The fourth of the Old Testament promises providing a baptismal lens this Lent is the promise God makes to Moses: those who look on the bronze serpent will live. In today’s gospel Jesus says he will be lifted up on the cross like the serpent, so that those who look to him in faith will live. When we receive the sign of the cross in baptism, that cross becomes the sign we can look to in faith, for healing, for restored relationship to God, for hope when we are dying.
Today we have in our gospel lesson John 3:16, probably one of the most well-known if not the most well-known verses in the whole of the New Testament.
Yes, God loves the world, but what does that mean for the refugees of war; those living in extreme poverty, not knowing when they will eat next or where they might sleep? What does it mean for those who are victims of political oppression driven from their homes? What does it mean for us on the days we grumble that we have not been treated right, or the supermarket was out of our favorite ice cream, or when a passing storm knocks out our electric?
Some days it seems we have so much to grumble and complain about, but do we? How often do we pray that God might bless us with just a bit more? How often do we pray that God has blessed us too much and ought to bless us less?
Is it in our DNA to grumble, to never be satisfied, and to never say my days are too good?
The lessons for this Sunday in short say, we were dead and have been brought to life by the grace of God. Our nature is destructive and pervasive. We easily give ourselves to the powers that are opposed to God’s purposes. In the words of Numbers, the serpents of disobedience have sent into us selfish and destructive desires. That is why we end up at war with each other and with ourselves, entangled in a web of anger, competition, and violence. Left on its own, sin defeats us, kills us, locks our sights on worthless goals set in the short term.
From this life that can only end in death, “God, who is rich in mercy . . . , made us alive together with Christ. . . .” God has acted toward us as He acted in Numbers. He has acted in Christ by raising us up with Christ to be seated beside him in heaven. The church, then, is not simply a body of persons who do good in the world. We are “re-created, reformed by what Christ has done so that we might do good works . . . ,” the church is God’s institution . It is the place we come to know what God has done. It is not a club organized to maintain itself. It exists so that through the church God’s enormous love, mercy and grace might be visible and made known.
From the beginning God is the first actor. It is He who, through grace, has made a way for us not to be ruled by the “power of evil” but by Him, a way that will lead to life eternally with Him.
We hear the confusion in Nicodemus as he contemplates Jesus’ teaching in our gospel from (John 3:3-8). We are often times confused also. It all becomes clear if we remember John 3:16. God’s love has provided the means for salvation through Jesus. What more do we need to understand?