A Sermon preached on March 15th, Lent IV, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenNumbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
Since the Second Sunday in Lent, part of each week’s Gospel reading has been a Passion prediction by Jesus. First we had a very direct prediction in Mark (8:31) back on 1st March: “Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.” But despite being clear and open his disciples still didn’t really get the message, most famously Peter with his attempt to rebuke Jesus for being such a pessimist!
Then last week, this week and next week we have heard, or will hear, three somewhat more opaque predictions from John’s Gospel. In her sermon last week Rev. Dorothee Hahn focused on Jesus cleansing the temple, and with such great enthusiasm that I was beginning to get worried that she might turn over the coffee and cake table! But last week’s reading also contained a prediction: “Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. He was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (John2:19-22). Note that the disciples didn’t get the message until after Jesus’s resurrection! Here Jesus is not only predicting that he will be killed – destroyed - and raised from the dead in three days. He is also announcing the end of the Temple as the sole site where God was considered to be physically present and could be worshipped – and he is reminding the Jews, the disciples and us, that we do not need a building in which to worship God and God’s Son, however much we and I may like our buildings or in our case even be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
In next week’s Gospel passage, Jesus compares himself to a grain of wheat in his prediction. But if you want to find out what that means, you will have to come next week!
This week, as we just heard, Jesus made a very strange comparison with the serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness, a comparison we can only understand having heard the original story from the Book of Numbers. Of course in the Old Testament story it was an image of what was harmful and deadly and poisonous that was lifted up on a pole. Jesus is not the source of harm, on the contrary he is the source of life and salvation. But at the moment when he is raised up on the Cross he has taken up all the poison and evil in the world into and upon himself. When we look up to Jesus on the Cross we are looking both at the result of evil and at God’s triumph over evil. That’s why John uses such positive language: lifted up, which can also be translated as exalted. Jesus is the full display of God’s self-sacrificial and saving love. But that’s not all, as Jesus goes on to say in that famous phrase, so beloved of bumper stickers, "for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Martin Luther called this verse “the gospel in miniature,” indicating that it is the very heart of our Christian faith. Look – Believe – Live. That’s my summary!
But the sermon’s not over yet. Jesus goes on to say, that “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (3:18) So all non-Christians are condemned? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that is what is meant here – and I’m not alone! This week I took the Confirmation candidates with me to visit a mosque and one thing we talked about at the visit was the basic framework of Muslim life, the so-called five pillars of Islam: They are the testimony of faith, regular prayer, support of the needy, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able.
Confessing our faith in the one God, regular prayer, and support of the needy are things we also acknowledge as good. Let me quote from the Declaration on Non-Christian religions from the Second Vatican Council: “The Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions … Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith, acknowledge preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians.” “The church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They highly esteem an upright life and worship God.” As Jesus also tells Nicodemus in today’s Gospel: “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." (3:20) And non-Christians can also do what is true! Don’t get me wrong. I truly believe in Jesus’ promise of eternal life for those who believe and follow him, the only Son of God. But as the author of Ephesians makes clear, our salvation is not our doing. It is God’s free gift – Grace as we call it. I’m not going to second guess who God saves.
We Christians are saved, that is rescued from sin and death, by grace, by God’s free gift, not by what we do, our “works.” Good works are not the cause of our Salvation, but the result. First we recognize that God loves each and every one of us, and just how much God loves us. Look at how Paul stresses the unbelievable, incredible kindness of God. God is rich in mercy, great in love, the riches of God’s grace are immeasurable, as is God’s kindness toward us. Appreciating this deep and abiding truth will change our lives and when we have been remade by God’s generous love, good works become a way of life, the life of faith.
That way of life is defined a little later in the Letter to the Ephesians (5:1-2) as: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” You will probably recognize that last verse – it’s what I say after the Peace to introduce the Offertory. Salvation, Ephesians tells us, is not a one-off event, it’s a process in which we are raised up with Christ to share in his life both now and in the future. We are created for good works, they are our response to the gift of salvation as embodied in God’s Son. Imitating God in Christ means imitating his humanity, and his humanity is defined as love and self-sacrifice. That’s the touchstone of the good works that are a sign that we are already living the new life of faith: that we strive to love others as God loves us.
For the Israelites the image of a deadly serpent on a pole was a sign of God’s care and a means by which they were saved from physical death. For us and the world the Cross, which is an instrument of torture and death, is a sign of our salvation because of the one who is on the Cross, because of the gift of his life, and because of his gift of new life. The Cross becomes a heavenly thing for it reveals the life of heaven that Jesus has come to offer us. Since God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and one sign of that love is the willingness to lay down one's life (1 Jn 3:16), it is precisely in the cross that we see God most clearly. The Cross is the way through death and out the other side and points us to the way of life God has already prepared for us to live now and evermore. (Eph. 2:10)