John 3: 1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.
“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.
Our scripture from last week focused upon the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While it was our decision to disobey, and not the fruit of the tree itself that sealed our fate, the tree and the serpent hanging from it remain a strong symbol of human sin. We see in that image, in the shadow cast over all life, an emblem of what is broken. What is wrong in this world is easily described with those three simple images – a serpent, a tree, and humanity. Simple and clean symbolism.
Yet, when Jesus comes to this world, lives his life and carries out his ministry, he is not drawn to this image at all. Aside from a teaching on divorce, he seems completely uninterested in using the opening chapters of Genesis for anything. How sin entered the world, for Jesus, seems to be far less important than its cure. It is only when Paul begins his ministry of letters that any real attempt to relate Adam and Jesus comes about. To Paul, the relationship between a first and second Adam is more important than just about anything to explain how salvation is possible. Jesus, however, looks to something else in the history of God’s people to explain the ins and outs of salvation.
In the Wilderness, one thousand-odd years before Jesus walked through Judea, Moses led Israel on a decades long trek. They were fed by God with Manna and quail, led by pillars of flame and smoke that housed presence of the same God. They faced trouble after trouble, each moment carrying equal parts faith and doubt within their souls. Every step along the way we are given story after story of highs and lows. Few of these episodes carry more significance and power, than the arrival of “burning snakes,” and God’s deliverance of Israel from the fire of their venom.
The people became discouraged after seemingly walking in endless circles for years and years. They begin to speak openly against God and Moses. Their complaints echo through the ages and reflect other complaints they made earlier in their journey. Having now been free of Egypt and slavery for years, the Israelites are able to forget the evil they once faced. The terror of slavery has dimmed, and now they are imagining their past oppression as if it was some kind of salvation. “If only we were still in Egypt! They had so much food.” “If only we had never left, Pharaoh was a lot, but he really wasn’t that bad!” “If only… If only… If only…” The wilderness was tough, but to call enslavement better than wandering, well only time allowed them to imagine that was the case.
God, not pleased with this rebellion, sends snakes to infest the camp. What that means is a little unclear – whether the snakes were summoned to the area or if they already were there – but whatever brought them there, the result is the same. The snakes are called, “Seraphim,” or “Burning Ones.” These attack people and when they do, those people die. Moses eventually intercedes for the people and God provides a cure. Craftsmen beat bronze into shape and a snake takes form from the hot metal. This snake is lifted up on a pole for all to see. Now if you are bitten by a snake, all you need to do is look up to the bronze serpent and you will find yourself saved.
This story is easily lost in the rest of the book of Numbers, but it is the background from which Jesus draws out an explanation of what it means to be born again. Jesus says that his actions on the cross can only be understood if we know how, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” Salvation is coming to the world and to understand exactly what that means we have to first understand how the arrival of poisonous snakes, and the making of a bronze copy of them showed God’s love and mercy long ago.
When we see Nicodemus come to Jesus to understand what his teachings man, we enter into a conversation about the “New Birth.” Jesus says that to be born again, a person must be born “of water and the Spirit.” The waters of Baptism initiate them into the community of the faith, but only the Spirit can really “save them.” This salvation is not just an escape from Hell, but a rebirth. Once the Spirit touches us, we should be different than we were before. Some parts of us will always be around – the defining traits that define who we are, what makes “us,” “us.” The things beyond this, the evil we take part in and the wrong we perpetuate, these fall away from us. The light and goodness of God take their place, and we find a completely renewed, “us.”
The Spirit does the work here, but we choose to follow “the sound of the wind.” The wind that blows over our life, guiding us to be better than we were before is the Spirit that gives us life, and life renewed. It allows us to know God more fully, to see things as they really are. The Spirit, though given freely by Christ to the Church, did not begin with us. It crafted the world around us, sustained its life and inspired the prophets and the people of God in the scriptures.
The Spirit led Moses somewhere he never would have dreamed of going. To save his people, God told Moses to build a bronze serpent. The making of a an image like this, cast in metal or wood or stone, was forbidden by the Teachings Moses brought down from Sinai. God had asked them to do something that, logically, would seem impossible – even forbidden – but he did it to save the people. Could something even as basic and important as the prohibition against a graven image be superseded by a need to save people? Moses only followed because he trusted that while he did not know where God’s spirit was coming or going, he trusted that God sent it for good.
Jesus’s work on the cross exists somewhere adjacent to the work of those metalworkers who were called to make a serpent at Mount Hor long ago. Jesus becomes the image of an invisible God, an εικων. God, in becoming incarnate, becomes the ultimate graven image – taking on flesh and bone which, in resurrection, exists to this day alongside God the father. Jesus acts not only as the image of a perfect God, but of sinful humanity. Though perfect himself, nothing about Jesus’s physicality is different than ours. The same ingrained temptations and pitfalls are present within Christ, yet in his rejection of all that is not good, he shows us what humanity could be.
The image of divinity, of perfected humanity, and of sinful humanity, two natures at once present and three aspects existing as an emblem of salvation. Christ, the cure for the sin we have chosen time and time again, looked no different than sinful humanity. Christ, the ultimate peacemaker between God and humanity, was the perfect image of both. This imaged lived a human life and then was lifted up to die on a cross. All so that, now, all who look upon him, wherever they are, may know salvation from sin, from pain, from death itself.
Like the Israelites long ago, for who the snakes did not disappear, we too still face life’s troubles. Yet those troubles have an answer, a way we can find peace, and it is through Christ. Christ who lived, died, and rose again for us. The Spirit is rushing around us, from where and to where we cannot know, but we still can follow it. We follow it because through it we are born again. And we have work to do! We must go now and proclaim the truth, beyond even God’s love, such that Christ may die for us. Yet that love is so wide and far spread that all may know Christ is here – not to condemn, but to save. Our call is to spread the same truth – one of salvation, not condemnation, of transformation and not rejection. Lord, may we live into that call and may we never forget the power of the salvation we proclaim. – amen.