14 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Thursday morning before I left for work, Naomi made a loving gesture. She handed me a little plastic, pink ring with the shape of a heart. As she gave it to me, she said, “Here Papa. Take this so you can remember that I love you when I don’t see you today.” The ring just barely fits on my pinkie, and it probably looked a little ridiculous to the handful of people who saw it on my finger. I’m sure they wondered why 33 year-old man with a beard was wearing it. But it was a good reminder throughout the day. A quick glance at my pinkie reminded me that my little daughter loved me.
To prove He loves us, God has given us a sign, a gesture of love – Jesus on the cross. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can look to this sign and know God loves us. God in the flesh crucified, hanging on a tree, and lifted up for you is greatest gesture of love ever given.
As precious as Jesus lifted up on the cross is to us, we tend to forget how strange, mysterious, and downright offensive it is. This text, a familiar text, is a good occasion to remember how odd and wonderful and precious the cross is. John 3:16 has become cliché – we hear it so often – but we rarely hear the context.
The full context, of course, goes back to the beginning of John’s Gospel. The Word who was in the beginning with God and was God, this Word became flesh and dwells, tabernacles, among us. The Word of God in the flesh says in v. 14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Jesus is, of course referring back to our Old Testament text (Nu. 21:4-9). God’s people were complaining for what seems like the eighteenth time about being out in the wilderness with no water and nothing to eat except that loathsome, worthless food. They seem to forget the fact that God repeatedly, miraculously provided water and that God was daily providing them with manna and quail. But the people still whine and moan and complain.
So God sends serpents among the people. Those serpents bite and injecting their fiery venom of death. This venom causes many of the people of Israel die, but they realize what they have done. So they come to Moses and say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prays and God tells him to make, of all things, a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. If anyone is bitten, he can look at the serpent raised up on that pole and live.
Now, doesn’t it seem a little rude of God to make the people look at an image of the curse to be healed from their bites? Imagine feeling the poison coursing through your veins, the last thing you would want to look at is an image of the very thing that has caused you this pain.
When something hurts you, you naturally try to avoid it. You have watched your friends and relatives get bitten by these snakes and die in pain as the fiery venom courses through their veins. Now you are bitten. But all God has given you is a bronze image of one of those serpents to look at. Moses says, “Here’s your remedy. If you get bitten, look at this bronze serpent that looks just like the ones that are biting you. Look here and live.”
You would be thinking, “Moses, are you insane? How could that help us? Why would we want to look at an image of the very thing that is killing us and terrifying us?”
But as ridiculous as it sounds, God gave this bronze serpent as a sign of His love and care for His people. Odd? Yes. Strange? Indeed.
But it was God’s sign, God’s remedy. God gave it and attached His promise of life to it. What other cure was there? Nothing. No matter how foolish it seemed, it brought healing and life.
Now, Jesus takes this story and broadens it. Jesus says that God has given one sign of God’s love to all humanity. There is one place to look for healing from the poison of sin coursing through our veins. There is one sign of God’s love. And that is Jesus on the cross.
Just as the people of Israel were bitten with the fiery, poisonous venom of death, you and I and all humanity has the venom of sin coursing through our veins. Only one cure exists – the Son of Man dying on a cross. The only cure for us is to look at Jesus beaten, bloodied, and dying on the cross. Only there do we find forgiveness, life, and healing.
What does God’s love look like? What is the sign of His love? Jesus lifted up on the cross, and nothing else.
John 3:16, maybe the most recognizable verse in the Bible, is one of those verses that can get neglected. We hear it so often that we don’t realize what a beautiful verse it is.
On Friday, Sarah and I went to the jewelry store where we got our wedding rings and had them both cleaned. Our rings are always on our fingers, and they naturally lose their original shine and beauty just because they are always there. But you get them cleaned and they look like new. The same thing can happen with familiar Bible verses.
Today, look at John 3:16 with fresh eyes. Look at fresh and clean. See it from a little different angle to notice the beauty there. Let me tweak the translation a little bit. The little word, ‘so’ can mislead us somewhat. Often, ‘so’ is taken in the sense of “God loved the world soooo much.” But that isn’t what this word means. The Greek word means “in this way.” “For God in this way loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.”
God gave His Son to the world, to you, lifted up on the cross. This sign of God’s love is universal. Jesus crucified is given to all the world, to you. No one falls outside of this gift of God’s love. God loved the world so He gave His only begotten Son for the world to see lifted up on the cross as the remedy for sin. Jesus, lifted up, suspended between heaven and earth, held by three nails is God’s eternal sign of love for you.
Jesus crucified is God’s eternal sign of love to show you that God is not out to condemn the world but to save the world through Jesus.
Whatever you are going through, this is God’s one and only sign that His love for you does not change based on how you are doing at any given moment.
When times are good, look to Jesus crucified for you. When you are upset with God, look to Jesus crucified for you. When you feel the pains of sin and death, look to Jesus crucified for you. Look to the Son of God lifted up on the cross as the remedy, the salve, for all your woes, all your pains. Look to Him dying on the cross so that you not die but have everlasting life. This is God’s eternal sign of His love for you. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.