Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-17
The writer, priest and activist Malcolm Boyd has died. 50 years ago, he wrote “Are You Running with Me Jesus?” His writings have had a profound influence on me. Malcolm wrote, “God, it seems to me you damn war, hate, hypocrisy, lies, tyranny, torture, exploitation and murder. It seems to me you bless love, peace, honesty, truth, freedom, kindness, dignity, and everything good about your creation. I find that you work patiently and mercifully to change the things you damn into the things you bless. Help me to have faith in your plan.” This sermon is dedicated to Malcolm Boyd.
I personally don’t care much for snakes. I have never been bitten by one. I can’t remember witnessing anyone who has been bitten. I’m sure don’t know anyone who has been bitten and died, at least if they did, they haven’t told me. My philosophy is if they leave me alone I will leave them alone.
My good friend and fellow minster Gary Charles is petrified of snakes. When we play golf together if I hit a ball in the woods, he refuses to help me look. If Gary hits a ball in the woods he argues, because of his fear of snakes, he should be given a free drop. Gary can’t understand why I don’t invite him to play with The Bunch.
On the other hand, there is Mary Dudley. We ride bikes together on the Skyline Drive. She loves snakes. On more than one occasion I have watched from a distance as she jumped off her bike to remove a snake from the road. It hardly matters if it is a Blacksnake or Rattlesnake, Mary Dudley will make sure every reptile receives safe passage back into the woods.
You are probably wondering why I am making all this fuss about snakes. In our text Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the Son of Man will be lifted up and whoever believes in him will have eternal life.” What on earth was Jesus talking about?
What might confuse us made perfect sense to Nicodemus, an accomplished scholar of the Torah. Nicodemus knew Jesus was speaking about a specific incident during the wilderness experience of the escape from Egypt. From the moment Israel left they whined. They were afraid of Pharaoh’s Army. They didn’t think Moses knew the way. Then they got thirsty, then hungry, then thirsty again. They even claimed being slaves was preferable to freedom. God got fed up with the complaints of the self-proclaimed Chosen People and sent fiery snakes to slitter among them. Many of the Israelites were bitten and died. The survivors quickly begged for mercy. Moses was instructed to place a bronze snake on a stick. Those who confessed and looked at the snake were healed.
This is a tough story. Taken literally it displays a no nonsense God with a short fuse. Taken symbolically it illustrates the Israelites dilemma in making critical decisions concerning their life and death. The original group already decided not to enter the Promised Land. The second generation was now choosing if they would follow the antics of their elders and die in the wilderness or risk following God and discover a new life. That is a tough question when the God you are asked to follow has just killed your best friend.
Nicodemus fully understands the significance of the illustration. Will he chose his old life or will he risk looking upon Jesus and lose the respect of his peers? From our perspective the choice is easy. We look to Jesus as the source of our salvation. But Nicodemus hardly knew the man. Remember, this is a pre-Easter encounter. Also Nicodemus knew the aftermath of the story of the snake.
The symbol of the Bronze Snake forged by Moses was given a permanent place in the Temple. When people had ailments they would go to the Temple and pray to the Snake hoping to be healed. The culture of the Bronze Snake became so strong it threatened to replace the worship of Yahweh. Eventually King Hezekiah destroyed the Snake and demanded the people to worship God, the real source of life.
Remembering his history Nicodemus paused and wondered if Jesus was the healer who offered life, or just another illusion taking him closer to death?
Noting his hesitation Jesus said, “God so loved the world, God gave us the Son. Believe and live eternally.”
I cannot tell you how many sermons I have preached on John 3:16. How much more simple can it get than, “God so loved the world. Believe and live eternally.” (Stop) Fifty years ago this was such an easy passage. I had never been anywhere north of Washington D.C. or south of Columbus, Georgia. My world was plenty big enough for me. I had heard of Africa and seen the National Geographic pictures of the slightly clad women we called natives. Asia was comprised solely of Japanese and we all talked about how evil they were. Everyone in my world loved Jesus and I was told by my Sunday School teachers the missionaries we supported were taking care of anyone else that mattered.
Growing up, God loved me and I believed in Jesus. There were no complications until I made the mistake of furthering my education. I was introduced to terms like Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. In other words I was exposed to Calvinism on steroids. I was told because of Original Sin I was incapable of truly loving God and neighbors. Before I was born, I was corrupt. But God, in God’s graciousness, had chosen a select few of us who would be given the opportunity to experience the love of God. By acknowledging God’s saving power, I and a few of you will discover that nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
That’s when I realized Creedal Statements can be healthy expressions of faith, or they can become dangerous snakes leading us away from the very essence of God.
Thankfully a course correction in my theological training expanded my world view and challenged the presuppositions which I had taken for granted. The bad news is with each new step, new perplexities emerge.
God so loved the world. Believe and have eternal life. If salvation comes by grace alone, is faith redundant? If salvation comes through faith alone, is grace necessary?
There are days I wished I could return to my simple life where questions such as these were nowhere on my radar. But there is no going back. The world is bigger than my backyard. And so is my dilemma. Limiting the grace God seems heretical. But doesn’t faith count for something?
Finding a perfect harmony between God’s grace and our response to this gift is always going to be difficult. It is human nature to want to earn our keep. But without God’s help, is perfection attainable? Furthermore there is a dangerously unspoken question that always lurks just below the surface. “Can someone different than me be blessed with God’s gift of grace?” If I say no than the parameter of salvation is greatly restricted. If I say yes than the wideness of God’s mercy stretches beyond my imagination.
Back in the good old days, only white, straight, males qualified to sit at the table of God. Well, we would let the woman in if they obeyed us and spoke only when spoken to. But that was probably a mistake because eventually they wanted a chair of their own. That opened the door to all kind of shady characters. First we let the blacks in, then the Hispanics. That caused problems because they questioned why the women got in before them. Then we discovered that all Asians weren’t Japanese. Koreans knocked the doors down to find their seat at the table. Africans soon followed even though they looked nothing like the pictures in National Geographic. Then someone suggested maybe Catholics were Christian. That didn’t play well with anyone born south of Richmond. Finally cooler heads prevailed. We elected a team to select those qualified for God’s grace.
We all agreed race didn’t matter. Red, yellow, black or white, they are precious in God’s sight. But precious only goes so far. We also agreed we don’t have to worship together. That would be ……………. uncomfortable.
We all agreed gender doesn’t matter. In Christ there is no distinction between male or female. In heaven both are equal. So, when women get to heaven, they can preach, serve the sacraments, and hold the highest ecclesiastical positions. But for right now they need to wait their turn.
We all agreed the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Nobody really believes that works in the real world, but when we get to heaven God will certainly sort it all out.
The rules were finally set. You don’t have to be a male to get into heaven. You don’t have to be an American to get into heaven. You don’t have to be white to get into heaven. You don’t have to be rich to get into heaven. You don’t even have to be Presbyterian to get into heaven. Everyone was ecstatic over the progress we had made. We held hands and started singing, “In Christ there is not east or west.”
Then a young man in the back started jumping up and down and screaming, “Can I join? Can I join?”
We turned to him and said, “Do you believe in Christ as your Lord and savior?”
“With all my heart”, he replied. “You see, I’m gay, and God accepted me even when I could not accept myself.”
The singing stopped, the bickering began once again again God’s not so holy people discovered the idea of God loving the whole world is easier said than believed.
For as long as I can remember I have believed in Jesus. For 65 years I have tried to learn to love all the folks God loves. Because I believe in Jesus I have tried to open my closed mind. Because I believe in Jesus I have tried to be color blind. Because I believe in Jesus I have tried to move past my prejudices, and my egocentric faults. Because I believe in Jesus, I regularly look up at the Cross and confess, “I believe, help me in my unbelief.”
How ironic that I look to the Cross. Like the snake, the Cross too often lives a double life. Like the snake, this symbol of God’s healing power too often is held high by those claiming Jesus hates anyone not exactly like them.
I believe in Jesus, but do I really believe God loves the whole world? I can so easily lose my way when trying to follow the all-inclusive path of the Cross.
Therefore this is my confession; this is what I believe. Until my words and actions perfectly reflect God’s love, I shall give unending thanks for God’s grace, for the road is long and my endurance and judgments can be inadequate.
Help me run with you, Jesus.
Help me run with you. Amen.