saved from them. Look and live!

So, that’s the story. But, what has always bothered me about that story is “Why make a bronze serpent?” Why not something else? Why did God use the thing that was killing them as their salvation? Reading this passage from John this week, I think I understand it now. And it has to do with being born of the flesh and being born of the Spirit.

Remember I said that Jesus is the only person who has been born of both flesh and Spirit? Jesus is the only one who has come down from heaven to show us what the unity of flesh and Spirit looks like? Okay, remember that point.

Now, what is the cause of our own death? Not serpents. It’s our flesh, our humanity, our willfulness, our sin. So, if the same thing that kills us saves us, what is that? Again, not a bronze serpent. Are you ready for this? If our humanity is what kills us, and it is, then we need another human to save us. But, that’s not possible. Until we have a human who is both human and divine — both flesh and Spirit.

And that’s why Jesus says, “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.”

Part 4: For the World

Born of flesh and born of Spirit, Jesus becomes the only one who can save us. And, then he tells us why he came –

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.

God so loved the world. Not just the people in the world, but creation. All of it, including us. And God’s love for His creation led him to save us in it, so we could again be stewards of it. Listen to what Wendell Berry, poet, farmer, and Christian, writes –

The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.

Healing is impossible in loneliness…To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.

He goes on –

The soul, in its loneliness, hopes for “salvation.” And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity among soul and body and community and world?

The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.

So, our being born from above, our being born of flesh and spirit, our being born anew because God so loved the world is so that we can love the world, too. It is so that we can unite that which sin has sundered — ourselves, others, God, creation — so that all can be made new as God intended. Being born from above changes everything, even if like Nicodemus, we don’t understand it yet.

St. Kevin of Glendalough was a Celtic Christian hermit, who loved God’s creation. He said, “All the wild creatures on these mountains are my house mates, gentle and familiar with me.” St. Kevin’s calling was to live alone with God’s creation, and pray for Creation’s care. Here is a prayer taken from the Celtic tradition that St. Kevin might have prayed –

Jesu! meet it were to praise Him,
There is no plant in the ground
But is full of His virtue,
There is no form in the strand
but is full of his blessing.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no life in the sea,
There is no creature in the river,
There is naught in the firmament,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no bird on the wing,
There is not star in the sky,
There is nothing beneath the sun,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Jesu! meet it were to praise Him.
Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints, Mary C. Earle & Sylvia Maddox, pg 58.

For God so loved the world, that He sent his only son…