March 12, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
There may be some irony to be observed in the fact of how completely famous John 3:16 has become. Over and again as the words of that verse get splashed around, one gets the impression that this verse is utterly plain and simple, that this is a straightforward assertion that is at once easy to grasp and simple to apply to one’s life.
Yet as Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his just-released commentary on The Gospel of John, this entire chapter is fraught with mystery. The story takes place at night, the meeting seems to be done somewhat in secret, and most of Jesus’ rhetoric to Nicodemus seems calculated to confuse and then to evoke wonder and awe once some measure of understanding begins to break through after all. What’s more, in the midst of this conversation—Bruner calls it Jesus’ “Nicodemus Sermon”—Jesus evokes one of the oddest images from the Old Testament in bringing up that bronze serpent on a pole out in the wilderness that, weirdly enough, became an instrument of healing to the snake-bitten Israelites at that time.
When I was a child, somewhere in a children’s Bible storybook (or maybe it was on a painting my Sunday school teacher showed me), I saw an image of this story. It showed Jesus and Nicodemus seated in the dead of night on a kind of terrace. As Jesus talked, a wispy image of that bronze serpent appeared over Jesus’ head (almost like a cartoon bubble might appear over Charlie Brown’s head in a comic strip) even as Nicodemus listened to Jesus’ words with his mouth hanging partly open from the mystery of it all.
I don’t generally find great inspiration in the artwork in children’s storybook Bibles but that one actually may fit the bill here as John presents the scene. It’s a mysterious encounter. And well-known though the words of John 3:16 may now be, they are part of this mystery. Maybe we can revive for ourselves and for those to whom we preach the vividness of John 3:16 if we view it through this mystery lens.
After all, what we encounter here is confounding. Because no sooner does Jesus utter those famous words than he goes on in verse 17 to say that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it. Really? There sure have been a lot of Christians across the last two millennia who seem to think that condemnation is where it’s at when it comes to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing. Not a few Christians in North America seem convinced that a major part of their vocation as believers is to wag judgmental fingers in the faces of all kinds of people. After all, what are all those placards and protest signs paraded in front of socio-political opponents on a range of “culture war” issues if not a message of condemnation?
But here in John 3 Jesus indicates that although there are plenty of condemned people in the world—it’s pretty tough to read John 3:18-20 and deny that Jesus was aware of bad and evil people who really exist in this world—pointing out to them their condemned status is not exactly job #1 for either the Son of God himself nor those who enter his marvelous Light to become saved. Yes, the condemned are out there and yes, they stand in contrast to those who live in the Light. And yes, the evil will resist the Light and they won’t willingly walk into the Light lest they be exposed.
All true. But the message that is to be both proclaimed and lived is one of Life and Light and Truth. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” So why do so many of us who are baptized into that Son’s name feel that it is our job after all to condemn the world? Again, we need to be clear that plenty of people stand self-condemned. There is a difference between those who serve God in Christ and those who serve only themselves or any number of the false gods of the age. Of course! But even in the Season of Lent when we focus on sin and on what Jesus came to do to save us from our sin, we dare not forget that above all what we have to proclaim, preach, and teach is Good News.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
In his commentary on John, Dale Bruner points out that he once saw John 3:16 laid out as follows:
“God The greatest subject ever
So (much) The greatest extent ever
Loved The greatest affection ever
The world (kosmos) The greatest object ever
That He gave His One-and-Only Son, The greatest gift ever
So that every single individual, whoever, The greatest opportunity ever
Who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him The greatest commitment ever
Would never be destroyed, The greatest rescue ever
“But would even now have a deep, lasting Life.” The greatest promise ever
As noted elsewhere in this set of sermon starters, it’s probable that by rarifying John 3:16 and lifting it out of its true (mysterious) context that we tend to misunderstand the real import of this verse. Even so, however, what cannot be denied is that this may be one of the greatest summaries of the Gospel that you can find anywhere in the Bible. There is a sense in which this is the Gospel at its truest, most boiled-down form. So much of the very essence of what makes the Good News good is here:
· God is love not hate (and not anger).
· God is, therefore, not an angry deity who needs to be converted to love but just is love.
· God hates nothing that he has made, including his off-the-rails cosmos.
· Salvation is a free gift—God is the Giver and we can be never more than grateful Receivers.
· The promise of the Gospel is ever and only Life.
· Therefore, God’s never-ending love for all that he made means that the very flourishing God desired when he made the creation in the first place will have the last, best cosmic word.
It was noted above that if Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to announce the presence of Light and Goodness, then we must do the same. And it’s just possible that if we believers really and truly can fall in deep and abiding love with the Gospel as it comes across in John 3:16, then we will ourselves be so infatuated with this glorious truth that we will find it all-but impossible to talk about anything else!
Is John 3:16 a part of the Nicodemus story or do verses 14ff. stand on their own? It’s hard to tell from John 3 in that what had previously been an obvious give-and-take between Jesus and Nicodemus pretty much stops after verse 10. Presumably the following verses up to John 3:22 constitute an extension of what Jesus starts to say in John 3:10 when he is still clearly addressing Nicodemus as “Israel’s teacher.” But another complication here is that in the original Greek Jesus uses the 2nd person singular form of “you” in verses 1-10 but that ceases after verse 11, getting replaced with the 2nd person plural form as well as by the 1st person plural form of “we.” Suddenly that doesn’t sound like a private conversation between two people. But as others point out, no doubt we are to understand that Jesus is still talking to Nicodemus here but what he says is so laden with galactic truths that apply to every last one of us that it is as though the evangelist John is allowing Jesus’ words to Nicodemus to float up off the page to become, billboard-like, a proclamation to the entire cosmos that verse 16 tells us God so loved. (For some helpful information on this, see Richard Burridge’s essay in The Lectionary Commentary, Eerdmans 2001).
In trying to convey the point that what we preachers are tasked to do first and foremost is preach Good News, my colleague John Rottman and I sometimes used a YouTube video to show what Jesus did not do in also his own ministry. A while back somebody took some old Jesus movies from the 1960s and then over-dubbed them in ways designed to make the point of how different preachers today sometimes sound as opposed to the Jesus you actually meet in the Gospels.
You can view this YouTube video here:
Yet “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world . . .” And that explains a lot about what Jesus really said in the Gospels.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
You really cannot appreciate this passage from Numbers 21 without paying attention to the surrounding context. In the first three verses of this chapter, we get a tiny narrative snippet about a time the Israelites got knocked around by some Canaanite king named Arad. A few Israelites got nabbed, a few got injured, possibly a few got killed. So the people do what people of faith should do: they cry out to their God, who hears them and delivers the enemy into their hands. God came through big-time for them, so much so in fact that the Israelites nick-named the place where the battle had taken place “Destructo-Ville.” Because it was there that—bang and boom—the Israelites kicked the can of the Canaanites. (Terrible pun, but read on . . . )
But then . . . as every good parent knows, the child who had been so charming and loving and grateful the previous day is by no means immune from the throwing of a temper tantrum the very next day. Flush from their stunning and God-given victory at Destructo-Ville, the people suddenly notice a rumbling in their stomachs. They notice that the sun can get pretty hot out there in the wilderness. Between being hungry and being hot, the people think back to good old Egypt, to farmer’s markets loaded with leeks and cucumbers and cool melons. Before you know it, Egypt transmogrifies in their imaginations into a kind of Shangri La, a shimmering oasis of goodness. True, the whole bricks-without-straw period was a little tough but hey, at the end of a long day of building pyramids, you could go home, grab a glass of fine Claret, and take your ease over cheese and crackers.
And so they speak against God. They speak against Moses. For a covenant people such as Israel was (or was supposed to be), speaking against God is a little like speaking against oxygen. Speaking against God’s anointed and chosen servant is a little like speaking against the branch you’re sitting on by sawing it off. It’s a lesson they should have learned long ago but didn’t. This is not the first time in Numbers this happened. (I sometimes think that the most important “number” of the Book of Numbers is the number of times the people spit in God’s face, suffered as a consequence, and then groveled before Moses to get them out of their self-induced pickle.)
Sure enough, venomous (or fiery) snakes soon slither among the people, nipping and biting whoever was not quick enough to avoid the snakes’ lightning-fast strikes. People started to die. Others got really, really sick. In an instant the same Moses who had been the communal punching bag a few hours earlier starts to look once again like their savior and so they beg and plead for him to step into the breach between them and God and do something to get rid of these fiery ropes of death.
Who knows just what these serpents were. The fact that they are called “fiery” literally in Hebrew could indicate that these were not ordinary snakes. They sound like maybe a divine kind of sign or something. But whatever they were, the main thing to know about these serpents is that they were lethal. If the God who sent them doesn’t do something to get rid of them, the people would soon start to die in big numbers.
As is the predictable pattern in Numbers, God does respond to Moses’ plea on behalf of the people. Curiously, however, he does not respond by just evaporating the fiery snakes he had sent in the first place. That would have been the logical thing to do. God sends snakes, God removes snakes. That’s what the people asked Moses to pray, too, and presumably he did so—he prayed that God would “take the snakes away for the people.”
But God doesn’t. Instead he does the counter-intuitive thing of instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it up on a pole, and then has the people look upon that bronze snake as the weird cure for the bite of the real snakes.
Maybe because this way of dealing with the people’s blindness and sin is, in some curious way, more fitting, more instructive, than a simple removing of sin’s scourge. Perhaps this is a reminder that all across the Bible—for reasons that are properly vexing—it seems that God is able to do any number of things far more easily, far more swiftly, than dealing with the presence of sin and evil. Compared to what God ultimately had to do to save us from our sins, the whole act of Creation looks to have been a snap. Creating appears to have gone more smoothly for God than salvaging that same creation once it became marred by evil. Where sin is concerned, God is not simply going to snap his fingers and, voila, it’s just gone.
So also in Numbers 21: the people had to look at an icon of the very thing that was afflicting them—which was simultaneously a vivid reminder of the sin that brought about that scourge—before some kind of healing was going to happen. As Neal Plantinga pointed out years ago in a sermon on this chapter, this is an example of the principle of “like cures like.” Even as in a vaccine you are injected with a small amount of the disease to be warded off—thus building up immunity to that same disease—so in the long run of the Gospel we need to look at the Son of God on a cross as a way to deal with the scourge of death that our sinfulness has brought upon us all. Death cures death.
The Season of Lent is a long reminder to us all that our sins are no trite matter. They cannot be scrubbed away quickly or lightly. Also, Numbers 21 may be an example of our common struggle with sin. Even as the Israelites could so quickly pivot from a God-assisted victory to a God-denigrating period of grumbling, so the whole of our lives for now remain a series of mortification and vivification, of dying and rising with our Savior Jesus Christ. The whole thing is an agonizing process, and who knows exactly why God doesn’t just snap his fingers to make each one of us perfect at the moment of our baptisms. But in truth it doesn’t work that way despite the truth that we are so singularly and instantly saved by grace alone.
In Lent and at all times, these are surely worthy matters to ponder, to pray over, and to struggle with.
As you may know, Numbers 21 is not the last time in the Bible that we see this bronze serpent on a pole. In addition to the John 3 reference when Jesus referred to this with Nicodemus, the actual pole and bronze image itself reappears in II Kings 18 when Hezekiah becomes the king of Judah. Hezekiah is the one who finally cleaned house in Israel after years of wanton spiritual apostasy. Hezekiah is the one who smashed the altars to Baal and dismantled the fertility poles dedicated to Asherah. Hezekiah smashed these things to end the ritual prostitution and idolatry that had become commonplace among the Israelites. But II Kings 18:4 tells us that along with those pagan altars, Hezekiah destroyed one other item, too: the bronze serpent on a pole that Moses had made. And why did he destroy that?
Because it had become an idol to which the people were offering sacrifices!
The bronze serpent that had been used as a symbol of God's saving power had turned into a talisman, a lucky charm, a false god. Now isn't that startling? Because if that is what happened to the forerunner to the cross of Christ, you have to wonder if the same fate could befall the cross. The cross must never become for us a mere symbol of the past, a relic that is thought to possess power within itself. In the Middle Ages there was a lot of traffic in the relics trade in which items that allegedly had belonged to saints were bought, sold, and collected. One of the more common such relics were pieces of wood supposedly from Jesus' cross. These slivers were revered because they were thought to confer saving power on the person who owned them.
That may come pretty close to the kind of idolatrous worship that eventually centered on Moses' bronze serpent. And, of course, that misses the point of it all quite singularly as well.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 107 is likely a thanksgiving liturgy that worshipers recited at a festival in Jerusalem’s temple. Some congregations still use it or a modified form of it at their Thanksgiving worship services. It also serves as the basis for a number of well-known hymns, including Martin Rinkart’s stirring Now Thank We All our God and the mariner’s hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 107 may want to help hearers reflect on God’s goodness and enduring love, the description of which is at the very heart of this psalm. They may want to invite others to contemplate examples of such goodness and enduring love in their own lives. One helpful exercise might even be to invite worshipers to compose their own version of or just stanza for Psalm 107.
After all, the God of Psalm 107 remains a good and faithful God. In fact, those aren’t just two of God’s many characteristics. They’re, in some ways, the very essence of who God is. While our own goodness and faithfulness may be as enduring as a snowfall in July, God remains good and faithful. So the psalmist doesn’t just praise God for that goodness and faithfulness. She also describes evidence of it throughout the psalm.
Verses 4-32 have a discernible pattern. Each stanza features a description of some form of trouble people encountered, as well as their prayerful response to that crisis. Each also includes details of God’s redemption of those in trouble in addition to the appropriate thankful response to that salvation. Those whose redemption the psalmist cites includes people dying from hunger (4-9) and rebellion (17-22), as well as prisoners (10-16) and sailors caught in a storm (23-32).
Psalm 107 begins with the psalmist’s call to those whom God has redeemed from various crises to respond by giving thanks to their Savior. It’s a call that’s reminiscent of parents trying to teach their children how to express their gratitude to those who have given them a good gift. After all, we can almost see the psalmist, like a parent, saying, “Now what do you say?” And then it’s as he reminds those “children” whom God has given the gift of redemption from trouble and come from all points of the globe, including even Israelites who’d been exiled to Assyria and Babylon, to say “Thank you, Lord!”
The Revised Common Lectionary focuses on just one particular group that God redeemed from a crisis, those whose rebellion against God’s good and perfect ways reflected their foolishness. In verse 17 the psalmist reports that they “became fools” and “suffered affliction.” However, the context at least suggests they became ill because of their rebellion.
This would, of course, echo Israel’s experience in Numbers 21. After all, the Israelites foolishly complain there to Moses and God, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food.” God responded to that rebellion by sending poisonous snakes that bit, sickened and killed many Israelites.
Psalm 107 seems to draw a straight line from sin to sickness. After all, according to verse 17 the rebels “suffered affliction because of their iniquities.” Those who preach and teach Psalm 107 in the light of Jesus Christ’s work may want to help hearers think carefully about what that means. After all, our sin sometimes has harsh consequences. If, for example, you break the law by driving your car through a red light, another car may hit yours. Yet those who profess that God has punished all of God’s sons and daughters’ sins in Jesus Christ don’t claim that God punishes God’s children by making them sick. Sickness and death are part of the general human condition on this side of God’s new creation.
A number of scholars link verses 17-22’s third of the four crises Psalm 107 lists to the third of the four compass points that verse 3 mentions. That would be appropriate, they point out, since prophets sometimes depicted trouble as coming from “the north.” For example, in Jeremiah 1:14 the prophet quotes the Lord as saying, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land.”
The disaster that Psalm 107:17-18 describes prompts “fools” to respond in wise ways in verse 19. Those who’d suffered affliction, hated food and nearly died “cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” They turned to the only One who could rescue them from the calamity they’d brought on themselves. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 107 to help hearers reflect on their own natural responses to trouble. To where do we turn first for our help in times of crisis?
God’s response to the rebels’ desperate cries for help reflects God’s goodness and faithfulness for which we thank God in verse 1. God rescues them from their distress. In fact, with the same power that God displays by speaking a creative word, God speaks a healing word. God rescues from the lip of the grave those who cry out to the Lord. Of course, Christians can hardly hear verses 19 and 20 without thinking of the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. The gospel writers fill their works with accounts of Jesus’ healing power in the lives of countless ill people cried out to him for help.
The psalmist recognizes that the most appropriate response to such gracious “yes’s” to our pleas for help is thanksgiving. Much like the psalmist calls God’s children to give thanks to the Lord because his love endures forever, in verse 21 she calls those whom God has redeemed to give thanks to the Lord for God’s “unfailing love.” After all, God manifests that love by, among other things, doing wonderful deeds for those God loves.
However, the psalmist insists that those God has rescued also have good reason to sacrifice “thank offerings” to the God who redeemed them. As Nancy deClaisse-Walford notes, when people sacrificed thank offerings, they also ate with the priests a meal of celebration of God’s goodness. So in the context of Psalm 107, those who’d hated food and nearly died again taste life-giving nourishment.
Since Christians believe that Jesus Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law that involved offering sacrifices as thank offerings, those who preach and teach Psalm 107 may wish to explore how God’s modern sons and daughters can offer God their thanks. How can we go beyond saying and singing our thanksgiving to God? How can thanksgiving be a central theme of our thoughts and actions?
After all, as deClaisse-Walford notes, we may never have literally been or be dying because of our rebellion. Yet nearly all of us have needed not only spiritual but also physical rescue by God. Psalm 107 offers a good template for our response to such crises. We recognize the problem, cry out to God for help, gladly accept the help the Lord gives and then give thanks to God. Yet this template also helps us to consider our response to those in crisis around us. We cry out to God for those who are sick, hungry, lost, imprisoned or in some other kind of danger. However, we also remember that God often rescues others from their distress in no small part through God’s children. So those whom God has redeemed from their distress also always ask ourselves how we can put ourselves in a place to be used by God to help rescue others from their crises.
The Old Testament scholar Terrence Fretheim says Psalm 107’s imagery reminds him of the baby monitors many parents of young children have. They resemble walkie-talkies. Parents place the monitor near their baby and keep the receiver near them. So no matter where the parents are in the house, they can always hear the noises their child makes. They can hear, for example, when their child cries upon awakening from a nap. This allows them to respond immediately to those cries.
It’s almost as if the psalmist pictures God as placing a kind of baby monitor near God’s sons and daughters. That monitor is tuned to the noises we make, particularly our cries of pain. God instantly hears our cries for help so that God can graciously respond with redemption.