Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent

(Transcribed by machine 04/07/2024)

Jesus says, 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.
You may be seated.
Dear Henry the Baptized, and all the Lord’s baptized people, the Lord was trying to explain
to Nicodemus on this night how baptism could do such great works, how baptism
could save. In fact, the text that was just before our gospel text from John
chapter 3 was about Jesus explaining this to Nicodemus. You must be born again
and Nicodemus says, how? How can you go back into your mother’s womb? How can you
be born a second time? Jesus says, unless you’re born of water and the Spirit, you
You cannot see the kingdom of heaven.
He’s talking about baptism and the gift of baptism, the new birth that baptism gives.
And Nicodemus says, how can it be?
And Jesus refers to the serpent that Moses lifts up in the wilderness.
I want to travel back to the wilderness to remember that story from Numbers chapter 20
and then back to Jerusalem on this night when Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, but first
Just to travel back one week to Denmark and tell you a story, the churches by the way
asked me to send their greetings to you, the Luther study days as well as the bishop and
pastor of our sister churches, congregations there, the Evangelical Free Church of Denmark
said to send their greetings.
One of the pastors, and this is a pastor in the state church of Denmark, sent me an essay
that he’s writing.
He says, I’m writing an article about infant baptism, I thought you would like to see it,
And because we recently had one of our pastors say that it wasn’t necessary to baptize children,
so the Lutheran pastor making the argument, and his reason was that all of us are born
the children of God.
In other words, this pastor was arguing in Denmark that a second birth wasn’t necessary
because the first birth is just fine.
Now, that’s an amazing thing to say, especially from the Scriptures.
We just heard this in the epistle lesson from Ephesians chapter 2, that we are all born,
did you get this?
By nature, children of wrath.
Our first birth, the birth in which we bear the image of Adam, is a birth into the kingdom
of darkness.
It’s a birth into the slavery of sin.
It’s a birth into death, like Paul again says, that we were dead in our trespasses
and sins.
The first birth is not enough.
The first birth is a birth of condemnation.
In fact, that’s what Jesus says.
It’s such a beautiful verse.
He says, the Son of Man did not come into the world to condemn the world, ah, so great,
but that the world might be saved.
it.
And then he says it again, the Son of Man doesn’t come to condemn the world because
those who do not believe are condemned already.
In fact, maybe just a little pause on this text, on that verse there, because I think
the doctrine of hell is a tricky doctrine, not only for Christians but also for those
who are outside of the church.
And the argument often comes to the church, how could a loving God send people to hell
and to eternal damnation?
And this is what Jesus is saying, I didn’t come to condemn, you start out condemned.
It’s not like…
I think we have this picture of like there’s a pit with flames at the bottom of it, and
the Lord comes and He pushes us into it.
Jesus says it’s not like that at all.
You start down in the flames, and I come and reach and pull you out of them, or maybe even
better, I jump down into it with you so that I could get you up out of it.
I didn’t come to condemn the world because the world is already condemned.
condemned.
We are already children of wrath.
We are already the enemies of God.
We are already, by our deeds, by what we do, by what we fail to do, by our sin, by our
neglect, by our selfishness, by all of it, we are already under the condemnation, the
deserved condemnation from God.
So Jesus comes to rescue us, to pull us up out of it, to save us from ourselves and the
things that we’ve deserved, so that we need a second birth.
You must be born again, that’s what Jesus says.
You must be born from above if you will see the kingdom of heaven.
You need to be baptized.
You need the washing of the water and the word.
You need what Henry just had a few minutes ago, what Olivia had yesterday.
You need it desperately.
But the question is how, or maybe even better like how can water do such great things?
How can baptism accomplish salvation?
That’s what Nicodemus asks Jesus, how can this be?
And Jesus refers him back to Numbers chapter 21.
So we want to go back there and revisit the incident.
We heard it read a few minutes ago.
It’s a really amazing text.
Remember, the book of Numbers is the book of the wandering in the wilderness, so it
goes from Mount Sinai to the edge of the Jordan River.
That’s the book that covers that 40 years, and it’s mostly, it has a few incidences
in the middle, but by the time we get to chapter 20 and chapter 21, we’re at the end.
In fact, I think we can almost date the day of our text to the day, the fourth or fifth
day of the month of Aviv in the year 1406 BC.
And we can date it so precisely because you see in the Old Testament lesson it says they
left Mount Hor.
That Mount Hor is the place where Aaron died.
In fact, Numbers chapter 20 has the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses, and the death
of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the high priest.
And Aaron’s death was by God’s appointment.
They were up on the top of this mountain and the Lord said, Aaron is going to die so go
to the top of the mountain and Aaron was there and Moses was there and Eleazar, the oldest
living son of Aaron was there and Moses took the high priestly garments off of Aaron and
put them on Eleazar and then Aaron died and they built a tomb for him there and that tomb
is still there, you can see it in Jordan down by Petra on the top of the mountain, the tomb
of Aaron.
And he died there and the people wept for three days it says.
The people wept at Aaron’s death.
Aaron was 123 years old and this is now the end of this whole generation that’s dying
in the wilderness.
And after three days of mourning for Aaron, they left the place and here’s the, maybe
the surprise, it’s the area where they are, Mount Hor is south and east of the Dead Sea
and they need to get to the northwest side of the Dead Sea but Moses doesn’t
take them north and west he takes them east and maybe a little bit south to go
around the land of Edom and that’s why they’re complaining. They start
complaining as Moses says okay follow me guys and he goes this way to get that
way and they start grumbling Moses it’s been 40 years we’ve been in the
wilderness for a long time, but their complaining then takes a turn, and this is very interesting.
I don’t, I’m going to tell you about it because I don’t know what to make of it, and I would
appreciate all of you thinking about this and helping me, because this is now the, you remember
the second generation that left Egypt.
In other words, all those people who were with Moses are all people who were born in
the wilderness.
They were, they’re 40 years or younger, maybe they’re 50 years or younger because a few
of the kids survived, but everyone who was old enough to know what was happening when
they crossed the Dead Sea, all of those people died in the wilderness and were buried in
the wilderness.
The 40-year march in the wilderness was like a 40-year funeral procession, and they all
died and it’s the younger generation.
But listen to what the complaints of the younger generation are.
They’re complaining to Moses, why did you take us out of Egypt?
And this is what Moses should have said,
you were never in Egypt, you were never even there.
What do you know about it?
But here’s the point, where did they learn
to complain like that?
It must have been their parents that taught them.
I think this is why the Lord sends the serpents,
because the parents were complaining,
and so the kids picked up the same complaints
that the parents had, and they were complaining to Moses
about how good it was in Egypt, they don’t even know about Egypt, but they’re complaining
about it.
And so the Lord sends the serpents into the camp to start biting them and attacking them.
And they stop complaining, at least about Egypt, and start complaining about the snakes.
And they go to Moses and they say, we’re sorry, we should not have complained, we know
the Lord can take care of us, we’re so sorry about what happened.
Would you pray to the Lord for us that he could rescue us and deliver us?
And so Moses goes and prays to the Lord and the Lord gives him this strange
instruction. He says, Moses I want you to make a bronze serpent and I want you to
fashion it to a staff and I want you to lift it up and everyone who looks at it
will live. Now this is a strange bit of instruction. I like to imagine that you
You know, being there in the wilderness and being gnawed on by a snake, complaining to
Moses, going to Moses’ tent and saying, hey, Moses, we need some help here.
And he says, don’t worry, I’ve got it.
And we hear Moses in the tent and it’s like a little blacksmith shop, tink, tink, tink,
you know, Moses, what are you doing?
We need some help out here.
And he says, don’t worry, God’s given me some instructions.
What are you doing?
Well, I’m making a bronze serpent.
He said, we’ve got plenty of snakes out here, Moses.
The last thing we need is another one.
Why, well, couldn’t we work on an antidote or some sort of snake trap or something like
this, Moses?
He said, no, trust me, this is what God said to do.
It might sound crazy, but he said to make a bronze serpent and stick it up on a staff
and everyone who looks at it will be saved.”
And so it was.
Moses comes out of the tent and he lifts up the serpent in the wilderness and everyone
who looks at it is saved.
Now what do you do with that?
If you’re there in the camp and you’re wondering why God did it this way, you would say, look,
the last time we were paying attention to a serpent in a tree, it caused a lot of trouble.
And yet here the Lord has instructed Moses to build an image, even though it seems like
the Lord doesn’t like images.
And he’s told us to look at the image and to be saved.
What do you do with that?
I’ll tell you what the people did later, a few generations later, they worshipped that
serpent.
In fact they gave it a name, it sounds cool in Hebrew, it just means clump of bronze I
think in English.
They gave it a name and they had an altar and they worshipped it so that Hezekiah, I
mean generations later, probably in the year 700, so 700 years later, Hezekiah the king
had to destroy that bronze serpent, had to ruin it, break it into bits so that the people
would stop worshipping it.
But what do the rabbis think about it?
I was reading Alfred Edersheim, this magisterial work called The Life and Times of Jesus the
Messiah who digs into all the rabbinical thinking, especially at the time of Jesus, and he makes
this point.
He says the rabbis didn’t know what to do with the bronze serpent.
Why did the Lord do that?
The best they could do is this, this was their best guess, the rabbis said that God had Moses
make the serpent so that instead of looking down at the serpents, they would look up and
And they would see past the serpent into heaven and pray to God to save them.
That’s their best guess.
In other words, we have no idea why the Lord did it, why the Lord had this serpent and
used that to save the people.
And that had to have been the case also with Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, a rabbi, part
of the Sanhedrin, a thoughtful theologian living at the time of Jesus in Jerusalem,
who was one of the very few who was interested in what Jesus was saying, and had seen what
Jesus had done, and went to Jesus at night, probably in the home of John where they were
staying in Jerusalem early in the ministry of Jesus, and snuck through the street so
that he wouldn’t be identified, and went to talk to Jesus about it.
Nicodemus would have surely thought about the bronze serpent, and surely thought about
what it meant, and surely been just as confused as everybody else, until Jesus uses that picture
to answer his question, how can baptism save you?
And he says, just like the serpent in the wilderness.
Because the serpent didn’t save, that’s the point of Hezekiah, that he tore it up and
got rid of it.
The serpent didn’t save, God saved through the serpent.
He put a command on the serpent, look at it, and a promise, all who look will be saved.
and so the Lord has put a command and a promise also on the water of holy
baptism. Baptism can’t save you, sorry, water can’t save you, but if the water
has the Word and promise of God, it becomes a saving washing, it becomes
baptism, it becomes a holy water that makes us holy, not because of any power
of the water, but because the one who is lifted up on the cross gives it strength
to save. You should see growing out of this font, in fact probably if you’re
walking down the aisle you can see it, that growing up straight out of the font
is the cross of Jesus. Luther says it like this, every time we look at the
water in the font we should see it red with the blood of Christ because His
saving work has been brought down by the Holy Spirit into this washing of
regeneration, into this gift of new birth and brought here for you. God uses
means to save, that’s the point.
And sometimes he uses some funny means to save.
Sometimes he uses a bronze serpent in the wilderness.
Sometimes he uses a staff that sprouts with almond leaves.
Sometimes he uses the hem of his garment.
Sometimes he uses the shadow of the apostle.
And for us, He uses water and bread and wine with His body and His blood to save, to bring
to you the work that He did on the cross.
Now why does the Lord do this?
I think it might be dangerous to speculate too far along this way, but here’s what we
can certainly say.
Here’s what we know.
The Lord does not want us to doubt His love. The Lord Jesus wants you, and I wish
I knew how to say you and just mean one of you, or maybe each of you. Maybe I
should say it like this, He wants you and you and you and you and you and you, all
of you, He wants each and every one of you to know that He is for you, not
against you. That He loves you. That He forgives you. That your sin was suffered
on the cross so that He can open eternal life for you. And so that you know it, He
has you come up to the font and says your name and puts water on you and the
sign of the cross on your forehead and upon your heart. He writes your name in
the book of heaven with his blood. It’s the same reason he calls you up to the
altar and feeds you his body and his blood so that you would know that that
the thing accomplished so many thousands of years ago in Jerusalem so many
thousands of miles away, that that was for you, for your life, and for your
salvation. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever
would believe in Him will not perish but will have life that never ends, that
goes on into the eternities. Now it might seem silly to us to make so
much out of baptism. That’s always what the Lutherans are accused of, you know.
You guys are always talking about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Well, okay.
Sorry, guiltiest chart, and this is why.
But it might seem funny for us to talk so much about baptism, just like it might have
seemed funny for Moses to bring a bronze serpent out of the tent, but I’ll tell you what’s
more foolish than the bronze serpent would be not looking at it.
Can you imagine that?
Moses, that’s ridiculous.
Nobody ever was healed from a snakebite by looking at a bronze serpent. I’m gonna
go look at something else and die. No, the Lord has decided in His wisdom to put
here in the font and here in the altar and here in the Word to put your
salvation. And we trust these gifts. We trust in Christ and we have come by
this faith already into everlasting life.
May God grant us this confidence for the sake of Jesus, the Son of Man who was lifted up
for us.
Amen.
In the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Jesus
Christ our Lord.
Amen.