Just as the Serpent was Lifted Up, Good Friday 2014

April 18, 2014

Just as the
Serpent was lifted up
The first
time he had met Jesus it was in the dark, and there was just him and the
master. 
We see him at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and then we hear him speak
in defence of Jesus halfway through the story and then we don’t see him again
until the day that Jesus died on the cross. 
His name was Nicodemus and we are told that he was one of two men who
came to claim the body of Jesus from the cross.
And now the crowd that had demanded the death of Jesus had faded into the
night and once again Nicodemus meets Jesus in the dark. 
And as Nicodemus and Joseph took Jesus body from the cross, not an easy
task seeing it had been nailed there, I wonder if Nicodemus’ mind drifted back
to the first time he had met the young preacher from Galilee. 
It had
been early in Jesus’ ministry and Nicodemus wasn’t even sure that he wanted to
be associated with this radical young preacher, so he met him after dark.  It is a very familiar story that has very
familiar scriptures attached it it.  It
was there that Jesus told Nicodemus John 3:3 Jesus
replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the
Kingdom of God.”   And probably
the most memorized portion of scripture ever is found in that account, John
3:16
“For God loved the world so much that he
gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish
but have eternal life.
But I’m pretty sure those weren’t the words that Jesus had spoken that
night that came back to Nicodemus as he took the battered body of Jesus down
from the cross where he had died so violently. 
Instead
I would think that at that point that Nicodemus was probably thinking of a
fairly cryptic thing that Jesus had said at their first meeting and that was
when Jesus told him,  John 3:14-15 And 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.   And perhaps it was at that moment that
Nicodemus had an aha moment.
Now Nicodemus had an advantage
over us and that is he probably knew exactly what Jesus was talking about when
he mentioned the bronze snake on the pole, where most of would have been
saying, the bronze what on the who? 
It’s a fairly obscure story for
us, but it would have been familiar to Nicodemus who John tells us was a
religious leader.  The story is told in
the book of Numbers which gives us an account of the Exodus of the people of
Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. 
And so very close to the
beginning of Jesus ministry he compares himself and his sacrificial death to a
brief interlude in the 40 year journey of Moses and the people of Israel that
had happened 1500 years before. 
And not in a clear and concise
way, instead in a way that would only make sense after the fact.  And so a couple of years after Jesus made the
statement it suddenly becomes clear to Nicodemus what Jesus was talking about.
 John 3:14-15 And
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.   
And is so often the case, first
we need the back story. In this case the back story takes only five verses in
the book of Numbers.   The Israelites
have been free from Egypt for two years, but they have yet to come to the place
that they would settle, instead they have been wandering through the desert,
eating manna and quail and defending themselves against the nomadic tribes that
lived in the area. 
And we are told that the people
began to speak out against God and Moses, grumbling and complaining about their
situation.  Which seems pretty
typical.  But then the story takes a
bizarre twist and we read in Numbers 21:6 So
the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died.
  That’ll learn em.  I hate snakes, Remember this (Video from Indiana
Jones)  I’m sure Moses was thinking, “Why
did it have to be snakes?”
And we pick up the story again
in Numbers 21:7-9 Then the people came to
Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against
you. Pray that the LORD will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the
people. Then the LORD told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach
it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses
made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten
by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!
So people complain, God sends
snakes to bite people, people repent snakes disappear.  But for those who have already been bitten
God tells Moses to create a replica of a poisonous snake, put it on a pole and
anyone who looked at the snake would be healed. 
Weird.
One commentator wrote, Among the Jews,
the brazen serpent was considered a type of the resurrection—through it the
dying lived; another commentator said The
healing power lay not in the brazen serpent; it was only a symbol to turn their
thoughts to God; and when they did that they were healed.
And so it was at the beginning
of Jesus’ ministry, when he is defining who he is and what he will do to a
religious leader named Nicodemus that Jesus reaches back to this obscure story
and compares himself to a bronze snake on a pole. 
So the question is if Jesus had
to be lifted up like the bronze snake was lifted up, why was the bronze snake
lifted up?
It Was Because Man’s Rebellion  The
reason that the people of Israel had to deal with poisonous snakes was because
of their rebellion.  God delivered them
out of Egypt from slavery, during their travels their clothes and their sandals
never wore out, he provided them with food that all they had to do was bend
over and pick it up, and they whined and complained and cursed God.  And they were punished.  And this wasn’t the first time that God
punished the people for their rebellion, they knew the consequences of their actions
and yet they willfully rebelled against God.
But the story doesn’t stop with
the Israelites in the desert.  Throughout
the history of man we find man rebelling against God’s will for his life, each
of us every day find ways to do what we want to do even if it is in direct
violation of God’s will for our lives.  We
are walking proof of Proverbs 14:12 There
is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.
The Bible
tells us over and over again that all have sinned, that none can measure up to the
God standard.  That God sent direction in
his word and it was ignored, he sent prophets and they were at the best ignored
and often times killed. 
1500 years before
the birth of Christ the people of Israel were punished with snakes, I hate
snakes. 
But that was
a here and now punishment, the there and then punishment, has always been an
eternal separation from God.  Not just a
separation from God but a separation from all that is good, a separation from
love, a separation from light a separation from hope.  For ever.
And because
the people of Israel could not combat the snakes or the effects of the snakes
on their own there needed to be a different solution.
In the same
way, because mankind has found it next to impossible to bridge the gap that
exisist between us and God there needed to be a different solution.
The Solution Came from God.  If you know the story as it is told in the book of
Numbers, the people recognized that they were suffering the consequences of
their actions.  It was because of their
rebellion that they were being punished. 
And they begged Moses to intercede on their behalf and he did. 
And the
solution came in two parts, the snakes disappeared, which is good, but there
was also provision for those who had already been bitten.  And it was a little strange. 
Moses was
told to make a bronze replica of a snake and put it on a pole and those who
wanted to be healed needed to look at the snake.  It was that simple.  And by looking at the snake they were
acknowledging that it was God who was providing the solution.
And I would
suspect, knowing people, that there were those who would not look at the
snake.  Maybe they didn’t want to
acknowledge their need.  Maybe they were
telling themselves that eventually they would be all right, that others might
die of the poison but they wouldn’t.  
Or maybe
they figured that they knew the answer, that if they just did all the right
things that they’d be all right.
Of maybe it
was a pride issue, maybe they’d rather die than acknowledge that they needed
God.
But the bottom
line was that those who looked at the snake were healed, and those who didn’t
look at the snake weren’t healed and they died. 
It didn’t matter how much they denied their need to look at the snake,
it didn’t matter whether they thought they should have to look at the snake or
not,  all that mattered was that they
looked at the snake.
And there
was no power in the bronze snake, the power was in acknowledging that God had
the power to heal them, and it was only through his Grace that he was extending
that power to his people. 
When Jesus
told Nicodemus that he would need to be lifted up he was talking about the
death that he would suffer.  But the same
as the power of the healing was not in the snake, the power of God’s Grace was
not in the crucifixion of Christ. 
If Jesus had
of simply been crucified on a cross and that was the end of the story it would
make no difference in our eternity.  But
the story didn’t end there, but it was were the last chapter would begin.
There is all
kinds of theology wrapped up in the atoning death of Jesus.  How he paid a price that he didn’t owe,
because we owed a price that we couldn’t pay.
It wasn’t just a man who was
crucified that day; it was the Son of God. 
And he died to pay the price of our sinfulness, and to pay the price of
our rebellion.  The story is summed up by
the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for
our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
In the same way that the people
of Israel were powerless against the power of the poisonous snakes, we are
powerless against the consequences of our sinful actions and attitudes. 
We can deny that we are sinners,
but deep inside we know that we are.  We
can maintain that we can fix it ourselves, but deep inside we feel the
frustration of knowing that we can’t.  
When our two year old grand-daughter Payson gets to the point that she
finally acknowledges that she can’t do whatever it is she is trying to do, and
she wants to do everything herself, she comes to me and looks up just says
“help”.
You see Jesus didn’t just tell
Nicodemus John 3:14-15 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the
wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,  Verse 14 ends with a comma, not
a period.  Jesus continues by saying so
that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. And that is
it.  It’s nothing that you can do on your
own, and it’s everything he did for you. 
We are told in Ephesians 2:8-9 God
saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this;
it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have
done, so none of us can boast about it.
 And that leads us to the next point
which is It’s Our Choice  Moses could not force the people to look
at the snake, even though I’m sure he wished he could make that decision for
them, he couldn’t.
He could create the snake, and
seriously if you have to make a “something” in a hurry a snake is a pretty good
choice.   Give me some play dough and
three seconds and I can make you a snake. 
He could be obedient and put the snake on the stick and lift it up, he
could tell the people that if they wanted to be healed they had to look at the
snake on the stick.  But he could not
look at the snake for them. 
And maybe there were people
that he really liked, who were suffering the consequences of their rebellion
against God but they refused to look at the snake, and while it would have
broken Moses heart there was nothing he could do to force them to accept the
gift of healing that was being offered to them.
When Jesus finished telling
Nicodemus why he would have to be lifted up and how those who believed would be
saved he finishes with the verse that sums up the whole Gospel.  John 3:16 “For
God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone
who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

God loves us so much that he sent his one and only Son.  God loves us so much that he allowed his one
and only Son to be crucified for us.  And
he did everything he could do but he will not take away our free will.  He won’t force us to believe. 

Here is the reality, on that
Good Friday Jesus didn’t wind up on a cross because of the Romans or because of
the Jewish religious leaders.  He was on
the cross because it was the only solution for our sinfulness.