John 3:14-21 New International Version (NIV)
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[a] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[b]
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. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.Todays reading from John is perhaps one of the most well know passages in scripture. John 3:16 was the first scripture passage I ever learnt off by heart. This short text contain so may gospel truth. Really it could be viewed as a summary for the whole gospel, summing up the fall of humanity, Jesus ultimate sacrifice that restored us to life and Gods unfailing love for his creation. Yet todays reading started a bit further back than John 3:16
I want to start my sermon then by going back to look at verse 14 and 15. In these verses I think we can learn something that will help us unpack the wonder and mystery of the following verses even more. In V 14-15 there is quite an interesting simile. Jesus, the son of Man vs 14 is compared to a snake. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”. This is perhaps quite unusual. Snakes, if were honest, don’t have the best reputation. Within scripture snakes are often used to depict sin, and deception. In the Garden of Eden it is a snake which is cunning and tricks humanity. In Psalm 140 evildoers are compared to snakes (They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers). Then in gospel of Mathew 7:10 the image of snake is used as an extreme example of a bad gift (child asks for a fish, will give a snake). So why is Christ compared to a snake?
The event which is being referred to here by John is found in Number 21:4-9 and it may be helpful to quickly read this verse.
“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[b] to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 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.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous[c] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 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. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous[d] serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 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.
In this passage the Israelites after just been given a great military victory (which we read about in v1-3), are complaining to Moses and God for freeing them from Egypt. In effect the Israelite are complaining for being taken out of captivity and given new life. They are forgetting all that God has done for them and acting as if they do not know him. This disregard for the Gods prevision is sin, not the actual act of moaning, but the act of forgetting God and wishing they were no longer Gods chosen people and were back in slavery, in effect overlooking all of Gods grace which he had provided. It would be similar to you or I being brought a holiday and complaining because it rained on one of the days. In response to Israelites sin God has sent poisons snakes among them which Killed many Israelites. Here the Israelites are condemned for their actions. The people, upon realising their sin come and ask for repentance. Moses, through Gods guidance, then makes the bronze snake which heals the people. Although it is highly unlikely the statue healed the believers but God worked through it using it as a clear example of his mercy. In short, God sends his condemnation for the people’s sin, the Israelites then realise their sin and ask for forgiveness and then are saved. The snake, the image of death, then becomes the image of salvation. It saves the people from the venom in their bodies.
But how does this now compare to John. In the numbers passage I see a very contextual example of the universal salvation found in Christ. By that I mean one example of the total way in which God saves. I don’t know about you, but in the number passage I can find myself relating to the Israelite. So many times do I just forget God grace and focus on the immediate worries. I forget Gods provisions; I even forget God and focus on the worries of the world. I remember last year before my wedding I was continually stressing about where my wife and I would live and whether we would both find jobs. It was just over a month till we would be married and we still didn’t have a place to live nor stable jobs. Yet God had blessed us, in the first place he had brought us together. Then, through the actual planning of the wedding there had been so many clear signs of God provision. One of the clearest was a packet of money given to my in-laws with the description “From Jesus for the wedding” on it. I should explain that my in-laws are not church going people, nor do they really know anyone who goes to church, so to this day we have no idea who that money was from except a servant of the Lord who listed to Gods guidance. Then God has also provided for us in other ways, in me getting my visa and in my wife finding odd jobs to keep us going. Yet do you think I was remember any of this at the time? No I was stressing about not having a house and wondering why I came to South Africa in the first place. I was just like the Israelites ignoring Gods provisions and not brining my needs before God in prayer. I had forgotten God and was trying to go it alone.
Yet, just like the Israelites I also came to a realisation of my sin. Fortunately for me this realisation did not involve poisons snakes. But a realisation of my sin did come. And in that moment I realised I needed to bring by needs before God in prayer. I needed to bring my needs to God in a prayerful and humble way. Just like the Israelites I needed to admit I had done wrong and ask God for forgiveness. I needed to stop moaning about what I didn’t have and thank God for all that had bene provided and start to trust that he would continue to provide. And just like the Israelites I felt Gods mercy. As soon as I started to admit my wrong and bring them to the LORD things started to change. One day while cycling back from the shops I felt what I can only say was the Holy Spirit telling me to look at every property for rental in the Brooklyn area. And would you believe it the next week we had found a house we could afford and not only could we afford it, it was in the most beautiful garden. God had provided once more. None of this, though, would have been possible without Gods provision and without Gods forgiveness. Just like the Israelites who had the image of their sin and death raised up for their forgiveness so too was the son of man raised up. Christ, the son of man, was lifted up in human form for the sins of all humanity. While it was a clear image of the snake in Numbers, in reality the image of sin is not so clear. All humanity sins, so Christ, in the form representing humanity was lifted high so that we may be forgiven. It was not through my own power that we found accommodation but through Gods, and it is only through God that we are saved. But this has only covered up the first two versus of our reading. Next we read why God has forgiven us.
For God so loved the world – because God is love. Not by anything we have done ourselves but through and only through the love of God are we saved and given access to eternal life. It is God’s love that has allowed all this to be possible. It was God’s love for the Israelites that allowed Moses to construct the statue to heal them, and it was God’s love for his creation that brought Christ to the cross as an atonement for our sins; as a way to make amends for all the ways in which we keep falling short. This is perhaps why this verse is so powerful. God does not work out of demand or necessity but out of Love. And it was this love that brought so many previsions to my wedding and housing. I truly believe that my house was a gift from God and like we reads in Mathew 7:11 Our father in heaven gives Good gift; our house was not just a gift but a good gift. A loving God does not just meet his people’s needs but lavishes them with Grace. And an experience of this love is possible because of the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God. It is possible as Christ healed the condemnation of our sin so that whoever would believed in this loving God would be able to experience this eternal relationship.
God’s love is open to all. As we read on – God did not send Christ to condemn us. Unlike in the numbers passage, were the snake brought the condemnation, our condemnation is already with us. Sin, and humanity’s inability to overcome it, is what has condemned us. Christ did not come to condemn but to save. As it read it verse 18, those who do not believe are already condemned. Here John is giving a glimpse at the universality of sin, that is, the universality of that which cuts us off from God and Gods love. In the example of my wedding, my forgetting of God and focusing on my own worries was sin. I was putting my interests before God and not even thinking about what Gods interests for my life were. Yet we worship a loving God. God love us and wants to save us through Christ. Even though his creation keeps turning their backs on him, and forgetting all the previsions we have in him and follow their own way. Maybe you too can think of a way you have turned your back on the Lord. Perhaps a time when you did what you knew was wrong, or a time when you gave into temptation, or perhaps a time in which you should have shown love to your neighbour but did nothing. We all have sinned and as John point out we all are already condemned. But we have a choice and that choice is to accept Christ or not. As John describes it, that Choice is to come to the light that has been offered to us or to remain in the darkness.
The first choice, then, is to cling to the darkness. That is, to try and conceal our sin and make people unawares of it and to ignore Gods will for our life. We want to carry on with what we do wrong and think we know best. Like the Israelites they think it would have been best for them to have remained in the darkness of Egypt where there was at least food and water. Often when I do something wrong around the house, perhaps I dropped and broke my wife’s favourite mug or forget to do the Landry after I said I would. My first instinct is to hide it from my wife. I want to keep her in the darkness about the thing I have done wrong. Sometimes I am scared of what she might think, while other times I am ashamed and so I want to hid it.
Sin loves darkness and flourishes in the darkness.
Looking at the state of corruption in our country, it is festering in the darkness, behind closed doors. If we think of the Gupta scandal, they did everything possible to keep their corruption under wraps – to keep it in the darkness. Perhaps you more personally you can think of something you are trying to keep under wraps. Perhaps you cheated on your partner, or stole money from your parents, or maybe you made up a story as to why you couldn’t complete you assignment in time, or perhaps there is something else you want to keep in the darkness. In all these caes we are trying to keep sin in out of the light. In all cases we are ignoring the call to follow Christ and ignore the plans God has for our life. The well know passage in Jem 29:11 says God knows the plans he has for you plan to prosper and not to harm, but how can these plans ever come true if we remain in the darkness. How can these plans come true if we refuse to follow God. We know what is right, we know the light, yet we hid from it. We are ashamed to have our sins exposed.
But there is another way John describes, those that come to the light. In the light we accept Christ as our Lord and saviour, we accept the sacrifice he made for our sins and the justification and sanctification that bring. Through Christ we are justified and given life and through following Christ our lives are continually cleansed and brought in line with the plans God has for us.
Importantly to notice here is that John has not said that those in the light no longer sin. Sin is inescapable and it is always Christ who saves. Rather, those that come to the light strive for what is true. They do not strive to hide their sins but humbly admit them in the hope of becoming better followers of Gods will. So in my example at home, that would be to tell my wife the truth of why the mug is broken or why the Landry wasn’t done. In that way I form a deeper bond of truth with her and a deeper honesty. She knows if I will not hide those from her I will not hide anything and together we can work around the issue. This is the same with God, if we accept Christ and walk in the light our bond with God will grow. This does not mean the end of hardship and sin, but it does mean the growth of a relationship through which to battle hardship and sin. God is a God of love and will never abandoned those who walk into his light, but through that light will grant them eternal life.
So we have a choice, cling to the darkness or let the light of Christ make us a new creation.
But in closing let us remember that we worship a Loving God. We do not need to fear brining our wrongs before the lord, but need to be open to be changed. We have life because of God’s love shown through Jesus Christ. In response to this loving God John is calling us, as believers, not to hid our sins; but to truth in Christ . It is though this light that we may have life. It is through embracing Gods love that we can live. This may result in exposure of sin yet it is only though this admittance that we can truly experience Gods love. By clinging to the darkness we hid away from the love and salvation that God brought us in Christ. Yet we do not need to fear a loving God, a God who would sacrifice his only son for the forgiveness of our sin. Rather we need to hold deer the name of Jesus and allow our commitment to Christ to sanctify us. To allow the good God to show us his unending love.