By Reverend Charmaine Braatvedt
Sunday, 15th March 2015
John 3: 14 – 21
Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the teaching that Nicodemus received when he came to Jesus in the darkness of the night to be enlightened by him.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council whose great attribute was that he was willing to learn from Jesus.
What fabulous lessons Jesus taught him!
Today’s reading picks up the story from just after Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about the importance of being born again in a spiritual sense.
He goes on to reveal to Nicodemus
- the truth about his identity as the Messiah
- and why he has come into the world.
Like the wonderfully good teacher that he is, Jesus works from the known to the unknown as he teaches Nicodemus. He starts with a very familiar story that comes from Moses and the Exodus narrative.
Let’s take another look at today’s Old Testament Reading from Numbers 21: 4 -9.
In this story Moses is leading the Israelites, who have escaped from slavery in Egypt, on a journey to the Promised Land.
They are a complaining and a difficult lot and Moses spends much of his time very frustrated with them, as this cartoon reveals.
On this particular occasion they are complaining about the food:
“There is no bread, there is no water and we detest this miserable food”. Every parent of every teenager can identify with Moses on this one.
Their lack of gratitude to both God and Moses is astounding. Rejecting the heavenly manna was tantamount to spurning God’s grace.
At this time they are struck by a plague of venomous snakes that bit the people and many died. As is the way with painful experiences, this crisis caused the people to reflect on their behaviour. The outcome of this reflection was repentance for their ingratitude to God and Moses.
Moses took pity and prayed for the people and then the Lord responds by giving Moses a most puzzling instruction:
“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and will live.” Is God being ironic here? The instrument of their pain becomes the location of their healing.
Anyway, Moses obeyed and sure enough, whenever anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
There has been much discussion and debate about the significance of this story. However, it is clear that its significance does not lie in whether snakes are good or bad. Rather the story tells of God’s power and compassion. As long as the Israelites looked upward and submitted their hearts to God, they were cured. When they did not they declined.
Now there’s a method of biblical interpretation called typology. This is when an element found in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure one found in the New Testament. The story of Moses and the snakes is a case in point.
Jesus uses this story typologically.
He says that just as people were healed physically by looking at the bronze snake which Moses lifted up, so people will be healed spiritually when they look in faith to him, the Son of Man.
In both stories, the source of salvation is God in whom we are to have faith.
It is significant that both stories make the point that those who confess their sins find God’s healing.
In the Numbers story, once the people had repented of their sins and turned back to God, they were physically healed.
So it is with Jesus, the Son of Man. Once we repent of our sins and turn to Jesus, we are spiritually healed.
It is somewhat ironic that it was pain and death that brought them to their knees and hence brought the people to a place of healing.
Just so the pain and death of Jesus brings healing to a repentant sinner.
Jesus goes on to say that just as Moses lifted up the snake which became an instrument of healing, so “the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have healing, ie eternal life in him.” V15.
Those words lifted up signify not only that Jesus would be lifted up to die on a cross on a hill,
they also foretell that he will be lifted up from the dead, resurrected, glorified and lifted up to heaven.
Verse 15 also introduces Nicodemus to the idea of eternal life.
Then in John 3:16 we read that it was essentially to give believers eternal life that Jesus came into the world.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
John 3: 16 has been called ‘everybody’s verse’ because in it Jesus declares that Jesus has come so that the whole world might have eternal life.
This is the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.
I wonder what you understand by this term, eternal life?
Most commonly, eternal life refers to continued life after death. However it is in the Gospel of John we learn that the term means more than this to the Christian believer.
John’s Gospel makes it clear that eternal life is a present-tense possession.
Eternal life is something we can gain in this life here and now. It’s not something that begins when we die and go to heaven.
There are a number of verses in John’s Gospel that support this theology (See John 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 6:40, 47).
This eternal life is defined for us in John 17:3.
“Now this is eternal life that they know you as, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
So Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God, meaning experiencing an intimate, close, personal relationship with God as Abba Father.
Many people believe that Jesus died to forgive their sins.
But how many people feel as though they have a close, personal, intimate relationship with God?
There are those who think that kind of relationship is reserved for when we get to heaven.
While it is certainly true that we will be close to God in heaven, the eternal life that Jesus offers is available here and now and it is a life in God that brings with it an intimate relationship with God right here and now.
Many Christians are trapped by a theology that says your sins are forgiven but you have to wait for your time in heaven before you can really start living. That is missing the main point of salvation.
Eternal life is the very life of God available to us right here and now in Jesus.
However, having just said that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, Jesus then appears to go on to contradict himself saying that whoever does not believe in him stands condemned.
Wow that’s a bit harsh Jesus! Or is it?
The Israelites rejected the heavenly bread out of ingratitude. What’s to be done with those of us who reject the one who says I am the bread of life?
The Biblical scholar William Barclay tells the story of a man who went on a tour of an art gallery in Europe. At the end of the tour he said to the tour guide:
“Well I don’t think much of your old pictures.”
The tour guide replied:
“Sir I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them.”
This is so with Jesus.
When we are presented with the Gospel of Jesus we have a choice to either accept it or reject it. If we accept it we are accepting salvation if we do not we are rejecting salvation. The choice is ours. A bit like a drowning person who may choose either to accept the life buoy or not.
God sent Jesus in love for our salvation.
It is not God who has condemned us but we ourselves if we do not receive him.
God only loves us. He offers us eternal life, intimate fellowship with him out of love. It cannot be forced on us we have a free will to accept his gift or to refuse it.
Now there are many reasons why people may reject a relationship with Christ.
- Have you noticed that it is often the case that in any really good person there is always an unconscious element of condemnation within them, for they show us up for who we are and we don’t always like what we see. Christ is the light. His life, teaching and presence reveals to us the truth of our own fallibility and we don’t always want to engage with that revelation.
- Furthermore, when we are engaged in unworthy activity, like addictive destructive or unloving behaviours, we don’t want a flood light shed on that activity or on us.
Tell the story of cockroaches who scatter when the light goes on.
In those times or situations when our own consciences convict us that we are doing what is wrong we gravitate to the concealing darkness of secrecy rather than towards the revealing light.
Adultery, theft, exploitation are all done in secret.
When our deeds are wrong we prefer darkness.
John is spot on when he writes:
Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
Coming into the light refers to coming to Jesus as Nicodemus had done.
It also implies full disclosure, for light illumines dark places and makes secret places public.
Nicodemus’ lecture on Theology 101 is concluded with these words
“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”.
There we have it Jesus calls us to come out of the darkness into his light not to condemn us but to offer us a relationship with God that will last for all eternity. We have a choice that is open to everyone in the world to accept this gift or to reject us and there are consequences to either choice. The good news is that the door is always open and like the Israelites in Moses time we can always come back and he will always take us back because that is the nature of love.
Time for Reflection.
Take a moment to consider:
- What is the heavenly manna with which you are being fed at present? Give thanks for it.
- Is there an area in your life that requires spiritual healing? If so would you turn your eyes towards Jesus the son of man lifted up and ask him to heal you in that area of your life.
- Eternal life is a life of intimate fellowship with God available to us right here and now in Jesus. Ask the Holy Spirit to infill your mind and heart that you may experience the fellowship of eternal life with him right here and now today.
Nicodemus was a good man, a faithful man but like all of us he had his dark spots. His salvation lay in his willingness to learn from Jesus as does ours. As you come forward for communion today, you may like to symbolically light a candle to indicate your thankfulness for some new insight some new understanding or conviction that God has placed on your heart or mind or spirit today.