The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - March 11, 2018
Scripture Reading: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

Sermon Title: Loved

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     Today’s reading from John is part of a larger discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus.  I would invite you to picture yourself in a dark area - this conversation happens at night.  You have heard about this Jesus who has started his ministry, but is not really well known yet.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, so you certainly don’t want to meet where others might see you.  As you greet Jesus, you tell him that you believe he is a teacher from God.  Jesus informs you that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.  This is confusing - What does it mean to be born from above, being reborn after you grow old?  And then Jesus rubs a bit of salt in that wound, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  You will not even accept these teachings about things on earth, you will never accept what I teach about heavenly things.” 

     Jesus then continues with the reading we had this morning.  If we believe in Jesus we will have eternal life. 

     Interestingly Jesus reaches back into the book of Numbers for an example.  The Israelites in the desert had a snake problem in their camp.  They assumed it was because they spoke evil about God and Moses, their leader.  And quite a problem, people were being bitten and killed by these snakes.  But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a stake, when someone is bitten they are to look at this and they will not die.  Let’s be honest, both of the passages are strange and hard to wrap our heads around.  Keeping a bit of the unknown mystery in your head, let me try to explain what I think they may mean.

     In about 1998 I was invited to go to Nicaragua.  The churches of Presbytery in Michigan had a partnership with several churches down there, very much like many of the New Hampshire Conference churches have partnerships with churches in Zimbabwe.  The coordinator of that program was on staff with me, so she invited me.  Not really thinking, I said “Yeah, that sounds good.”  Pretty soon everything lined up, the trip could be paid for with continuing education money, the Presbytery would give me time, not as vacation, but paid time to go on this trip.  So I filled out the forms, and then several months before we were scheduled to leave I was given an information packet.  Tucked away on one page was health information.  They suggest you get these shots, and get prescriptions filled with these medicines.  I went to the local health department and said that I needed to get inoculated for Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Tetanus, and I think a few others. 

     Apparently, what these shots do is contain a very small amount of the virus you are trying to protect yourself from.  Sometimes they are dead, or not able to reproduce, so you will not get the disease, but it tricks your body into thinking this is really bad stuff, and your body creates antibodies to fight those specific diseases.  Then, if you are exposed to the real thing, your body already has these antibodies floating around and can quickly deal with that virus, hopefully before you get sick. 

     So I am going to make a jump here to suggest that Jesus is inoculating us from death.  With the story of Moses creating the snake, which everyone has to look at when bitten, you are looking at what you fear most.  The fear was being bitten and dying.  Always interesting that God agrees to stop the death, but not take away the snakes totally.  Speaking from experience, being bitten by a snake, nonpoisonous, hurts.  I was bitten in the hand many years ago by a red king snake, not poisonous, but he, or she, had long curved teeth.  God did not take away the pain of being bitten, just took away the death that was resulting. 

     And Jesus said that like that, he must be “lifted up.”  We don’t fear Jesus, but I think a lot of us have at least some fear of death. 

     My grandmother lived into her mid 90’s, and really quite independent until about a year before she died.  When I was visiting her, probably for her 90th birthday celebration, the issue of death came up.  She had gotten a telemarketing call from someone selling advanced funeral planning services.  So I said “Are you afraid of dying?”  She said “not at all.”  She spoke of her faith, knew that death was something that happens to everyone, was not looking forward to it, but accepted that it would happen and it was OK. 

     I am not there yet.  I have a totally irrational fear of heights.  The deputy chief on the fire department knows that, so every time he has the chance he puts me in the bucket of the tower truck.  I don’t know how high it goes, I think it is 75 feet, but is way too high for my comfort.  10-15 feet with that huge truck below me, I am fine, but the higher we go the less comfortable I become.  I know that I am safe, but there could be that one time a fire truck tips over and I could be injured or die. 

     And the idea of dying is frightening.  In a purely secular world view, something happens where your heart or brain is not getting oxygenated blood, and your body shuts down.  And for some, that is it, end of story. 

     But because we have seen Jesus on the cross, just like the snake on the pole, we understand that we do not have to fear death.   We have been inoculated; death is not the last word. 

     I think I have mentioned before how the cross works.  It is a torture device.  You probably have your hands nailed to it.  Not nice surgically sharp nails, but just a wooden stake or something that will hold you up.  Some pictures have feet nailed also.  Once you are nailed there, they stand the cross up.  They encouraged people to watch this - You don’t want to do what they did, or you may face the same punishment.  As your body is pulled down by gravity, you must pull your body up a bit to take a breath.  You are pulling against holes in your hand, not simply holding onto something.  And eventually you die of exhaustion.  You are eventually unable to pull yourself up any more, and without breathing, you die. 

     This is, hopefully, far worse than any of us will ever experience.  And even after the humiliation and worst death we can imagine, we know that we are promised eternal life, not physical life that will end for all of us, but are promised something beyond our human life. 

     That is all good news, but there is also another piece of good news that we should know about in this passage.  Jesus tells Nicodemus, that he did not come to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 

     Christians are really good at using their faith to condemn others.  Even in matters that are not addressed in the Bible, people still will say that their Christian belief drives them to do some frankly horrible things to others at times. 

     I heard a story several years ago about a little boy who would not eat his dinner.  His father sent this boy to his room, and the boy left the table with an “I hate you.”  When the father went up to tuck that boy into bed, the father shut off the lights and said “I love you.”  The boy, still upset from the dinner said “You cannot say that. I hate you.”  After a bit of back and forth the father said “I love you, whether you like it or not.”  There is no argument against I love you, eventually you have to accept it. 

     That is really the good news in this passage.  God sent Jesus to us to show us that God loves us, whether we like it or not.  You notice there are not a lot of requirements to be a Christian.  You don’t have to be pro-life or pro-choice.  You don’t have to have a particular political view.  Jesus does say that things like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, welcoming the immigrant, and helping your neighbor,  are all things that we should be doing.  So certainly, following a Christian lifestyle is not easy, but when we fail, and we all fail, God does not love us less. 

     If you had more than one child, or even have a sibling, you don’t love one child more than the other, your parents didn’t love you more or less than your sibling.  Yes, sometimes if feels like that, and even in life it feels like that sometimes.  Stuff happens to people, good stuff, bad stuff.  Not caused by God, and does not change how much God loves us. 

     Back into that night - You are again Nicodemus, it is all confusing, how can I be born again, how can I understand what you are saying about heavenly stuff when I cannot understand the earthly stuff?  Now I start to see it.  God loves me so much that God sent God’s only son, and if I believe in him, I have nothing to fear.  I am inoculated from the fear of death, and know that God did not come to condemn, but to save.