This is the fourth Sunday in Lent, we are 22 days into the Lent season a little over half way. We have hopefully looked within ourselves and contemplated our relationship with ourselves and with Christ. We know that our salvation begins when we acknowledge Christ, turn from self and turn to God. We place our trust in our relationship to God and know that we are his children and heirs through Christ. But what does it all mean? Why the cross if God is about love? Why will faith save us from condemnation? How do we get to heaven? Always a popular question. A friend of mine asked the children in her Sunday School class, that question. She said, what if I sold everything I owned and gave all my money to the church, would I go to heaven? All the children said “NO!” Well, what if I spent all my time working for others and helping them for free, would I get into heaven?” Still, they said “NO!” “Ok,” she asked them, “then how can I get to heaven?” Way in the very back of the room, a little girl says, “You gotta be dead!” It’s a funny story, but true none the less, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast”. [Ephesians 2:8-9] Christianity is the only religion in the world that is strictly faith based, our salvation comes not through our works but through redemption, we have been redeemed, in simplest terms we have been bought back and our redemption comes not through anything that we could ever do. We must pay for our sins period God will call every person to account, all will be judged, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by”. [Ecclesiastes 3:15] Gods plan is as unknown and indecipherable to us as it was to Job and Jonah, but God seeks us out and makes himself know, he knows us as only the potter can know the clay. He knows our every flaw and sin; his nature is constant and even after we repented he would still be forced to exact payment for those sins that we committed as yet unknowing. Think about sin as money owed to God. See all I had to do was equate it to money and everyone goes Ok I’m with you, where do I get me some sin. Really though think about it this way, sin is money owed, and you owe that money to a bank, any bank pick one.
So, every time you sin you owe the bank $100 let’s say. Now you know it’s a sin, but you don’t care because the bank never sends you bill so you don’t really know how much you owe. So, the bank sends a messenger to tell us about the payment plan, but we don’t look at junk mail. One day for whatever reason you finally open the mail and realize that you owe this huge debt to the bank and that you don’t want to keep on owing this debt, because it sucks to be in debt, right. So, you go to the bank and say, I’m sorry from now on I will sin no more and I’m going to help others and become a model citizen, forgive me for everything I have done wrong. Amen. The bank says, awesome, welcome home we love you and you are forgiven. By the way, when will you be settling your past due account? But your like no, no, no, you don’t understand I not sinning anymore, so I won’t owe you anything anymore and besides I never saw a bill before, and I didn’t really think it was important at that time anyways, so there’s no reason for me to pay the past due account, that’s not fair, I’m a different person now. I shouldn’t have to pay for my past mistakes, because that’s what they were, mistakes, surely you won’t hold it against me now. Put yourself in the bankers’ shoes, I owe you a billion dollars, yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a serious sinner, and I owe a serious debt, so are you going to just tell me never mind, all is forgiven, keep it. No way, you are going to want your money and in the same sense God is the same because He is never changing, He requires what is due and no amount of good works or sin offerings will buy you forgiveness for that kind of debt. So why does the cross represent redemption, why do we look to it for salvation, it seems a little like idolatry doesn’t it, in fact many Christians level that very accusation at Catholics and the crucifix. The answer is in the first verses of today’s gospel which are a little strange “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”. [3:14-15] Does anyone remember this from Sunday school or the bible, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So, Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So, Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [Numbers 21:4-9] I always wondered about this one because it seemed like God was being as childish as the Israelites, plus he was telling them to worship a snake after He had condemned them for worshipping a golden calf, seriously, can’t He make up His mind. Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live, it never says to worship the serpent, I was putting my own take on Gods words. The snake is nothing, it represents nothing, it’s a piece of bronze, as a matter of fact later on it would be used sort of like a votive candle in that some Israelites would light incenses to the snake and say prayers to it, they called it Nehushtan and it was worshipped as a false idol until Hezekiah broke it to pieces in 2 Kings. Originally though it was meant as an example to the Israelites, I mean honestly these people are not stupid and looking at a silly bronze statue and being healed from a deadly snakebite is ridiculous, and that’s the point. Israel had to learn to rely on God, to put their faith in the one true God, not in a silly symbol. They had to develop faith, the snake on a pole was the instrument by which Israel focused their faith on God and received his healing power, like the cross, which became the instrument of our redemption and focuses our faith on Christ, whose blood brings us salvation through that faith in Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, but like the early Israelites we do not worship the cross, we recognize it for what it represents not for what it is. How do we know that the cross is relevant, just because it is the bearer of the one who endures our sins?
The one who bears not only my sins and yours but those of all that came before and are yet to come. The cross is the instrument through which we view Christ, and Christ is the one that has made it possible for us to receive Gods love, our salvation freely given and freely accepted. I am going to tell you everything, literally everything that you need to know about God and his love for you, me, everyone. How am I going to do that, how do we know that God loves us, we know that God loves us because the bible says so, “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”. [3:16] This one verse has become all things to all people, it sums up our relationship with God in one sentence, it has the most profound meaning for us as his children. It has been translated into more languages than any other verse of the bible, it’s the first thing that is translated into most languages even before the rest of the bible. John 3:16 is Christianity, is the totality of His love and grace for one and all. How do we know love, because He first loved us and there is no condemnation in this world for us for “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; [3:17-18a] That doesn’t mean that everyone gets a free ride either, “but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. [3:18b-20] This is harsh, this is one of those parts of the bible that no one wants in the bible, especially Methodist because we are connexionally bound to one another and we prefer unity and harmony rather than problems, most people do. We tend to expect the best from people and are not willing to just let a person go, which is why I am a Methodist, but all the same, people will refuse to come to God for the simplest of reasons. They will fail to believe in Jesus.
They will love God and glorify him, they will be good people, honorable, not in the least bit evil, and still they will die, and they will be judged, and God will turn his countenance from them, like it or not. That’s no reason to give up on them, but we must accept that a great many will be deceived and will earn the wages of sin and one way that people earn that wage is by accommodating sin. “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.” All things are revealed in the light and Jesus is the light and He said “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” [John 11:25-26]