March 08, 2021
The Lent 4B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 3:14-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; Numbers 21:4-9 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 2:1-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60 (Lord’s Day 23)
Author: Scott Hoezee
This sermon starter originally appeared as my regular blog post on The Twelve on March 2, 2021. If you wish to see a slightly different take on this passage, you can click here to view my sermon starter from 2018.
If you have gone to most any news or newspaper website in the last few months, then you know that you have not needed to look for long before you read something about vaccines. Most days you don’t even need to scroll down to see a news story on this subject. Getting one of the three available COVID vaccines is what everyone is talking about. Facebook of late has featured a lot of posts of people happily displaying their CDC COVID-19 vaccine cards after getting the first and/or second dose. This has led to lots of “Congrats!” comments but not a few evidences of what we could almost call “vaccine envy” from those of us who have not yet been able to access the vaccine—a medical breakthrough that we all hope will lead us out of this dark pandemic someday.
Science has been fiddling around with the core ideas behind vaccines since the late 18th century when a British doctor named Edward Jenner figured out that injecting a person with a small amount of the fairly benign cowpox virus somehow made that person immune to getting the highly deadly smallpox disease. But it’s been in the last century that vaccine research and development picked up steam with, among other things, the dramatic breakthrough by Jonas Salk in developing the polio vaccine.
Those of us who have been living with a level of fear about COVID for the last year cannot quite imagine the fear that gripped parents decades ago when it came to the prospect of their children contracting polio. During the months of the year when people were most prone to contract polio, most households held self-imposed lockdowns to protect especially children. Probably we cannot overstate the relief that the polio vaccine brought to millions. But as the 20th century rolled on, the development of annual influenza vaccines continued apace as did something like the MMR vaccine most of us got as children to protect against the once-common (but now rare) ailments of measles, mumps, and rubella.
Until recently with the development of messenger RNA vaccines like the Pfizer and Moderna shots, the principle behind vaccines was almost counterintuitive. Because it turned out that a great way to protect against getting a disease big-time was essentially to expose a person to that very same disease but on a safe scale. Vaccines contained either very tiny amounts of the disease in question or inert (essentially dead) samples of the disease. Either way the body’s immune system looked at this new kid on the viral block and formed antibodies to kill it. Thus if this same virus ever tried to show up in a serious way, the body could say “We’ve seen you before, pal, so take this!” and, voila, the person was protected. (We really are fearfully and wonderfully made!)
It is, as Neal Plantinga wrote some years ago, a fine example of like curing like. I think that I also have written about this before on The Twelve so if this all is sounding somewhat familiar, it’s probably not an imagined déjà vu! But Plantinga noticed that this idea of like curing like had a biblical ring to it. The first instance was that time in Israel when God sent venomous serpents into the Israelite camp to punish them for yet another rebellion against God. Despite the fact that God is said to have sent the snakes, nevertheless God tells Moses he has a remedy: put a bronze cast of a snake up onto a pole and if people looked at it, they would be cured of and/or protected against snakebites.
This of course begs the question of why the God who sent the snakes did not simply remove the snakes once people cried out in contrition and desperation. But for some reason that is not what God does. And if this were the end of this tale in Numbers 21 (the whole story is a scant six verses, barely a paragraph), then we could chalk it up as one of many quirky Old Testament stories on a par with floating axe heads and a couple she bears eating some snarky children.
But then you get Jesus in John 3, harking back to this tiny nugget of the Hebrew Scriptures in his conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus compares what he is going to do in getting “lifted up” with that bronze serpent being lifted up by Moses. Even as the people of Israel had to look at an image of what ailed them to be cured of it, so in the end the whole earth would need to look at a dead Son of God as the first step in getting finally inoculated against our most vicious enemy: death itself.
Like cures like.
In this Lenten Season as we are called to gaze again and again on that old rugged cross—and even as we pass through the second Season of Lent in a row that is disrupted by the COVID pandemic—we should marvel at how God defeated death through death. Even as we all wait to get that email, text, or call to tell us know we are next in line for the COVID vaccine, we should let this medical wonder remind us to give thanks for the grandest wonder of them all that is salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Experts claim that the new Johnson&Johnson vaccine—though on the face of it less effective than the first two—seems to be 100% effective in preventing death from COVID. Death is, after all, what we are all trying to avoid in this pandemic. But then, death is just generally what we would all just as soon avoid, and though nothing can prevent us from physically dying at some point, that death does not have the last word.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live even if they die. Do you believe this?”
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2021 Lent and Easter page.
Author: Stan Mast
In our Lenten journey this year, the RCL has been focusing on the theme of God’s covenant—with Noah and all creation, with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel at Sinai, and next week with the world as promised through Jeremiah’s words to the Exiles. In our reading for today, we have a vivid picture of covenant broken by Israel and restored by an angry but gracious God.
This text is deeply appropriate for Lent, because it gives us opportunity to reflect on our stubborn rebellion against God and on God’s strong (and strange) redemption. If preached in all its peculiarity, this story should move us to genuine repentance and renewed faith in the saving power of God’s grace in Christ.
But that result won’t be automatic, because we are so much like Israel. The introductory comments to the entire book of Numbers in my old NIV Study Bible describe ancient Israel in terms that might describe any one of us. “Those whom God had redeemed from slavery in Egypt and with whom he had made a covenant at Mount Sinai responded not with faith, gratitude and obedience but with unbelief, ingratitude and repeated acts of rebellion, which came to extreme expression in their refusal to undertake the conquest of Canaan (Num. 14).”
For their refusal, they were sentenced to spend the next 38 years wandering in the wilderness, until the last of those unbelieving, ungrateful, and rebellious people had died. Such people could not inherit the Promised Land. In our text, we meet them in the third stage of their winding journey, the final leg from Kadesh to the plains of Moab. Their path has just been blocked by their brothers (descendants of Esau) in Edom and they have just defeated the King of Arad.
So, frustrated and elated, they are champing at the bit to head directly to the Promised Land. Instead, “they travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea to go around Edom.” Yet another detour, one of many in a seemingly endless and endlessly difficult journey! And they snapped. They had had enough. “They grew impatient on the way….”
That’s understandable. We know a bit about impatience in our current cultural climate. But they took their impatience to a dangerous next step; “they spoke against God and against Moses….” It would be one thing to speak only against their human leader, even though he was so clearly God’s appointed representative. It was quite another to speak against God—not just to God in complaint or lament or argument, but directly against God in rebellion and rejection.
What they said explains why God responded as he did. They challenged the great redemptive act of God by which they had become free. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?” That isn’t what God had done at all. He had liberated them so they could live in the land of milk and honey. Their death in the wilderness was the result of their sin and unbelief. And they hadn’t died yet, because even in that dry and barren land, God had provided bread and water. But they complain that there is no bread and water, directly contradicting the reality of the gracious gifts God had given them. And to top it off, they say that they “detest” the gift of manna from heaven, calling it “miserable food.”
In no uncertain terms, Israel is rejecting the grace of God in all its forms—his great redemptive acts on their behalf and his daily provision for their lives. Anything and everything God had done for them in his gracious love is spurned by an impatient, unbelieving, ungrateful and rebellious people.
This isn’t the first time they had done something like this, but this is a particularly egregious rejection of grace. So instead of waiting for Moses to intercede for Israel (as he so often did), God snapped. He came to the end of his famous patience (cf. Exodus 34:6,7) and immediately punished their sin with a plague of poisonous snakes.
Now I am well aware that this kind of story often turns people away from the Faith. We want nothing to do with an angry God. This is the kind of story that led Marcion and countless others to reject the Old Testament and its angry God and focus on the New Testament and the love of God in Christ. But before we turn away from this story, let’s think a bit deeper about it.
The fact is that the Bible (both OT and NT) does talk about the burning anger of God. And that is especially so when people absolutely spurn his grace, as Israel does here. God has done everything for them, but they completely turn their backs on God. Why wouldn’t God be angry—not just sad or heartbroken or disappointed, but downright angry? What human parent wouldn’t feel the same?
But parents don’t kill their children. Well, some do. And we put them in jail or mental institutions. How can we justify what God did here? On one level, we don’t have to—God is the Judge, not us. And on another level, maybe this awful feature of this story is designed to teach us a terribly important lesson. An absolute rejection of the grace of God will put us in mortal danger. Grace is our only hope and if we turn our back on God’s outstretched hand, we might very well die. And that makes God angry, because he doesn’t want us to die. He wants us to live abundantly and eternally. His anger is simply his love expressed in fire.
We know that because of what happens next in the story. In response to Moses’ intercession, God’s grace yet again provides salvation from sin and punishment. True, salvation doesn’t come in the form Israel requested. But there was a very good reason for that. They asked Moses to pray that “the Lord will take the snakes away from us!” Instead, God told Moses to make a snake of bronze or brass (a “fiery serpent” in the image of the fiery serpents that were killing them). Put it on a pole and “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses did just that and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
There is a world of gospel wisdom in that ending to the story. Note that God did not answer the people’s request to “take away the snakes.” Why? Because simply taking away the snakes would leave the people stuck in their sins, or as the Epistolary reading for today says, “dead in sin (Eph. 2).” Instead of changing their situation, which is all Israel wanted, God knew that they needed to be changed in themselves.
These people who had rejected God’s amazing grace needed to learn to accept it again. They had turned away from the God who had saved them in multiple ways. They needed to turn toward that God again and look at his saving work. The snakes remained so that they would learn to look at The Snake on a pole. The snakes weren’t the main problem; their rejection of God’s grace was. That way leads to death of the worst sort. So, Moses calls them to accept God’s grace by believing the Word of God and looking at the Snake on a pole.
Even a blind person can see the connection to the Christian Gospel here. But because we often are blind, Jesus makes it perfectly clear in John 3:14-15, where he compares himself to this Serpent. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What follows, of course, is the most perfect statement of the Gospel in Scripture in verse 16.
That tells us that this whole story, especially the most unpleasant part, is about the love of God for the world. God takes the world so seriously that he must respond strongly to sin. Our lives depend on it. If he lets us simply go on in our unbelief, there is nothing but “perishing” in our future. So, he intervenes in many ways, some frightening, some strange, but all loving.
We may wonder why God chose a snake to cure snake bite. The answer, I suspect, lies in the story of Jesus, who was made just like us sinners, except he never sinned. Paul put it even stronger when he said in II Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Science often uses the cause of a disease as a cure for the disease. Many vaccines are composed of dead viruses or parts of viruses. Anti-venom is made by taking a bit of the venom and inserting it in an animal which then creates the anti-venom which will cure the person who is bitten by the poisonous snake.
In my comments above, I alluded to the widespread impatience in our society. Part of the reason for the raging spread of the coronavirus is that people have become impatient with the length of our journey through this wilderness of COVID and with all the restrictions and hardships imposed on us by the disease. So, we reject the very measures that will help conquer this pandemic, from wearing masks to getting vaccinated. Our impatience may be the very thing that kills many people, as was the case with Israel.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Lectionary is giving us but a small sampling of Psalm 107 by carving out the first three verses and then a half-dozen from the center of the larger poem. If you read the entire psalm, you will discover it is a curious historical retrospective on various experiences that various unnamed people have had at the hands of God. Throughout the Psalm the upshot of those first few verses is the theme: God delivers people from distress. And even if at times it seems like God was the sender of the distress in the first place (usually as a punishment for sin), nevertheless God receives all the praise for the deliverance from distress that eventually comes.
The larger poem runs through a checklist of different groups and how they got into the distress from which they eventually needed deliverance.
Some wandered in desert wastelands . . .
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness . . .
Some became fools through their rebellious ways . . .
Some went out onto the sea in ships . . .
Of course, in no case do we receive any clue as to who the “some” are. But from the looks of the opening verses, this psalm appears to be casting a wide net. References are made to “all” whom the Lord has redeemed as well as to “all” the people gathered from north, south, east, and west. In that sense the scope of Psalm 107 appears to be much wider than just Israel. For sure there are parts of this poem that echo Israelite experiences in Egypt and in the wilderness but since Israel was not a sea-faring people (indeed, they viewed the sea as a remnant of pre-creation chaos) surely the reference to people setting out on the sea in ships goes beyond Israel.
In that sense Psalm 107 is an ode to salvation for all people who cry out to the Lord God in their distress, whatever that distress might be and whatever the source of that distress might have been once upon a time. No doubt this is why the Lectionary features this on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. We give thanks to God for not just this or that individual instance of salvation from dire distress but from our largest source of human distress: our enthrallment to death itself. The cross of Christ delivers us from eternal death once and for all.
So while it may be the case that “some” get into trouble through Path A and “some” others lose their way on Path B, the fact of the matter is that “all” and not just some of us are on a path to perdition unless Someone can rescue us from our inevitable demise in death. Small wonder the New Testament refers to death as the last enemy. It is not the only enemy, and Psalm 107 lists a few other foes for us. But death is the last enemy because it is our common foe.
But this ultimate deliverance has come and so the other refrain that punctuates Psalm 107 is also something to which we need to pay attention: the call to give thanks over and over to God for what God has done. Having been saved by grace alone, this is now our common vocation. Give thanks! The solemn nature of Lent is not meant to be an end in itself, a kind of enduring downer for the sake of being negative. The penitence we express in Lent (as well as the meditation on our own finiteness that is also part of Lent) are gateways to rejoicing.
This knowledge of God’s great salvation, though, is more than that too. It also sets the agenda for what we ought to ponder, think about, call to mind, celebrate on a regular basis. Although it not part of this lection, the final verse of Psalm 107 states it well:
Let the one who is wise heed these things
and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord.
Heed these things. Ponder God’s loving deeds.
Not a bad mantra for Lent.
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2021 Lent and Easter page.
In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Neal Plantinga notes at one point that for now and in this world nothing set our tongues to wagging like bad news. Bad news spreads like wildfire. The news media is all over bad news. We regale one another with the bad things that happen, write Op-Eds for newspapers about it. But one day in God’s bright kingdom, things will be different. People will sit on their front porches and call out to passersby to lift up and celebrate good and positive things! We will get effusive about lovely acts and most certainly about the loving deeds of God that led to salvation. We just won’t be able to get enough of the good stuff!
This also reminds me of an observation in Marilynne Robinson’s luminous epistolary novel Gilead. At one point the book’s narrator, the Rev. John Ames, muses if we will remember our lives on earth once we get to “heaven.” Some say no, we ought not remember our old troubles in a fallen world. But Ames thinks otherwise. “In eternity this world will be like Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
Remembering some of what was difficult will be the path to do what Psalm 107 says: ponder God’s loving deeds by which he rescued us from so much sorrow.
Author: Doug Bratt
Grace is what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “the dearest piece of good news the church has for the world.” It’s also, however, what he calls, “fiercely difficult to grasp.” After all, grace has always been a source of both deep comfort and frustration, of both joy and even controversy for Christians.
Jonah, for instance, mourns God’s great grace that rescues wretched but repentant Nineveh. “I knew that if I preached to those awful pagans you’d end up forgiving them!” he bitterly complains to God. “I wanted you to keep your grace at home in Israel where it belongs.”
Jesus Christ was, of course, the incarnation of God’s grace. That, however, also made him very unpopular among his contemporaries. When good religious Israelites complained that Jesus ate with “sinners,” that left him outside of the click of religious people who know that we climb the sand dune to heaven by our good works.
The apostle Paul had to fight battles over grace on two fronts. In one theater people tenaciously clung to the idea that actions like being circumcised and keeping kosher were the only ways to reserve a spot in heaven. They essentially saw no place for grace at the table that is the Christian life. Such people couldn’t accept the fact that when it comes to our salvation, we can’t do anything to somehow earn or deserve it.
In the other theater, however, some people turned grace into a ticket to any kind of lifestyle they chose. They took to heart Heinrich Heine’s sarcastic saying: “I like to sin, God likes to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged.”
Paul, the former Christian baiter and Jesus-hater understood that being saved has nothing to do with deserving. God saves only by God’s grace. God has done absolutely everything for God’s adopted children’s salvation, from sending Jesus Christ to live and die for us to giving us the gift of faith that receives God’s grace.
However, the apostle also insisted that those whom God saves, God also expects to then imitate Jesus Christ. Christians aren’t saved by what we do or believe. God expects us, however, to thankfully respond to God’s grace by what we do and believe. So while God doesn’t save us by our good works, God certainly saves us for good works.
Paul understood this kind of paradox with which we sometimes wrestle. God’s grace doesn’t depend on how moral God’s dearly beloved people are. Yet God’s grace is deeply interested in making us moral, in producing a life of thankful obedience.
Paul may display this paradox nowhere more vividly than in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. He hammers home his insistence that our sin makes people spiritually dead. Dead people are, of course, by definition, unable to do anything for ourselves. In sin, Paul insists throughout this text, Jesus’ friends are spiritually helpless to save ourselves. By nature Ephesians 2’s proclaimers are no more able to save ourselves than our pulpits or laptops can save themselves.
(While most Sermon Starters include an illustration, this one’s weaves the illustration into the Starter.)
Such helplessness resonates throughout one of Katherine Paterson’s prize-winning books, The Great Gilly Hopkins. Its main protagonist is an eleven-year old whom countless foster parents have thrown out of their homes.
Readers increasingly sense, however, that Gilly has engineered most of those evictions. She has done nothing and, in fact, seems to be unable to do anything to earn her caretakers’ acceptance. Gilly has, in fact, basically done everything she can to earn their rejection. To most of the world, especially her beleaguered social worker, Miss Ellis, Gilly is basically a worthless nuisance who is helpless to earn love.
Gilly’s condition is much like our spiritual condition before God. God’s dearly beloved children are naturally persistent rebels who do little with what God has graced us. In fact, it sometimes seems as though we do everything we can to earn God’s rejection.
Yet God has graciously scooped up dead rebels like us, lovingly saved us and raised us from spiritual death to life. In other words, as the apostle writes in the seminal verse 8, God has saved God’s adopted sons and daughters “by grace.”
That’s why Miz Trotter, the loving Christian foster parent who graciously scoops up Gilly Hopkins, reminds me of God. She, after all, takes Gilly in and unconditionally loves her. Of course, as soon as she moves in with Miz Trotter, Gilly quickly begins her try to make her too reject her.
Yet even then Miz Trotter unabashedly and persistently professes her love for and loyalty to the troubled girl. “Don’t worry, Miz Ellis,” she tells Gilly’s frazzled social worker. “Gilly and William Earnest and me is nearly friends already . . . I never met a kid I couldn’t be friends with.”
It’s a glorious picture of God’s grace that Paul, in fact, mentions three times in our text, in verses 5, 7 and 8. Ephesians 2’s proclaimers can’t read those verses too often in our presentations: “it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace… For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.”
Paul then brings his lyrical language about this grace to what a friend calls “a landing” in verse 9. After all, there it’s almost as if he wags a finger in our face to say, “It’s not about works. You don’t have a leg to stand or a thing to be proud of in terms of your salvation.”
That’s the heart of the Christian gospel, what John Calvin called the very “hinge of the Reformation.” God has done absolutely everything necessary for our salvation. We can only faithfully receive that greatest of all gifts. Period.
And yet as Hoezee also notes, perhaps we would be better in saying “semicolon” rather than “period.” After all, Paul demolishes any notion that we somehow contribute something to our salvation. Yet he’s also equally quick to point out that Christians can contribute to Gods’ glory afterwards. After all, God, the apostle insists, has graciously saved Christians so that we’ll do the good works God long ago prepared for us to do.
Miz Trotter doesn’t take in Gilly because of the girl’s good works. Once she’s graciously embraced her, however, she won’t let Gilly just do whatever she pleases. Miz Trotter especially refuses to let Gilly launch lethal assaults on her fellow foster child, the vulnerable William Earnest.
William is a timid little boy who has a learning disability. Almost as soon as her keenly sensitive radar alerts her to his vulnerability, Gilly begins to shoot verbal arrows at him. Miz Trotter, however, reacts very firmly to this abuse. “One thing we better get straight right now tonight,” she tells a defiant Gilly. “I won’t have you making fun of that boy.” Miz Trotter has graciously accepted Gilly so that the girl will do good, not harm.
Here’s a picture of the classic gospel paradox: God doesn’t save Jesus’ friends by our good works. Yet, in one sense, we’re not saved without them either. After all, while the gracious Jesus could hardly care less about what shape we were in or what we did before he saved us, he does passionately care about the shape of our lives after he saves us. For Christ insists that those who faithfully receive his grace also respond by thankfully doing his Father’s will.
We see the apostles’ frustration with those who try to barter grace for disobedience especially in his letter to the Galatians. Paul skips his typical nice greeting and immediately sharply criticizes Galatia’s Christians for their sinful behavior. Yet before he finishes his letter, he also pens a whole chapter about the fruit of the Spirit’s work. In other words, the apostle ends his scolding by talking about what it means to obediently respond to God’s grace.
Paul knew much about the grace that’s so powerful that it can transform Christian-baiters and Christ-haters like him into history’s greatest missionary. Grace is also so powerful that it can, and does, forgive all sin. However, Paul also notes that even then, grace isn’t quite finished. Mighty grace, after all, doesn’t just erase our past; it also opens up a new future for God’s dearly beloved people.
Grace creates, as Paul writes in verse 10, nothing short of something brand new. The apostle seems to be saying that once grace moves into our hearts, it changes what was something sinful into something holy. So grace doesn’t just wipe away our past’s sinful sliminess. It also begins to produce godly patterns of love, graciousness, kindness and joy. God’s grace gradually makes Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters, in other words, more and more like Jesus Christ.
In a similar way, Miz Trotter’s grace slowly transforms Gilly into the “Tolkienesque” queen that her full name, Galadriel, suggests. It gradually brings out self-sacrifice and empathy in Gilly.
At the end of the book Gilly reluctantly moves in with her biological grandmother. Yet Miz Trotter’s grace has warmed and softened her heart. So like Christians whom God has graciously transformed, Gilly is doing many good works by the end of the book.
Yet while grace means new creation, tendencies and patterns, it does not mean perfection. So each Christian, with varying degrees of struggle and success, as well as failure and temptation continues to sin. The abiding presence of God’s grace, however, means that God continues to completely and freely forgive us as in the instant when faith first moved into our hearts.
Does it really matter, then, how Ephesians 2’s proclaimers and hearers live? Well, it doesn’t matter how we lived before we faithfully received God’s grace. Jesus’ followers’ good works had nothing to do with God loving Jesus’ friends in the first place. It does, however, matter to God how we live after we faithfully receive God’s grace.
That’s why the cross is so important in so many different ways. It reminds Christians that whether we’re contemplating the sins God forgave years ago or the ones God forgave this morning, God’s gracious gift of salvation inspires both humility and gratitude.
God’s adopted sons and daughters are deeply humbled to remember that we desperately needed someone to pay the ultimate price for our sins. However, we’re also immensely thankful that Jesus Christ was willing to graciously pay that price on the cross to save us from our sins.