Thursday, August 11, 2011

Believe and Live: The Humble Remedy

Preached Sunday, August 7, 2011

Scripture readings:Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:1-21

“What a Wonderful World”
I see trees of green........ red roses too
I see them bloom..... for me and for you
And I think to myself.... what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue..... clouds of white
Bright blessed days....dark sacred nights
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world.

The colors of a pretty the sky
Are also on the faces.....of people ..going by
I see friends shaking hands.....sayin’.. how do you do?
They’re really sayin’......I love you.

I hear babies cry...... I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more.....than I’ll never know
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world
George David Weiss/Bob Thiele) Herald Square Music, Inc. on behalf of Range Road Music, Inc. and Quartet Music, Inc. ASCAP

I can’t think of any better way to put into words the meaning of the verse, “For God so loved the world.”

What kind of world do we live in? How would you describe it? Does the world fit the song, or is the song inadequate? Is the song unbiblical and blasphemous? Could God sing this song?

I think we can understand what kind of world we live in, and God’s purpose for us in this world, if we can understand these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

I will tell you my answers right now. About the song: I love that song. Do I think the song is adequate? Do I think it tells the truth? I think it tells the truth, but not the whole truth. Who could think it did? And yet I believe that God himself could sing it, because God so loves the world.


What kind of world do I think we live in? John 3:16 says it. We live in a beloved world, a truly wonderful world. And we live in a perishing world. These must be truly seen together and not forgotten. Unless we understand the absolute depth of its belovedness and the depth of its perishing we won’t know who we are, or where we are, or what to do.

John 3:16 makes us very wise, because it tells us that there is good news, and that the good news is important. The good news is the beginning and ending of all things. But it is especially important because there is also bad news, and we will never get through the bad news unless we know the good news.

I once knew a denominational official who, at meetings, would sometimes say: “I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” I usually told him, “We’re all Christians here, and we all believe in the happy ending. So let’s have the bad news first.”

But that’s not quite biblical, either, because (biblically) you start with the good news, get faced with the bad news, and then you get great news as the final word.

John 3:16 tells us about the good news of the love God has for the world. There is great news in seeing how far the love of God for the world will go when bad news raises its ugly head. But we must remember that the love of God for the world came first. God’s love for the world is the final, final word. But the love of God for the world is also God’s first word on everything.

The word “world” in this passage means, mostly, the human world. It is the world of individuals, and neighbors, and friends, and enemies, and families, and relationships, and communities, and nations, and laws, and politics, and economics, and international relations, and social issues, and culture wars, and wars of blood and carnage.

I also think that Jesus’ use of the word “world” here includes the world of nature and the environment that we are all a part of. It means the creation that surrounds us, as we are a part of it. There is nothing wrong with the world of nature, except as far as we have gone wrong right in the middle of it. Our perishing ways have blighted the natural world; but that is our fault, and not nature’s.

You see the bad news most clearly in the human world. That is where you can see the “perishing” part. That is where you see darkness and the hiding from the light. That is where you see evil, and ugliness, and condemnation. Where life has gone wrong, you see perishing take the place of life.

Jesus mentions a snake, on a pole, in the desert. It comes from that story in the Book of Numbers, where the people of Israel have won some great victories, and then they sit down and complain.

In the story of the journey of God’s people through the wilderness to the Promised Land, the Lord has been making sure that his people have enough food and water along the way, but they complain about it anyway. And they run into a plague of snakes, really aggressive, deadly snakes. When they confess their guilt to Moses, Moses prays, and the Lord tells him to make a bronze copy of the snakes, and put it on a pole, and the people who look at the bronze snake will be healed.

Moses does, and the people do. The people are healed. The bronze snake is a picture of the people’s sins and it is also, strangely, the picture of God’s holiness, and God’s faithful love.

When the people looked at the bronze snake they saw these two things; and both of them were both true: they saw their sins and they saw God’s love.

That is the good news; but, for now, we are looking at the bad news. Their stubborn habit of complaining tells me of a strange desire that humans have to live outside the love of God. We want to be in charge. We want to do, and say, and think, and feel just what we want, whether it is good or not; whether it is healthy, or helpful, or not; whether it is life-giving or not.

There is nothing wrong with a snake being a snake, but there is a lot wrong with people being like snakes. That is what those people were. They were bitten with their own medicine.

We are the same. The human world, in the way that it is divorced from God, is a snake-bitten world. It has venom running in its veins, and the venom is contagious. It needs a remedy, but it cannot heal itself. We cannot heal ourselves.

The temptation is to think that those people of Israel (the ones who were bitten by the snakes) were bad people. They weren’t bad people. They were ordinary people. They were just ordinary sinners; and they were scared and crabby.

They were tired of always, constantly, having to live by faith. They felt that living by faith didn’t give them enough attention. Living by faith didn’t give them their due. And so they did their share of biting, and they got bit back.

It is the same with us; decent, sincere people that we are: in other words, decent ordinary sinners. Nicodemus was also a decent, sincere man who was capable of seeing God at work in the world around him. He showed that he was capable of seeing God at work in Jesus, and he was capable of wanting to know more about it. And so it was quite a shock to him, as it is to us, to hear these words: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7)

Nicodemus was very wise to see and suggest that this was not possible, because he really almost understood what Jesus meant. He knew that Jesus mean a completely new life; and he himself had probably tried being a new person a thousand times. It hadn’t worked. It was all in vain.

It was so impossible that Nicodemus could do nothing but make a crude joke about it. “Shall I go find my old mother and climb inside her?”

The Greek word that is often used in the New Testament for being born makes us see birth in a way that is different from our normal way of seeing it. It is related to the word for Genesis, as in the creation of the universe. Jesus told Nicodemus, and us, that we have to become a new creation.

What Jesus says must be done is something that it is impossible for us to do. It has nothing to do with the things we can do. It has nothing to do with starting a new chapter in your life, or turning over a new leaf. It has nothing to do with growing or evolving. It has nothing to do with stopping being yourself, or with finding yourself. It has nothing to do with a makeover. (Sometimes kids set out to recreate themselves, but that has nothing to do with being born again.) It has nothing to do with a new attitude, or a new discipline, or a new spirituality.

Back in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, there is a picture of the Holy Spirit of God hovering over the shapeless creation. The shapelessness is described as “the waters” or “the deep”.

The “water and the spirit” are Jesus’ way of describing the new creation of a human being in the miracle of being born again. When he says, “The Spirit gives birth to spirit,” he means that the new life is spirit-centered, he means God-centered. Being born again means being recreated in the power, and the holiness, and the image of God, through the Holy Spirit.

When we are born again, we are no longer purely children of a perishing world, living in perishing ways. Through Jesus, our perishing life has perished. We have come to an end of ourselves. In our heart, we are children of God who will not perish, and we will live in life-giving ways.

It is very important to understand how God does this thing that is impossible for us. We come back to John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“He gave his only begotten son.” That is the key. God gave his son.

Jesus told Nicodemus that the Christ, the Son of God, would be like the snake on the pole that brought healing to those who saw him. Nicodemus knew the story well, but he had never thought of it before as relating to the Messiah. He couldn’t imagine it at all; although, later on, he would see it for himself. Nicodemus would stand at the foot of the cross, and help to take Jesus down from the cross, and bury him.

Crucifixion was considered to be a cursed death (especially by the Jews), because of its bloodiness, its ugliness, its monstrosity. It revealed the reality of evil and sin. It was like visible darkness.

Only the worst and lowest people were crucified. Jesus came to identify himself with this world of evil and darkness. He allowed himself to be treated as if he were the worst and the lowest, by taking it upon himself; by becoming the very picture of this perishing world that is so loved by God.

But Jesus’ plan was for this to bring us life and make us a part of a wonderful world. He died in place of us. He was like the snake on the pole. Those who looked at him would see their own sin. And they would see the faithful love of God. In seeing both they would be healed and they would live. They would do more than live. They would be reborn.

Having faith in what we see on the cross (having faith in who we see on the cross) is a self emptying thing. We die to ourselves when we accept it as God’s gift to us. And the Holy Spirit gives us a new birth into a new life. This is what believing is about.

Sometimes we feel the perishing life closing in on us, holding us like a tightening clamp; but God gives us everlasting life, life that never runs out, life that never ends. God gives us a life where the lights are turned on. In that light we can see the mess better much better than we could before (when we were blind in the darkness), and we can also see the disappearance of so much that we were afraid of.

This is not a thing that we can make happen. But it does happen to us, because God so loves us, and so loves the world to which we belong. When we know this, then we understand the kind of world we live in, and our place in it. We know we live in a perishing world. But, most of all, we know we live in a beloved world, made wonderful by the love of God. And we can go on out, into God’s world, and live out the truth and power of God’s love.

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