Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 11th, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, there was a phrase my sister and I used whenever we were in deep trouble. We would say, “You are SO dead.”
For instance, I remember the time my mom and stepdad were out of town and my sister took my step-dad’s brand-new Camaro IROC-Z out for a joyride. She had zero permission to do this, and that car was my step-dad’s baby, his pride and joy. When I found out what she had done, I said, “You are SO dead.”
Of course, my step-dad figured out that someone had taken his car out. I don’t know if he recorded the mileage before he left or what. I do know that he found a long blonde hair in the passenger seat. He knew the state of my romantic life at the time, and so this automatically ruled me out as the culprit. My sister, however, had a best friend who had long blonde hair. I got to my sister before my step-dad did and told her what he’d found. “I am SO dead,” she said.
I’m sure there were times when I got in trouble and those words were said about me, but I have conveniently forgotten all of them.
I am SO dead. I know my sister and I aren’t the only ones who have used this rather morbid phrase. It is a common way of speaking. And it isn’t meant literally, right? To say, “I am SO dead” is to say that you’ve been caught, that you’ve been convicted. It is to say that your sin has been exposed, and now there will be a consequence.
I’m not sure of the etymology of this phrase. Perhaps it is simply common hyperbole. But maybe, just maybe, it has its roots in the Bible itself. Because you see, in the Bible, sin and death go hand in hand.
In the very beginning, Adam and Eve were told NOT to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “If you eat from this tree,” God said, “you will die.” But Adam and Eve were tricked by the serpent. They ate the fruit. And so God said to them, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When Lot’s wife disobeyed God’s angels, who told her to NOT look back at Sodom as it was being destroyed, her disobedience led to death. She was turned into a pillar of salt.
In our second reading for today from the book of Numbers we hear how many of the people of Israel were speaking against God. God was providing for them in the wilderness, but rather than being grateful they said, “We detest this miserable food!” The people were in mutiny against God and Moses. So God sent poisonous serpents among them, and because of their sin, many Israelites died. The people recognized the connection between their sin and death. They pleaded with Moses ask God to take the serpents away from them. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole, and whoever looked upon it would live.
There is a connection in the Bible between sin and death. And before we start thinking this is just an Old Testament phenomenon, remember that in the New Testament Paul tells us in Romans that “the wages of sin is death.” Likewise, James writes that sin, “when it is fully grown, leads to death.”
“What?” you might be thinking to yourself about now. There’s a connection between sin and death? If that’s the case, I am SO dead.
Just as Adam and Eve were given a clear commandment, so too have we been given commandments – ten of them! You shall have no other gods, God says to us. In other words, nothing should be more important in our lives than God. Keep the Sabbath day holy, God says. It isn’t just a day off – it is a day for me! Don’t lie, God says. Don’t steal. Don’t look at other people’s stuff and wish it was yours – that’s coveting.
And now more of you are thinking: I am SO dead.
If you aren’t convicted by the Ten Commandments, Jesus comes along and when he does he doesn’t water them down, he sharpens them! In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says not only should you not commit adultery, but don’t even look at another person in that way. Not only should you not kill, Jesus says, but don’t even call someone a fool, don’t even be angry with someone! If you do, you’re liable to the fires of hell!
We hear a word like that and think: I am SO dead.
As happened with Lot, God sends us messengers, God sends his Word to lead us away from destruction. God tells us to move in the direction he has told us to go and don’t look back. But we just can’t help but look back.
God gives us so much. God cares for us in so many ways, and yet most of the time we are so ungrateful. We complain like the Israelites did about their supposedly miserable food. Nothing is ever good enough for us. Our lack of patience leads us to stage mutinies against God again and again and again.
We are SO dead.
Our constant rebellion against God causes us to become spiritually dead long before we’re ever put in the ground. The serpent that tricked our first parents Adam and Eve all too often tricks us too. We are snake-bit. The venom that ran through the veins of our ancestors in faith also runs through our veins. The poison of unbelief and hard heartedness and a lack of love is in all of us, and the consequences are like a ring of death spreading out in all directions: broken relationships, families torn apart, communities that are aching, a world at war.
We are SO dead.
In our gospel reading for this morning Jesus says, “just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus says this in response to Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night to ask him some questions. Nicodemus understood that Jesus was from God, but he wasn’t sure what to make of him. He wasn’t sure what exactly Jesus had come to do. And so eventually Jesus said to him, “Hey Nick, you remember that story from our ancestors, how the people were sinning and then dying from snakebites? Remember how God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole and lift it up, and how anyone who looked upon that pole would live? That’s what I have come to do. In the same way, I am going to be lifted up. And all who look upon me with faith will live.
Jesus, of course, was referring to his death on the cross. When we look to the cross we see Jesus lifted up just like that serpent on a pole. When we look to our crucified Lord we see our sin. We see that we are in deep trouble. When we look to the cross we are convicted. Our disobedience and our rebellion against God is exposed.
But when we look at the cross we don’t just see our sin, we also see our salvation! We see that Jesus has taken our sin upon himself. He has taken the consequences upon himself. He has let himself be snake-bit, taking that venom into himself so that he might be for us the antidote. We see that Jesus takes in that poison so that he might be for us the cure. We see him die for us so that we might live.
As St. Paul writes in our second reading, “YOU WERE DEAD through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love in which he loved us, EVEN WHEN WE WERE DEAD THROUGH OUR TRESPASSES, made us alive together with Christ.
When we look at ourselves, if we are honest, we see sin. We see hard hearts. We see disobedience. When we look at ourselves, we can only say, “I am SO dead.” But today through his Word our Lord Jesus doesn’t call us to look at ourselves. He calls us to look at him. He calls us to look at him on the cross. He calls us to look upon him with eyes of faith as he is lifted up for us.
And when we look to him, we see not only our sin, but our salvation. When we look to him, lifted up for us, we are made alive again.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may NOT PERISH but have eternal life.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church