4th Sunday in Lent – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Text: John 3:14-21
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
14 March 2021
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
Nicodemus crept carefully through the dark streets of Jerusalem. It was the middle of the night, and he was on a mission from the Sanhedrin. The Passover festival had just concluded, but the city was still abuzz with the news about the carpenter from Nazareth, who had cleared the traders out of the Temple. “We must figure out who this Jesus is and what he is about,” the Sanhedrin had decided. “You go, Nicodemus. You’re well-respected, open-minded, and you know your stuff. He’ll love you. But make sure you can trip him up and figure out his plans.”
God had indeed blessed Nicodemus—God blesses those whom he loves, right? That’s what Nicodemus assumed. He lived a comfortable life among the Jerusalem elite, free from pain and strife. He was fabulously wealthy and had large, prominent family. His wisdom was unsurpassed. He knew the Torah and the Prophets like the back of his hand. To top it all off, Nicodemus was a cunning debater, and he was quite confident he could trap Jesus into revealing his plan. But at the same time, he was curious. Something about what Jesus had done in the Temple seemed right—holy, even. This was more than a political stunt, he figured. But what did it all mean?
He came to the house where Jesus was staying and knocked. Despite being the middle of the night, the door opened immediately and a voice said, “Whom are you seeking?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” Nicodemus answered. The man replied, “I am he,” and Jesus stepped out of the house and began to walk down the way. Nicodemus rushed after him. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do what you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And so the debate began.
But almost immediately, Nicodemus’s confidence began to waver. For every question he posed, Jesus had an answer ready—answers that were profound and loaded with double meanings! Did Jesus mean “born again” or “born from above”? It could be both, but he wasn’t sure! The two went round and round, and Nicodemus’s head began to spin. “How can these things be?” he asked weakly. Smiling, Jesus insulted him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? These are earthly things, and you don’t believe. How will you believe if I tell you the things of heaven?” Nicodemus fell silent. It was slowly becoming clear to him that this wasn’t just a matter of worldly politics. Jesus’ concern was a heavenly matter, a matter of eternal life and death—something Nicodemus, despite his knowledge, couldn’t begin to comprehend.
Their journey through the streets of Jerusalem had brought them to the Temple mount. The two of them stood in silence, gazing on the sleeping city. Jesus’ eyes fell on the prominent hill outside the walls where the Romans regularly crucified criminals. It was littered with empty crosses, waiting for the next round of revolutionaries to be attached and prominently displayed for all to see. He said to Nicodemus, “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.” Nicodemus followed Jesus’ gaze and saw the crosses and the tombs that surrounded the hill. Suddenly he remembered a story about that bronze serpent that he had heard and never forgotten.
When Israel rebelled against God and Moses in the wilderness, God sent the fiery serpents down on the people. Thousands of the Israelites were soon writhing in pain, as the poison from the serpent’s bite coursed through their veins. Dead bodies began to pile up, and the people realized that they had sinned. So they repented and pleaded that God would take away the serpents—but God didn’t take them away—Nicodemus remembered that odd fact. Instead, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and attach it to a pole, so that it could be prominently displayed for all to see—just like Rome did with these crucified criminals, Nicodemus realized. All the Israelites who looked at the serpent would not perish, but have their life preserved.
Nicodemus suddenly saw the scene unfold on the hill before him. As soon as Moses erected the serpent on the pole, chaos ensued. There was a mad rush to the center of camp—people running, stumbling, limping, crawling—so that they could look on the serpent and live. Fathers carried screaming children, mothers held open the eyes of their dying infants to make sure they could see. Those nearest to death were brought out on cots to be laid before the life-giving serpent. People quickly realized, however, that the pain from the serpent’s bite wasn’t gone. In fact, for some the pain worsened; their suffering increased. But Moses reassured them: “Whoever has looked at the serpent will live.” For many, the recovery was long and difficult. But Moses was right—their lives were ultimately preserved.
There were some Israelites, however, who refused to come out of their tents; they rejected God’s gift of life. “God didn’t listen to us,” they complained. “He didn’t take away the serpents and gave us this hoop to jump through instead!” Others said, “The serpents are still rampant! If we come out, we could get bit again! Besides, people are still suffering even after they look at that bronze thing.” Nicodemus always got frustrated with the story at this point. God had given the Israelites a chance at new life beyond their rebellion. And yet here were people so caught up in themselves that they turned their tents into tombs. How could a loving God let his people reject his love? What kind of love lets people continue to suffer? This wasn’t how Nicodemus had experienced God’s love. As far as he was concerned, this wasn’t love at all!
He turned to Jesus and sensed that he knew the story and his questions, too. Jesus said quietly, “In this way, God loved the world.” Nicodemus was astonished. That was how God showed his love? By sending serpents to bite and kill his people? By making them suffer? By giving them the choice to look on the result of their sin and live, or to reject God’s ways and die? Jesus continued, “And for this purpose God gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Looking out at the place of the skull, Nicodemus realized that for the Son of Man to be lifted up like the serpent meant he would be lifted up on a Roman cross. God’s own Son would endure the pain of this crucifixion, which was much worse than a serpent’s bite. And there would be people who would gaze on his lifeless corpse, believe in him, and be reborn to new life, as Jesus had explained. Yet there was freedom for others to reject him and remain in darkness.
Yes, this is the way God loves the world—not by lavishing wealth and fame on his elect; not by liberally spreading some warm, fuzzy, superabundant but substance-less love that could easily be ignored. Instead, God shows his love in the difficult moments of life. That’s why he sent his Son—not for some kingly and comfortable existence, but to walk alongside those who have been bitten by the serpent; to suffer with those who writhe in pain; to be tormented with those wracked with sin; to sit with those who dwell in darkness; and finally to die upon the cross and bring those who believe in him into eternal life. That is God’s incomprehensible love. Yes, it’s a love that brings suffering—but it’s a love that gives life.
Nicodemus suddenly realized just how shallow his own understanding of God’s love was. He recognized the darkness of his own heart, and how Jesus’ words had made that darkness just a little brighter. Most strikingly, he felt a question nagging at his heart—could this man Jesus be the Son of God who would see all this through? The light of a new day was beginning to creep over the horizon. Nicodemus suddenly found himself alone on the Temple mount. So he quickly returned home and told no one what he had heard.
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.