Even in a time when many people don't know much about the Bible, it's a verse a lot of us know by heart. We don't even have to recite it; just the reference will do: "John 3:16." The evangelically-minded hold up the reference on painted signs at football games. It suggests the heart of the Christian message, summarizing what God did in Jesus. "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." The short form: "God so loved the world." That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? It's the good news in a nutshell.
Today on this Second Sunday in the season of Lent, I'd like to invite you to go deeper into this familiar passage from the third chapter of John. To do that, I'd like to ask you to follow me on a journey into the distant past--all the way back to the Old Testament book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Jewish Torah.
The people are in the Sinai desert, half-heartedly following Moses on the circuitous trek toward a land that God has promised these former slaves. They are following half-heartedly because after all this time they have begun to doubt their leaders and even wonder if there is such a land at all. Moses' rag-tag band of pilgrims have begun to "murmur"--that is, they are complaining, bellyaching, kvetching over the hard life of the desert, the strange, God-given diet of manna and quail, and the uncertainty of their serpentine route.
Serpentine in more ways than one! For here, in the ninth chapter of Numbers, somewhere out in this seemingly God-forsaken desert, there is a plague of poisonous snakes. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't particularly like snakes. My grandmother had an actual phobia about snakes. It was a full-blown case of ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes. Grandma was a gardener, and each time she would see a snake among the flowers she would fly into a frenzy, take the hoe to the snake, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, make hamburger of the poor thing.
It was worse than that for the Hebrews, however; for these snakes were many, and they were poisonous. People began to die. And so they went to Moses, suspecting that the snakes were some kind of divine retribution for their complaining. They asked that Moses intercede for them. Moses then does intercede with God.
In response, God tells Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, telling him that if any of the people are bitten by a poisonous snake, they should gaze at the bronze serpent and be healed. Interesting, isn't it? Look at a snake and be healed of snakebite. It's what we call "homeopathy"--that like cures like. By the way, in old England it was believed that if you were bitten by a rabid dog, you should take a little of the dog's hair and rub it into the wound. Like cures like, they said. Thus we have the saying, "A little of the hair of the dog that bit you." But that's a whole other story.
So going back to our story, it worked. Those who had been bitten gazed at the bronze serpent that Moses had made, and they were healed. It was a miracle.
End of story? Maybe not. Let's get out our Bibles again and turn to the book of Second Kings, the 18th chapter. Five hundred years have gone by now, and we haven't heard another word about the bronze serpent of Moses. Now the people have been settled in for some time in the Promised Land, where they had decided they needed to have kings like other nations. Many of those kings were disappointing and corrupt, but one king came along who was different. His name was Hezekiah, and he cleaned things up in the land. In fact, we are given a list of the things Hezekiah did: "He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole." What he did was destroy the pagan worship places, which had cropped up around the land. And then this: "He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan."
Do you see what had happened? Five hundred years after Moses had made the bronze serpent as a means of healing, they still had it, and it had become an idol. That is, what had been a means to an end had become an end in itself! Instead of pointing toward the God who had ordered it made, it now pointed toward itself; and the people worshiped the serpent instead of the God to whom it was to point. They had even named it! We're not sure what Nehushtan means, but it may be a play on the Hebrew word for "serpent."
In any case, I wonder what the people's reaction was when King Hezekiah smashed that five-hundred-year-old bronze serpent. After all, it was made by Moses himself, a precious antique, a part of the nation's history. I once served an old church in a historic district. We were going to replace the roof, and the Historical Architectural Review Board of the city wouldn't let us do it, because that old roof was, well, old! Some old things are precious, and some are just old.
Sometimes we Christians begin to worship what is old but no longer precious. We have our traditions, you and I. We chafe against change. I have a friend who asks, "How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?" "Change???"
Funny that we should be this way. After all, in my Presbyterian tradition, we have a motto. "Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda." "Always Reformed, Always Being Reformed by the Word of God." That means that we're supposed to believe in change--that some things that were good and helpful in their time are no longer good or helpful. It's like that T-shirt I once saw. On the front it said, "Change is Good." On the back was written, "You First."
These two Old Testament passages about the bronze serpent illustrate a necessary point. What had been helpful and healing in one era had become an idol in another. I can't help but wonder: how many things in the life of our churches used to be helpful and healing but have outlived their usefulness? How many old traditions have we turned into idols? Someone has said, "Tradition is the living faith of dead people. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people." How many things have we turned into idols, in the name of traditionalism?
There is much discussion these days about the church's failure to attract and engage young adults. The religion polls show that the most rapid growth is among the "nones"--that is, those who answer the question of religious affiliation as "none." We can't help but wonder if those who try our churches find us gathered around various prized bronze serpents that we should have smashed long ago. Now that I'm in my sixties, having been in the ministry for four decades, I must confess that I'm very fond of many such serpents, but people like me must challenge ourselves to ask which among them are no longer helpful or healing. What means to an end have I turned into ends in themselves? I must remember that motto of ours: Always Reformed, Always Being Reformed by the Word of God. Well, this is one word that challenges me, and I wonder if it challenges you.
Good King Hezekiah smashed the bronze serpent, in spite of what I'm sure were numerous complaints from the Hebrew Historical Architectural Review Board. And in so doing, he proved to be an example of the spirit of reform.
So are we done with our serpentine plot? Have we seen the last of the bronze serpent? Not quite. Again, we get out our Bibles and move ahead, down through the centuries, until we find Jesus, the Messiah, visiting by the light of a candle with a man named Nicodemus. In the third chapter of John, it is reported that Nicodemus, a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders of Jerusalem, came to Jesus under cover of night. The purpose of this clandestine meeting was to ask serious questions of Jesus, for I suspect that Nicodemus was a genuine seeker who had urgent and searching questions.
So now we hear Nicodemus, his voice in whispered tones: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." With these words of Nicodemus, a door is opened and Jesus steps through. "You must be born from above," Jesus says; but Nicodemus misunderstands. Because the Hebrew can be taken either way, Nicodemus thinks Jesus has said, "You must be born again." What, he asks, you mean I have to go back into my mother's womb and be born all over again?
No, says Jesus, you need to be born on two levels--water and spirit. You must be born from above!
How interesting, that in all our talk about being "born again Christians," we have joined Nicodemus in his mistranslation! I believe what Jesus really said was, "You must be born from above." You see, he was trying to lift the eyes of this religious leader to take in higher things, so that he might begin to see his life from a spiritual perspective. You must be born from above!
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he "must be born of water and spirit." Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! "If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?" Lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! There's more to life than you know!
So here it comes. You know John 3:16, "God so loved the world." Do you know John 3:15, the one that comes just before it? Here it comes. "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man (Jesus). And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life." Here it is! The bronze serpent has come back in the New Testament, in the gospel! That old bronze serpent made by Moses and smashed by King Hezekiah has come back at the end of this serpentine story. Jesus is not saying that a serpent on a pole can heal you; he is saying that just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to heal, so he, Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, must be lifted up on a cross to save. You must lift up your eyes, Nicodemus! You must be born from above. You must discover the incredible world of the Spirit. And if nothing else will lift up your eyes and your heart, then the sight of me will lift them up.
Do you see where this serpentine, meandering story of the snake has taken us? From the desert wanderings of Moses' rag-tag band to the hill of Calvary; and there we hear the call to lift up our eyes and see the one who saves us and gives us abundant life.
Now the snake of Moses has led us to that favorite verse, that "gospel in a nutshell": "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."
And then this great, final word: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
Maybe you've been in church all your life. Maybe you're a "none" with no affiliation. Maybe you're a seeker like Nicodemus, checking Jesus out under the cover of night. Whoever you are, remember this: he did not come to condemn you, but to save you and give you life. Lift up your eyes. Lift up your hearts. Our serpentine story has come to this: "For God so loved the world." Amen.