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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021

John 3:14-21

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

We marked a national milestone this past week in that it has been a full calendar year since our country has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. We all have different thoughts about the wisdom of how different aspects of the pandemic have been handled over the past year, but I think we can all agree that it has been a hard, hard twelve months. Probably all of us, at one point or another, have been anxious or afraid or angry. After a year, we are all weary and ready for it to be over.

Well, long before there was a COVID-19 pandemic, there was another pandemic. No, not the influenza pandemic of 1918 – even further back in history. Long, long ago, as the people of God made their way through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, there was a pandemic. It was a pandemic of impatience. The people were weary of their wandering in the wilderness and were becoming impatient with God and with each other. It was a pandemic of unfaith. They were no longer trusting God’s promises. It was a pandemic of sin as the people were in open rebellion against God. This pandemic of sin got loose among the people, and eventually this pandemic turned deadly. The pandemic of sin resulted in a pandemic of poisonous snakes that came in and bit the people. Many of them died.

The people began to see their sin. They saw how they had turned against God, and they repented of it. And the Lord God, in his mercy, brought them a means of healing. God brought them a means of forgiveness and salvation and life. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. God told Moses that all who looked upon the serpent would live. This wasn’t some kind of magic wand shaped like a snake! God was inviting the people to trust his word and to look upon their sin, and in so doing they were given the gift of healing, the gift of forgiveness and new life.

This morning in our gospel reading we have what is perhaps the best-known passage in all of scripture, John 3:16. Most Christians can recite it by heart, and even non-Christians are at least vaguely familiar with it because they see it on the signs people hold up at football games. Martin Luther called John 3:16 the entire gospel in miniature: “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.”

That is straight up, 100 proof gospel, to be sure – but to really get the full meaning out it we need to turn from this most popular passage from one of the most popular books of the Bible, to this obscure story about the people in the wilderness and the poisonous snakes and the serpent on the bronze pole. We need to turn to an obscure book – the book of Numbers. I mean, all scripture is God-breathed and holy and helpful, but who cites Numbers as their favorite book of the Bible? We need to look at this story in the book of Numbers because this is the story Jesus cites to help us make sense of why he has come and what he is about to do. Jesus refers to this story to help us make sense of what he says in John 3:16. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus explains, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

You see, that outbreak of sin and death that happened to the people of God in the wilderness was contained. They did their contact tracing and lifted up the pole and got it under control, but the pandemic of sin has never ended. It continued long after that, and it continues even to this day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the pandemic of sin which has continued to rage in human hearts throughout human history. It is true that the virus has indeed brought out the best in people in some circumstances. There have been remarkable stories of human altruism and bravery and sacrifice and ingenuity. All of that is true and inspiring. But it is also true that the virus has, at times, brought out the worst in us. We haven’t always been at our best in his past year. We have been weary. We have been impatient. At times we have turned against God and against each other. And this is after only one year in the wilderness of our pandemic!

But just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness as a means of healing and forgiveness and new life, God has sent his Son to do the same for us. Jesus was lifted up on the cross to show us our sin, and as we look upon that cross, we find our hearts stirred to faith. We see Christ lifted up on that pole and we see not only our sin, but God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s forgiveness. We look upon the cross of Christ with faith and find healing and the gift of new life.

I would never say that God sent us COVID as a punishment for our sin, like those serpents slithering into the camp of the Israelites. I don’t think you can connect the dots quite that easily. But this past year of pandemic we have been through does provide us with an opportunity to take a deep look at ourselves and come to repentance for the ways in which we have grumbled against God, the ways we have been impatient, the ways we have failed to trust in his promises, the ways we have not cherished the gift of life God has given us. It can help us to see the pandemic of sin which manifests itself in us as fear and anger and doubt and despair.

This past year of COVID also gives us an opportunity to remember where true healing can be found. Our Lord Jesus took the venom of our sin into his own veins. He died our death for us. He was lifted up on the cross for our salvation, and as we look upon him with faith we are healed. We are restored. We are forgiven. We are given new life.

After a long, hard year, things are getting better on the COVID-19 front. Overall, new cases are going down. Hospitalizations and deaths are going down. Vaccines are protecting more and more people. Restrictions are beginning to be lifted. I’ve had some exciting conversations with people about our next steps towards normalcy as a congregation. It is increasingly looking like soon we will be able to get back to living again.

But let us never forget where true life is always found, even in the midst of sin and death. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too has Christ Jesus been lifted up on the cross for us, so that we may look upon him with faith and live. The source of our ultimate hope and healing has been here all along.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church