4 Lent, Proper B4
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21 Sermon
March 22, 2009

Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
209 "God Of Our Life, All Glorious Lord"
375 "My Faith Looks Up To Thee"
---- "Amazing Grace"
520 "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"


TEXT (Numbers 21:8-9):  "The LORD said to Moses, 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.'  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived." (John 3:14-15): "[Jesus said to Nicodemus:] 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."

This past week has been a rather emotional time for my mother.  She received her alumni newspaper from her alma mater, Midland Lutheran College in Fremont.  And in that paper, she read where one of her long-time childhood friends had died.  Even though they hadn't been in real close contact for the past several years, it was rather a shock to her to find out about her death in this manner.

So she decided to telephone another one of her long time friends by the name of Dona, to find out if she had heard the news, and if she knew any of the details.  To her absolute shock, Dona's husband told her that his wife had died as well, back in January.  He thought that my mother had been informed, which of course she hadn't.  And that started a lengthy conversation between the two of them.

Even though my mother had lost two of her friends in rather close succession, the story of this second friend Dona is the one that I'm going to share with you.

Dona's mother and sister had developed breast cancer.  They received all of the prescribed treatments and did everything that was medically necessary, but they both wound up eventually dying from it.  Dona had watched them both go through the agonizing effects of mastectomies, chemo therapy, and radiation therapy.  Their last years were very difficult ones, and they finally both died from a combination of the disease and the treatment.

So when Dona discovered that she had developed lumps in her breast, she told nobody, not even her doctor, or her husband, or her daughters, or any of her family.  She had convinced herself that living with the disease would be better than living with the treatment.  And so as the disease progressed, she just suffered in silence.

I'm not sure of the exact time frame of things, but I do remember the day my mother received a letter in the mail from Dona explaining what was happening to her.  And as the days and weeks progressed, Dona and her husband sold their home in Schuyler and moved to Omaha close to one of their daughters.  Then one day, she slipped and fell in her home, and it was all over.

Dona stuck by the decision she made.  Even though I don't necessarily condemn her for making that decision, yet I think that by keeping it to herself, she wasn't able to weigh all of the information and consequences.  She looked at her mother and sister and others she had known who had breast cancer, and all she saw was death.  She couldn't look anywhere else and see life.  That was out of her field of view.

As we know, there are many different cancer treatments available today that don't involve radiation or chemo therapy.  There are other alternative methods being used, some of which have been successful.  It might have involved going to another country, or seeking out other experimental or non-traditional treatments.  Maybe they would have worked, who knows?  The point of the matter is that there are other things to consider rather than just sitting and waiting for a disease to take its toll, unchecked.  Death is not the only option, even with such a serious disease.

Today my sermon is actually based upon two separate texts, one of which is our Old Testament lesson for today, and the other is the Gospel lesson for today.  The reason I have coupled the two, is because the Gospel is the natural conclusion to what has been presented in the Old Testament Lesson.  The two fit together almost like a surgical glove fits someone's hand.  So let's have a look at these stories.

In the Old Testament lesson from Numbers 21, we find Moses with the Israelites, and they are in the midst of their forty year excursion from Egypt back to Israel.  And if you think that this was a small number of several hundred people, then think again.  Some Biblical scholars estimate this number to be somewhere in the neighborhood of two and a half million, or about like the city of Chicago.  The accuracy of this number is nothing more than an educated guess, but suffice it to say it was a very large group indeed.

And these people were anything but faithful and compliant followers.  They were a cantankerous bunch to say the least.  They whined, they complained, they were unfaithful, and they did other detestable things.  Both Moses and God had their hands full with this mob.

Our Old Testament reading for today records one of their many rantings.  Verses 4-5 read:  "...But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, '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!'"

This is hardly an appropriate response to the God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  He had protected them from their enemies, he was safely leading them through the desert, and he had been providing the necessary staples to keep them alive.  And this was the thanks he was getting?

They needed a lesson in the worst way.  They needed to look away from themselves, and look to God.  So God sent venomous snakes amongst them.  But he also provided a way out.  God directed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.  When someone was bitten, all they had to do was look at the snake on the pole, and they would live.  The snake on the pole represented God himself; and all they had to do was to look at him in faith, and they would live.

Now we switch gears and go into the New Testament where we find our Gospel lesson recorded in the third chapter of John.  In the secrecy of night, a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus.  He was not like the other Pharisees who were seeking his death.  Nicodemus was a man of faith who sincerely wanted to know his Saviour and what he was teaching.  But he had to come at night to avoid persecution from the other Pharisees.  Even with this, it was a bold move for him to make.

Since Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and therefore he was schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus knew that he was very familiar with the story of Moses and the bronze serpent.  So he doesn't hesitate to make the direct correlation between the serpent on the pole and himself on the cross.  When the Israelites were bitten by the snakes, or serpents, all they had to do was look to the serpent on the pole and live.  Similarly, when mankind suffered the fatal bite of Satan, who from the beginning came in the form of a serpent, all they needed to do was look to Christ with the eyes of faith and be assured of eternal life.

This is an easy association to make.  In both cases, it took complete reliance upon God in order to have life.  The Israelites who looked upon the serpent Moses had set up required the eyes of faith.  It takes the same type of faith for a sinner to look to Jesus Christ for spiritual healing, forgiveness, and life.  This is a very simple and straight-forward approach to things.  Just look with the eyes of faith and live.  How much easier could it be?

But the Israelites weren't always that bright.  Certainly there were those who had been bitten by a poisonous snake and who refused to look at the serpent on the pole that Moses had set up.  They refused God's grace and his healing.  How ignorant could they be?

It's not much different than those who turn away from Christ and refuse to look at him.  The Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people to turn their eyes to Jesus, so they might be saved and have life.  But how many people fight and wrench themselves free from the Holy Spirit, and turn away from Jesus?  Can there be any greater example of ignorance?

Satan's influence upon humanity is like an entire brood of deadly poisonous vipers being unleashed upon the world.  We have been bitten and fatally wounded by the devil; and without intervention of some kind, we would be doomed to eternal perdition.

But as humanity often does, they turn to other things for help.  People can chase after all sorts of cures that range from the latest self-help book or the local fortune teller or spirits to simply relying upon their own devices.  Sad to say, we also have fallen into that trap, thinking either that Satan's attacks really aren't all that bad, or that we can somehow save ourselves.  And of course there will always be those who will in effect say, "Sorry Jesus, I don't need you, I can get along very well by myself, thank you very much."

All of this leads up to one very famous and often quoted passage of Scripture.  After Jesus makes the correlation between himself and the bronze serpent on the pole, he tells Nicodemus in verse 16:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life." That verse is often referred to as "the Gospel in a nutshell," because it says it all.  It tells about what Jesus did to save us from sin and the devil, and what we have to do to get it.  Don't resist the call of the Holy Spirit; look to Jesus your Saviour with the eyes of faith, and you will live eternally.

Jesus further explains his purpose in the very next verse, verse 17:  "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."

This morning, I used the example of my mother's friend Dona who had breast cancer, and what she chose to do about it.  In sharing this story with you, I in no way want to be mean or critical of her for the way she handled things.  She had her reasons for proceeding the way she did, and I don't believe that God thinks any less of her for it.  Based upon her decision, God allowed her to live exactly as long as he wanted her to, and we have to leave it at that.

So what would have happened if she would have sought medical treatment or some other method?  Would it have added years to her life?  Would it have cured her disease?  That's something we'll never know.  There's always going to be a question mark there.

But one thing we do know for sure.  The disease having been left to run its course was fatal.  Death from cancer was a certainty, and there's no getting around that.  Even though the result of treatment would have been questionable, the result of having no treatment was absolute.

One of the reasons I chose a medical illustration for today, is because of that little thing known as a "caduceus."  In case you're not familiar with it, a caduceus is the symbol of the American Medical Association.  Many doctors have this symbol displayed in their offices, on their business cards, and on their stationery.  The caduceus depicts a pole with two serpents wrapped around it.

The caduceus was developed as the symbol of what Moses did in our Old Testament lesson for today.  A person can look at that symbol, and know that God indeed works through the skills of medical professionals to provide healing and life.  But the realization is that such healing is entirely in God's hands.  There's a point where the physician's skill comes to an end.  And where exactly that is, nobody but God himself knows.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives Nicodemus a lesson in eternal life and how that is obtained.  The Holy Spirit worked a miracle in Nicodemus' heart, so he knew without a doubt that looking to Jesus with the eyes of faith meant eternal life not only for him, but for the entire sinful world.

When we look out into the world and see nothing but poisonous snakes and serpents, when we see sin running rampant, when we see no way out, then we must never refuse to hear the call of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit turns our eyes from death, and doom, and gloom, and hopelessness to see the hope and promise of life that faith in Jesus gives to us.

Therefore, let us keep in mind the words God speaks to us through the writer to the Hebrews, chapter 12 verse 2:   "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."