Imagine you're an Israelite wandering in the wilderness with Moses. Imagine how hungry you must be after making that trip across the Red Sea, how after seeing the signs and wonders of being delivered from the Egyptians you've been living in the
wilderness, going from one place to the next, eating manna (the foamy substance that they would find mixed with the dew on the ground), and that you and your children are hungry. Isn't it only natural that you would begin to grumble against Moses, and even against God, saying, "How could you have taken us out into this
wilderness to let us perish here?" You might imagine the people saying, "What kind of God is this that would deliver us from Egypt and here we are dying of starvation?"
Being realistic people, we know that yes, we probably would have fit right in line with them. But then the story says they find themselves among poisonous serpents, lots of them, and many Israelites are bitten and die. Having cried out against God and against Moses, they realize that perhaps God is
punishing them for their misdeeds, so they call out for Moses to do something. They admit their own sin and Moses prays to God, and God gives Moses directions to place a bronze serpent on a staff and show it to anyone who is bitten by a serpent, and that anyone who looks upon that and believes will live. What a poignant moment
of salvation for the Israelites (especially if you've been bitten), to be able to have access to something from God to give you life in that moment…now.
Today we might understand what it is to be bitten by a poisonous snake, though we hope we can be in a place to call on the phone and get the EMS crew out and be able to tell them what kind of snake it was so that they can give us antivenin. Poisonous snakes today are still very dangerous and still take
lives. So we might imagine what the people may have gone through, seeing family or friends, or even themselves being bitten. But for that moment of salvation, for them it was life…being delivered from death right there in the instant! Salvation arrived for those Israelites. And as we continue to read about the Israelites, that
satisfies them for some time. But not for too long, as we hear that unfolding saga of the people wandering.
But they experience something that was almost unheard of in its time, experiencing being saved from death in those very moments, being given new life. And you might imagine how they came out of that experience feeling very transformed. If you had been a bitten one who then looks upon the staff and
survives, your life is going to be different from that point on. And if you are one of those who grumbled against God in the beginning, you're probably saying, "I have nothing to grumble about. I am happy. You just point the way. I'll eat manna forever," because your life would have been changed and your thoughts would have
been transformed about this God who was leading Moses and the chosen people.
Now we come to the time of Jesus. And as we've been learning about in our Lenten study, the people have been waiting for a messiah to come, one who was going to deliver them from Roman oppression and the Roman Empire and restore the Temple to its glory and to make the Temple at Jerusalem the ruling
place of all nations. And the people are waiting for this messiah to come. Now, Jesus comes along, and in his ministry he does much in the way of healing people, bringing them salvation. And then there are instances of Jesus saying what salvation is. He spells that out very clearly with the tax collector, Zacchaeus. Much to
the dismay of those who watched, Jesus ate in the home of a sinner, a tax collector. In those moments with Jesus, Zacchaeus made a decision in that moment that he was going to live the right away, the godly way, and promised Jesus he would give back double-fold any of that of which he had defrauded people, and that he would
also share that wealth with others as well who were in need. And Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, today salvation has come to this house." Zacchaeus was transformed in the moment, living his life anew, living his life in God's ways. And there was salvation very plainly spoken by Jesus.
In his Gospel, John is showing how different Jesus is. And in the prior passages Jesus is talking about the Temple occult, which Jesus separated himself from, those actions different from those the Israelites in the Temple practiced. And then Jesus comes upon Nicodemus. And the story doesn't tell us,
but Nicodemus comes to him at night…and there's some point to that in our lesson for today. But Nicodemus, who is a rabbi, comes to Jesus at night, seeking him out to try to understand who Jesus is and what is going on. So Jesus begins this dialogue with Nicodemus. And in the dialogue, there is a differentiation between
Nicodemus and the teachers and rabbis of the time and the type of rabbi and teacher and Messiah that Jesus was. Something very different is evolving. And we come to today's lesson where Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus. They are sitting somewhere at night, and I imagine this was quite an intimate setting. This was not Jesus
speaking to a huge crowd, but in this intimate setting Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus what these things are all about. And Jesus starts to talk about salvation.
Jesus references back to Moses and the serpent, the salvation that was brought to the people who had life restored to them in those moments, the desire that God has for people to have life, but also this desire that people be transformed in who they are and to live in God's ways. So he says, "Just as
Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." In that particular setting, John plays upon the knowledge that early Christians had, that not only was Jesus lifted up on a cross, one of our symbols of salvation, but that Jesus was also
lifted up at his ascension, going up into the heavens where he is glorified. John knows this and is speaking this to his audience. But Jesus is saying these things to Nicodemus, who does not quite understand. And he says, "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."
That is a powerful passage of Scripture and one of the most quoted, John 3:16 - "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." We have done much with that passage over the many generations of the faithful. And as I
did my study about this, and remembering Jesus talking to Zacchaeus and how salvation came to Zacchaeus' house, I went to my commentary. Let me read to you what theologian and scholar Gail O'Day says about these particular words that can help frame perhaps another understanding of this reference.
'Jesus' offer of his life through being lifted up on the Cross makes eternal life possible for those who believe. Eternal life is one of the dominant metaphors in the fourth Gospel to describe the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus. To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined
by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by the will of God. Eternal does not mean mere endless duration of human existence, but it is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God. Eternal life is not something held in abeyance
until the believer's future, but begins in the believer's presence.'
Eternal life begins now. It begins here. It doesn't begin when we die. It begins now! It is the moment of transformation. It is the moment of following the one whom God sent into the world to give us life by transforming our life today, just as Zacchaeus' life was transformed and he experienced
salvation in those moments. No longer did he live for the will of human flesh, which said, "Let me make lots of money from these people by defrauding them." Instead, he lived by the ways of God. His life was changed forever in the instant. He was living the eternal life then and there in that moment because he was living by
the will of God and by the ways of God.
I said a moment ago, when we talked about Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, that it had something to do with what Jesus said in this passage. As we move further down in the passage, taking a different approach to what he was saying about eternal life, Jesus says, "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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people
loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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."
Certainly, this metaphorical play on light and darkness (light being good; darkness being evil) didn't miss Nicodemus, the rabbi who met with Jesus in the middle of the night so no one would see him. In those words, Jesus is passing judgment on Nicodemus and the rabbis who do not believe he is the
Messiah, but are those who ultimately will reject him and continue to live in the ways of darkness. It's a very powerful passage, and John puts together a very strong message for the believers who read his Gospel in its time. And it's a very powerful passage for us even in our modern time…that the salvation we long for, this
eternal life, is something that doesn't begin after this life is over. It begins now.
And it began in the moment of people deciding in Jesus' presence how they would go, one way or another. Nicodemus leaves and is not changed, he is not transformed. But Zacchaeus is changed in the moment. Though seen as a sinner by everyone (they couldn't believe Jesus ate at his house), Zacchaeus was
now a person of light. He came out into the light and did in the light what needed to be done so people could see God's glory. So there is condemnation and judgment here for the rabbis, just as there was condemnation and judgment for the Temple occult. And John is putting this whole thing together so that the people may
understand who Jesus is and how he differs from all these different groups. But also explains to us how all these different groups could then call for Jesus' life to end because it was too much change and something they could not handle.
What good news is there that comes to us from this passage? The good news is that God's grace comes in Jesus who teaches us God's ways so that we might be transformed in our everyday living, so that we might not live for our own flesh or the ways of humanity that drive us away from God, but that we
might choose to live in the ways that Jesus taught us, experiencing the eternal life now, experiencing God's presence walking with us always, not just in the church building. It's a wonderful thing for us to acknowledge. It's a wonderful and glorious thing for us to embrace. Eternal life has already begun. Can we imagine it?
Can we accept it? Can we live it?
March 22, 2009
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