Old Testament Reading Numbers 21:4-9
Epistle Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
Second Gospel Reading: John 3:14-21
Sermon: “Lifted Up”
Today’s epistle reading describes a dramatic transition. Paul paints a very vivid word picture for us describing the original state of those who had come to faith. Its not a very pretty picture – listen to it again: (Ephesians 2:1-3 NLT)  Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins.  You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil – the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God.  All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.”
Paul describes life without God – dependent, damaged by our environment and disfunction, addicted and enslaved to our sinful desires and hangups – ruled by our passions – living a shadowy living death in rebellion to God. Subject to his righteous judgement and alienated by own own will from his love and grace. Destined for nothing good. These words describe the natural state of humankind – greedy, seemingly proud and inwardly desperate – trapped in a system that has only death as its reward. It’s a grim picture indeed. We were like those poor sin sick, snake bit Israelites in the wilderness – suffering the results of our rebellion against God. But… God made a way.
“BUT”… it’s such a lovely word in the passages today. Often we dread it when it comes in a conversation. Everything is fine until the BUT comes along. BUT, not this time. Here it is a beautiful, wonderful gracious word – BUT GOD! God so rich in mercy and love would not leave us in such a state. God changed the rules. God sent his son into the world, to heal to teach and to witness the presence of God with us – to even suffer rejection and death, BUT God also raised Christ from the dead and so raises us too. Paul claims its all God’s doing – we don’t get to take any credit for it. Its a gift! All we do is say thank you and cling to the great gift we have been offered. That’s it, no bragging allowed. We didn’t find God, God came and found us. Not only that but God paid the price. Before, it was all about us – ego, selfish preoccupation so severe that our spirit was dead to God – incapable to reach out.
Paul does reminds us that we belong to God now, we are no longer our old selves – something new has been born in us and is growing and developing – “We are what he has made us – he has made us new – so that we can do the good things that God has planned for us from the very beginning. This is why we seek to obey God and do God’s will. Not to save ourselves or to deserve to be saved but out of gratitude for the gift of salvation and faith. We are God’s children – so naturally we will try to live that way.
John’s gospel paints an equally vivid picture for us. He first recalls the peculiar and frightening picture of an episode from the stories of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness where they complained bitterly and somewhat irrationally about being taken out of slavery in Egypt and lead out into the wilderness. They complained about everything – the lack of food and water – then when they did receive it, they complained about the food that God graciously sent. They complained about the leadership of Moses and Aaron and now even about God. When their poisonous speech resulted in poisonous serpents invading the camp, they confessed their sin and God provided a unique way for them to be saved – Moses was instructed to put a bronze snake up on a pole and whoever looked up at that snake would live. Interestingly, God did not take away the serpents. They had to put their trust in what God had provided – apparently the snakes were still there and they were still being bitten. It is the same with our struggles with Sin – we still struggle, but God has made a way to be with us through it all.
That’s what John alludes to when he says (John 3:14-16 NLT) “… as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” There is that beautiful little word again – But. But who? God of course! These verses come from Jesus himself as he is explaining what new life is to Nicodemus who had come to him at night. Nicodemus had not understood Jesus’ spiritual teaching about being born from above, so Jesus referenced this old story of the Exodus to remind him about God’s grace in the past.
This theme of being lifted up was to be repeated in front of him. Jesus was to be lifted up on the cross as a symbol for all to see. Then he was to be lifted up from death – resurrected and then lifted up to his Father’s side in heaven so that all those who put there trust in him could have eternal life. Life that starts here and now and continues for all eternity. The question was simply put – would people trust in God’s provision of grace – unexpected as it was – the Messiah executed as a criminal on a Roman cross and raised to glory. The bronze serpent in the wilderness was a sign to be recognized and trusted – so too was it to be with Jesus lifted up on the cross.
It was difficult for Nicodemus to understand and for us too. Let’s go back to that Old Testament story for a deeper look through the eyes of modern medicine. Today, when someone has a bad reaction to being bitten by a poisonous snake, we don’t have them look at a fake snake on a pole – even though one is often seen as the symbol of the medical establishment. What happens instead, wondrously enough, seems to be consistent with our theme today: they are given a substance known as antivenin. Just as in our story, the cure is intimately linked to the problem. Antivenin is made through the use of the venom of the very snake that caused the problem in the first place. You see the snake venom is administered to a host animal – usually a horse or a sheep in small doses over the course of a couple of months.
The animal, through the marvelous workings of God’s design, builds up a high concentration of special proteins in its blood that seek out and bind to the venom molecules and remove them from its body. A quantity of blood is then removed from the immunized animal and those special antibodies are isolated from the plasma. They are carefully stored and when needed, can be administered to a snake bite victim, where they do they same thing – they seek out and remove the venom from the victims system. We have recently used the same principle during the pandemic when plasma from people who have recovered from the corona virus is given to those who are having a hard time fighting it off.
This wondrous process of biochemistry seems to me to point back to the Gospel lesson. John records Jesus speaking of himself – saying that the “Son of Man” must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus then is the object of our faith and trust to save us from what we cannot conquer ourselves. Jesus has suffered that assault of sin and death on our behalf and has been victorious. He then is the instrument of our salvation – no one else can do it, only the sinless one who has won the victory can help. Therefore, the blood of Jesus, the lamb of God, represents in this wonderful and strangely literal way – salvation, life and reunion with God.
• Jesus was indeed lifted up on the cross so that all who look to him might be saved.
• Jesus was lifted up from the grave that all who believe in him might have everlasting life.
• Jesus was lifted up to heaven and seated at the right hand of God to intercede on our behalf so that we might be led to stand in the eternal light of the God who loves us so much that he gave his only Son.
Because Christ Jesus has been lifted up, we, who put our trust in him will be gathered up with him. It is his promise. In the last week of his earthly ministry, as Jesus is facing the cross, Jesus says these words to his disciple and the crowd gathered around them: (John 12:23-32)
 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.  “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.  Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.  Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And just so – here we are this morning, placing our trust in the one who was lifted up for us and conquered sin and death for us.
Just a one more closing thought on the call that this wonderful gift places on our life. If we focus solely on God’s grace – we might mistake it for a simply arbitrary act of God with no place for a response from us. If however, we focus solely on our human faith, we risk making salvation a human accomplishment. Rather scripture says that we are saved BY grace, THROUGH faith. We dare not make the Grace of God cheap as Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns – we were bought with a great price – God’s own Son. Such a great gift demands more than just a nod of the head. As Issac Watts wrote in the final verse of “When I survey the wondrous cross”
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
May God help us to live in his light – this day and every day. Thanks be to God.