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First Reading = Numbers 21:4-9
4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
We are still in the season of Lent, preparing ourselves for Jesus’ journey to the cross. And for this Lenten season we are looking at covenants in the Bible. Those are God’s promises to us, and even when they have expectations and stipulations for what we’re supposed to do, covenants are founded on God’s commitment and God’s word rather than our own.
Last week we talked about the Ten Commandments and two core truths. It is true that God does not condemn us and offers us grace. AND it is true that God dreams for us to live how he designed us and to be more responsible with our decisions. Both are true at the same time.
This week we get to hear a little more context around one of the most famous passages in the entire Bible. Some say that John 3:16 is one of the best summary verses for the entire narrative arc of the Bible. But that verse doesn’t stand alone.
Our text today actually is part of a broader conversation between Jesus and a curious Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to ask him some questions without all the other Pharisees around. In particular, he realized that Jesus must have the power of God within him or he wouldn’t be able to heal and speak unknowable truths and do the other miraculous things Jesus was doing. But Nicodemus didn’t understand everything Jesus was saying about the nature of God, so he came to ask some questions.
It’s kind of a strange chapter, because Jesus confounds Nicodemus with his answers, and he probably confounds some of us, too. But when Jesus decides to land the plane and put the cookies on the lower shelf for Nicodemus, boy does he hit it out of the park.
Sermon Reading = John 3:14-21
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 17“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. 18Those 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. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”
Looking One Way
Several years ago, I was driving through a downtown area. There are usually a lot of things going on at the same time in a downtown area, but on this particular day it was a little slower than usual. I came to a stop at a red light, and watched traffic for my opportunity to turn right. I had to wait for five or six cars – not too bad. And when I noticed my opening, I started pulling onto the street and SCREECH! I slammed on my brakes. A pedestrian had walked in front of my car while I was looking the other way.
Normally, I turn to look the other way before pulling out. But this time I forgot. It was such a short time I was waiting. I assumed nothing had changed. Now, luckily for everyone I hit the brakes in time to avoid anything but a dirty look from the pedestrian. But I almost had a catastrophe because I was looking in the wrong direction.
Our text today starts off by talking about the importance of looking the right way, and Jesus does it by referencing a very odd chapter from near the end of the Israelites’ wandering through the wilderness after being rescued from Egypt. We heard it in our first text today.
It’s kind of weird, but here’s the short version. The Israelites were grumbling – again – and God decided to try something different. He sent serpents to bite them. Side note, apparently complaining about God’s food results in you getting bit by a serpent. Keep that in mind if you’re ordering food in heaven. Public service announcement right there.
But anyway, God told Moses to make a symbol of a serpent, put it on a pole, and people had to look at this symbol or they would die. All they had to do was look up – look in the right direction – look where God told you to look. All it took was that one, very specific act of faith. They couldn’t look at someone else’s symbolic snake on a pole. They couldn’t just pray. They had to look in one very specific direction to live. Nothing else worked. If you want to live, look at the serpent on Moses’ pole. That’s it.
God required this act of faith – nothing more. But it was a very specific act of faith. It required more than believing in God. It required more than passive assent that God knows what he’s doing. It required this one, very specific, act of faith. Look here! Not over there! Look here if you want to live.
So Jesus picks up this story and 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.” OK, the last I checked, Jesus wasn’t a serpent. So what does this mean?!?
Well, let’s take this in parts. The serpent was lifted up on a pole, and so was Jesus at his crucifixion. The serpent was to save people from physical and immediate death, and Jesus saved people from spiritual and eternal death. The only way for the Israelites to be saved was to look at this one specific serpent, and the only way for us to be saved is to look at this one specific person – Jesus.
And so we are told, “Look this one way – look at this one person – if you want true life.”
Benefits of Following Jesus
Now, the Israelites had a pretty obvious reason to look at Moses’ serpent. They were bitten by a snake. They were dying. If they looked at Moses’ serpent they wouldn’t die. Pretty clear cut. It’s not always as obvious for us.
But I contend that following Jesus, looking his way, looking at him instead of anywhere else, results in some pretty tangible benefits. These are the very tangible ways that God demonstrates his love for us, as our text today puts it.
As we go through some of these, I want to encourage you to think about it in a couple of ways. First, check in with your own heart, your own soul, your own mind, your own experiences to see if you can notice these same benefits in your own life. If so, celebrate that. Acknowledge that. Thank Jesus for that. The more you celebrate these benefits, the more you will notice them throughout your life and the stronger these benefits become.
If, on the other hand, you do not notice these benefits in your life, I encourage you to ask yourself where you’re looking. The vast, vast, vast majority of the time when we aren’t experiencing these benefits of following Jesus, it’s because we’re looking elsewhere. Instead of looking to Jesus, we’re looking at ourselves, or someone else to save us, or our money or position or resume or whatever. The Israelites had to look at Moses’ one, specific serpent on a pole to be healed. We have to look at Jesus, the one very specific person, the Son of God, to experience true life.
So to recap, as we go over these benefits of following Jesus, either celebrate where you see them in your life or ask yourself how you can look to Jesus more if you don’t see them in your life. I asked my friends on Facebook to share their own experiences, so these are themes shared by actual people. These aren’t just hypothetical. They’re real.
One of the most common themes people listed was never being alone.
Have you ever done one of those high ropes courses? I remember one when I was younger, maybe middle or high school. And one of the challenges was to get the group over the wall. It was impossible to hurdle on my own, but it was easy to lift people over as a team.
When we’re looking away from Jesus, we might feel like we’re at the bottom of the wall with no way over. When we look to Jesus, we know we aren’t just relying on our own legs to hop over.
Jesus is with us when the imposing wall is something physical. But he’s also with us when the imposing wall is something internal. One of my friends wrote that she had been at the bottom, she had been on a roller coaster, but Jesus was always watching over her. Sometimes we bottom out. Sometimes the roller coaster sends us careening down. But we aren’t alone. He’s with us. We don’t face that imposing wall alone. We don’t face that crushing burden alone. We don’t bottom out alone. We don’t ride the roller coaster alone. We do not walk through the valley of the shadow of death alone, for he is with us.
I remember an old video teaching series from Rob Bell where he talked about going for a walk with his baby strapped to his chest. I don’t think that was super common for every generation, but I know the baby chest wrap was definitely a thing when my boys were babies. But I digress. Bell shared that he was walking with his baby on chest when a sudden freak storm sprung up. As they were getting drenched, he did his best to protect his child from the rain, but the baby was screaming at the top of its lungs. So he did what he could. He continued to comfort his child, protecting it from the storm, and whispering over and over again, “It’s OK buddy. I’m right here with you. It’s OK buddy. I’m right here with you.” That’s how Jesus is with us in our storms. He’s right there with us, protecting us, whispering, “It’s OK buddy. I’m right here with you.”
Have you felt the presence of Jesus in your life? If so, celebrate that. The more you celebrate Jesus’ presence, the more you’ll notice his presence even more.
If you haven’t felt the presence of Jesus in your life, I encourage you to look to him. Not at yourself. Not at your resume. Not at your bank account. Not at your stock portfolio. Look to Jesus. As you look up to him, you’ll notice he’s already right beside you. You aren’t alone when you follow Jesus. Ever.
Peace and Hope
People also wrote a lot about peace and hope. That was another major, common theme. As one of my friends wrote, “Even in dark times, my hope in Jesus prevails.” It’s not the Jesus gets rid of all the dark times. In fact, Jesus says we should expect dark times. A few weeks ago in our series looking at the book of James we heard that we should expect to face trials of many kinds.
Jesus doesn’t promise to turn the twists and turns in our lives into a straight paved Interstate highway. But he does promise something a little different that can help us feel peace and hope when we otherwise wouldn’t.
I finally – FINALLY – got to ski at Loveland a couple of weeks ago. I left at my normal time, but my phone warned me there was a wreck on I-70. I don’t need to tell you what happens when there’s a wreck on I-70 in the mountains. Oh, on top of that wreck, there’s construction going on right now. I don’t need to tell you what construction does to travel times through the mountains. Net result? I was like 90 minutes later than I expected.
But I wasn’t done yet! I didn’t know that this was the start of spring break for some. And so I couldn’t park in the main lot, nor Lot B. I got one of the last spots in Lot C and then waited in a shuttle line that took seven shuttles before I finally got to head over to the ski area! Seven shuttles worth of people in front of me! I don’t want to know how many shuttles’ worth of people were behind me.
But you know what? I got there! My boots still fit. My skis still let me fly down the Apollo run from the top of lift #4 as fast as I could go. I still got to enjoy my favorite sport. The road wasn’t smooth. The main parking lot was full. The crowds were bigger than I expected. But eventually? Eventually I got up on top of the mountain, got away from the crowds, and had a great day skiing Loveland.
Even through the I-70 traffic, even through the I-70 construction, even through the parking lot drama, even waiting through seven shuttles, I never wavered in my hope that I would eventually get some skiing in. My hope didn’t fail. Now, my sense of peace did fail at one point. I was good through the I-70 part, but the parking lot pushed my peace out the window for a couple of minutes. I recovered enough to joke with people in the shuttle line, but there was a brief non-peaceful moment there. But my hope never wavered.
When we look to Jesus, we know our destination. When we look to Jesus, we know we’re going to get to the mountain eventually. When we look to Jesus, we have a hope that does not get squashed by the twists and turns and crashes and construction and full parking lots of life. As one of my friends wrote, “I know where my future home will be!” We have a destination in mind, and we know we’ll get there eventually.
Our hope and our sense of peace come from trusting that Jesus has the most important things under control. Nothing in our lives can shake Jesus from his throne. Nothing in our lives can shake Jesus from his love for us. Nothing in our lives can shake Jesus from fulfilling the will of God as our text 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. 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.”
That can’t be shaken. So our hope and our sense of peace don’t have to be determined by the shape of our lives. Our hope and our sense of peace don’t have to be determined by how straight or how twisted our path is. When we look to Jesus, we can have hope no matter the road, peace no matter the bumps along the way.
Have you felt hope in a seemingly hopeless time? Have you felt the peace of God which surpasses all earthly understanding? Celebrate that! The more you celebrate it, the more you’ll have access to that hope and peace when you need it.
If you haven’t felt the hope and peace of Jesus in your life, I encourage you to look to him. Not at yourself. Not at your resume. Not at your bank account. Not at your stock portfolio. Look to Jesus for your hope and peace. Though the road may twist and turn, our destination is never in doubt when we look to Jesus.
Guidance (and what NOT to do)
Receiving guidance is the final theme I’ll lift up today. Sometimes that’s receiving guidance on what to do…and other times that’s receiving guidance on what not to do! There were a lot of good quotes on this one from my online poll.
One person wrote, “It’s so comforting to know He’s in charge!” Another wrote, “When I’ve been willing to stop and listen to Him, the small steps in which Jesus guides me makes my life so much better than I could have imagined!” I think both of those really capture what it means to look to Jesus for guidance. Following Jesus’ guidance means trusting that his way will be better than your way. Asking Jesus for guidance doesn’t mean asking him to bless your plan. Asking Jesus for guidance means’ asking him to give you HIS plan and trusting that it will be better than your own.
Every once in a while I watch short videos to try to improve my guitar abilities. It’s questionable how much better I am today than two years ago, but a few things are clearly better. I remember watching one video a few months ago that showed how I should be holding my guitar a little differently. I thought it looked weird. I thought it felt weird. But I tried it anyway, because I’ve liked this teacher’s tips before.
I had enough trust to try it his way instead of my way. After a couple of days, I could actually detect a big difference. My wrist was way less strained after playing. I could finally get my hand into position for some chord shapes that were previously giving me fits. It took a few days to pan out, but I trusted this teacher enough to try it his way. And sure enough, his way was better.
When we look to Jesus for guidance, we are willing to follow his lead even when we don’t understand it. Even when it takes a while to pan out.
Of course, sometimes Jesus’ guidance is for us to not do something or not say something. One of my friends shared that she prays for Jesus to “put His hand over my mouth unless there is something He directly puts on my heart to say.” I love that image! Jesus, cover my mouth! Don’t let my words escape my lips until they are actually your words!
Another said she is “slow[er] to anger.” Jesus’ guidance for her included slowing down the anger instead of unleashing it. And then trusting that Jesus’ way is better even though that anger wants to be readied, aimed, and fired at someone.
Jesus puts it this way in our text today, “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.” Jesus’ way leads us to the light and out of the darkness.
Have you received guidance from Jesus – whether that’s to do something or avoid something? If so, celebrate that! The more you celebrate it, the more you’ll be able to receive Jesus’ guidance in the future.
If you haven’t received that kind of guidance, I encourage you to look to Jesus. Not at yourself. Not at your resume. Not at your bank account. Not at your stock portfolio. Look to Jesus for guidance on what to do and what to avoid. God sees our future better than we see our past. Trust his plans!
Sisters and brothers, “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. 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.”
When we look to Jesus, when we accept the life God offers us in love and grace, we are never alone. We can feel hope and peace no matter our circumstances. And we can receive impossibly insightful guidance on what to do and what to avoid.
If you’re not sure how much of these things you’ve experienced, I encourage you to make that a spiritual discipline this week. Schedule some times – multiple times, not just one – schedule some times to think about and write down where following Jesus has been a blessing in your life or somehow improved your life and decisions. Feel free to email those to me, too, I would love to read those!
The more we recognize and celebrate the presence, the hope, the peace, and the guidance of Jesus in our lives, the more we will experience those benefits for the rest of our lives, too. I want more of those things! Do you? If so, look to Jesus. Not somewhere else. Look to Jesus. Amen.