“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this fourth Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, the foundation of all Christian theology is found in the first five books of the Bible, with the mighty acts of God in the Exodus taking center stage. In our Old Testament lesson for today, we are in the midst of the desert wanderings, and once again the people complain. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” God isn’t too happy with this, so He sends forth poisonous snakes to bite the people and many die. The survivors are quite repentant, and they beg for forgiveness and deliverance. God provides this deliverance, but He does so in a strange way. He does not simply snap His fingers or say a couple words, but He has Moses construct something. “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” The punishment for their sin is embodied and placed high on a pole, for people to look to and live.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus teaches us that this account is much more than simply interesting reading. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Jesus has come to fulfill the words of Moses and others, His marching orders come from the Old Testament. And so this incident, this act of compassion by God thousands of years earlier, will shape the course of Jesus’ life. Just as the bronze serpent embodied sin for the people of Israel, so Jesus would become the embodiment of sin for all people. He would become sin itself, sin incarnate, the Sinner. And just as the serpent was lifted high on the pole for all to see, so Christ would be lifted high upon a cross. That is what Lent is all about. We are driving toward Good Friday, to that night when Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the authorities to be killed. They could’ve stoned Jesus, they could’ve beheaded Him, Judas could’ve poisoned his wine. But no, Jesus had to die upon the cross, He had to die lifted high before all people, as the Scripture foretold.
Why did He do this? Sure, He did it in accordance with the Scriptures, but that is more of a ‘how’ than a ‘why.’ What would motivate Jesus to become the embodiment of sin for us? Why would He allow Himself to be lifted up in the first place? In our text, we can imagine Nicodemus thinking the same thing, and so Jesus gives us an answer: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus did this in fulfillment of His Father’s love- His Father’s love for you, me, and all creation, every person that He ever created, every person ensnared in the bondage of sin. We fell into sin, but God had such a love for us that He gave His very best to save us- His one and only Son, Jesus Christ. Only by living the perfect life in our place, only by taking all of our sins upon His back and facing the Father’s wrath could Jesus save us. And He did so on Calvary’s cross, when He was lifted high so that people could mock Him and spit at Him. He endured hell itself for you, for me, for all people. God loved the world by redeeming it through the blood of His Son. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
That should be the end of the story, but unfortunately it is not. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but yet so many in the world stand condemned. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” The tragedy is that Christ has died for all, but most people reject Him and the salvation He brings. Jesus does not condemn them, but they condemn themselves by rejecting His redemption.
Why would anyone do this? Jesus, once again anticipating our question, gives Nicodemus the answer: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” The life of sin is so enticing, the darkness so inviting, that so many reject the Light, they shield their eyes and run away from its life-giving beams. They would rather dwell in darkness and do their sins in secret, away from the light of Christ, and for that they stand condemned. And we were little different before Christ shone His light in our lives. Paul describes our former lives in this way in our Epistle lesson: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Unfortunately, we still fall into this former life. Examine yourself this Lenten season. What sin do you have in the darkness, in secret? What are you hiding from your friends or family, and think you can hide from God? What particular sins draw you away from the light of Christ and into the darkness? Each and every day the darkness tempts us, each and every day we are drawn back into what we were before. Our sins, especially our secret sins, hate the light, they struggle mightily to stay hidden. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
But the darkness is not our home, despite how much our sinful nature wants to dwell there. For Jesus Christ has made us alive, He has delivered us through His cross and the victorious empty tomb. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on Calvary’s cross, bearing the weight of all our sins, and there He paid the price for them. But Jesus did not only accomplish salvation, He delivered it to us, as Saint Paul teaches: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved.” Just as Christ was made alive on the third day and rose in triumph over the grave, so God makes us alive together with Christ. This happens in the blessed washing of the water with the word- we are buried with Christ in baptism and then raised with Him, made alive to live in the light. We follow His pattern- we die and are then made alive in Him, and we are brought into that great promise that Jesus speaks of in our text: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” We then conform to the pattern of Christ in another way. Jesus was lifted up high on the cross to fulfill the bronze serpent, but His lifting up also looked forward to His exaltation to the right hand of the Father, as we said in the Gradual today: “O come, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Because Jesus was exalted by the Father through His death and resurrection, so we too will be exalted with Him, as Paul teaches: “[God has] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
We are then heirs of the promise, those redeemed by Christ to dwell with Him forever. But we still fall into sin, we still are enticed into the darkness. In our Old Testament lesson for today, the people of Israel, the heirs of God’s promises, fell into sin once again, but God provided deliverance: “So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” By looking to the bronze serpent hanging high upon the pole, the Israelites received life in repentance and faith. We too have a place to turn when we fall into darkness, when we are enticed into secret sin. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Look to the cross and live! There your Savior hangs, having faced the wrath of God for your sins, having paid the penalty you owed. Look to the cross for healing, look to the cross for forgiveness, look to the cross for salvation! Look to the cross whenever your sins crowd around you, whenever Satan is enticing you back into the darkness- look to the cross, for there the Light of the world redeemed you! Bring your secret sins out of the darkness and confess them to your Savior. Bring them out of the darkness and into His light, for He is a fountain of forgiveness and healing! Our life in the Light of Christ is a life lived in daily repentance and forgiveness, with our eyes focused on His cross.
Jesus concludes our text by teaching us “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Our works do not grant us salvation, as Saint Paul teaches: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”- but our lives do point others to the Light, they allow the light of Christ to shine out from us to those around us. As those in Christ, we dwell in the light, we live in His truth, and we do what is set before us, as Paul tells us in the next verse: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We do what is set before us as those dwelling in the light and testifying to it, repenting and asking for forgiveness when we fail and live in darkness, fixing our eyes upon the cross. May the Lord always keep His cross before our eyes this Lenten season and every day, and may He exalt us with Himself into heavenly glory forever, Amen.