The Fourth Sunday in Lent March 30, 2003
155, 153, 375, 351
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.
In Christ Jesus, who loved us enough to die in our place, dear fellow Christians:
The story is told of two women at Jacob’s well. It was about noon, and the women had come to draw water for their families. One had a scowl on her face as she said, “Life is terrible! Every day I come to get water, and when I take it home, it’s only a short time before the bucket is empty, and I have to start all over again. I never get ahead!” The other woman had a pleasant, peaceful look on her face as she replied, “I think life is wonderful! I know every time I fill up my bucket, take it home, and it’s emptied, I can always come back and fill it up again.”
Which woman best describes you? Is life terrible or wonderful? I would guess that all of us at times feel like the first woman: discouraged and drained of all energy. Life can be full of disappointments. Science and technology promise us an easier life with such inventions as cars, telephones, and computers; but buying, using, and maintaining these things can cause more stress than doing without them. Sometimes the burdens of responsibility seem to be too great to handle. The struggle to preserve a Christian household in a wicked world can seem like a losing battle. Our happiness can gradually be eroded away by the hurts others cause us, the fears and worries of our hearts, and the endless stream of bad news which comes at us from all sides. Where is cause for optimism in all this?
The second woman lived in the same world as the first. Her life was almost identical. Yet she found peace, because she looked at life from a different perspective. That is the secret for peace and contentment in the Christian life too. We can’t change the world and eliminate all the problems and heartaches which sin causes. They will be a curse upon earthly life until the end of time. But we can still find peace while we are living here, because the Lord provides us with a different perspective on things. We don’t see just the problems and bad news. The Lord gives us encouragement for those “hard” days. He gives us something to cheer about when the world makes us cry. He gives us the good news of His love, and that makes all the difference in life!
To fully appreciate God’s love, we must first have a clear understanding of ourselves. The Lord helps us see ourselves in the example of the Israelites. In the text He refers to Moses lifting up the snake in the desert. Israel had been richly blessed by God. He had rescued them from the horrible oppression in Egypt. He had parted the Red Sea for them, so that they could easily walk through on dry ground. He had guided them every step of the way through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. He had supplied all their nutritional needs in a barren wasteland with the miraculous food called manna. The people had every reason to fall down on their knees and offer prayers of thanksgiving to God. But instead, they became impatient with God’s way of doing things. They began to grumble against Him. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt? There is no bread or water, and we hate this miserable food!” (Numbers 21:5). Can you blame God for what happened next? No, the people deserved what they received. God sent poisonous snakes among the people and many people died. By their complaining, the people had forfeited any right to God’s love.
Unfortunately, if we look closely, we can see ourselves in ancient Israel. God has blessed us in every way too. He provides us with food and clothing and more “extras” than we know what to do with. He gives us families and loved ones, and guides us through life with His holy Word. And yet, when things go wrong, do we put the blame on ourselves or recognize sin in the world as the cause? Often we end up grumbling against God as though it were His fault that we are unhappy. We deserve judgment every bit as much as Israel did. Everyone does. “There is no one righteous, not even one…All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10,12 NIV).
If someone is caught speeding or shoplifting or breaking the law in some other way, the police have the right to arrest that individual, and throw him in jail. God had every right to send Jesus to earth to call us all to account, and to condemn us for our sins. If He had done that, there would be no hope for us. We would be facing a trouble-filled life followed by an eternity of suffering cut off from God.
But the surprising, exciting good news is that God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it, but to save the world through Him. “God so loved the world!” His love is not just a shallow, temporary feeling which could pass at any moment. The Bible does not say, “God so liked the world.” There is nothing worth liking about the world. But God loved the world. This is a determined, strong, completely unselfish love which saw a great need, and was willing to do whatever it would take to help in the need. Think of the strongest example of human love: a mother for her child, a husband for his wife, or any other relationship. God’s love is stronger! “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Is. 49:15 NIV).
There is nothing more certain in the entire universe than God’s love for you. The sun may not rise tomorrow. We may not see another day on this earth. But nothing can alter God’s love. He so loved the world. He cares about everything that happens to all of the billions of people on earth, and at the same time, He is so concerned about you personally that He knows every hair on your head. “God so loved the world.” Replace “world” with your own name: “God so loved ME!” Let that truth give you a new, joyful perspective on life.
Of all the promises made, promises of love are perhaps broken more than any others. It’s a simple matter to say, “I love you,” as long as there is no cost or commitment involved. But genuine love does not worry about the cost or commitment. It is willing to do anything and make any sacrifice for the well-being of another. God showed that kind of love toward Israel in the desert. When the people repented of their sin, and cried to Him for mercy, He listened and He helped.
God provided a means of rescue for the people in a very unlikely way. While the camp was overrun with poisonous snakes, God told Moses to make another snake out of bronze and put it on a pole. He promised that whoever was bitten and looked at the snake would live. Imagine a little Israelite boy or girl saying, “Daddy, those snakes killed Grandpa and Grandma and my best friend! I don’t want to look at the pole!” But then the father would say, “It’s OK. It’s God’s way of showing us that He beat the snakes, so we don’t have to worry about them anymore. He will keep us from dying.”
The bronze snake is a beautiful picture of what God’s love has done for all mankind. All of us have the poison of sin flowing in our veins. Without God’s intervention it means certain death. “But God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross for us. It seemed such an unlikely way to save people—Jesus suffered and died! Yet His death means life for us, because He was our substitute. He is a true human being just as we are, except without sin. At the same time He is the true Son of God. That means He could take the blame for the sin of everyone on earth, and by dying in our place pay the price to make up for all our guilt. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5 NIV).
Just like the bronze snake, a crucified Jesus is God’s way of showing us that the battle against sin has been fought and won. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15 NIV). Keep the cross of Christ in your heart and mind, and let it give you a whole new perspective on life and its struggles.
With Jesus’ cross God offers us the ultimate gift: eternal life. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” [v.16] And we don’t even have to wait until we die to enjoy that life; we have it already now. Eternal life is not just an extended “quantity” of life, meaning that we will live forever in heaven. It is a whole new “quality” of life which is ours through Christ. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again of water and the Spirit. When you were baptized, you were spiritually reborn. God gave you new life—eternal life.
That new life dramatically changes your perspective of things. When sickness, job loss, or some other problem threatens to turn your life upside down, you have the promise of God’s help to carry you through. When an attitude of despair begins to creep into life because it seems as though the hurts others cause will never heal, you have the comfort of God’s love which will never let you down. He loved you enough to die for you. He will never abandon you. When your guilt makes you question how God can possibly love you, remember the passage: “God so loved the world—ME included!”
God’s love is the light that draws us to Him in faith. He wants all people to see it, come to Him, believe in Jesus, and be saved. The Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the Word to bring people to Christ. But what happens? “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” [v.19] If you were to turn over a large rock in your garden this summer, you would likely see a flurry of activity as all kinds of tiny creatures would scurry into holes. They want nothing to do with the light. In the same way, many people want nothing to do with the light of Christ. It shines into lives and exposes sin, and shows a person’s desperate need for a Savior. But many want to go on living in the darkness of sin. They don’t want anyone, not even God, to tell them that there is something wrong in their lives that has to be taken care of. They turn away from the light, and if they remain in the dark they are lost forever. The fault is not God’s. He loves them too. Jesus paid for their sins. But by refusing to believe in Jesus, they forfeit all the blessings God wants them to have.
God wants us to live in His light and then just like the spring sunshine causes plants to send out new shoots, God wants us to flower and produce fruit so the light of the Lord will cause us to grow in love and good works done for Him. Walk in the Lord’s light, and there is hope for every day. What better way to begin a new day than by spending some time with the Lord in prayer thanking Him for His protection during the night, and asking for His presence and blessing for the coming hours. Counteract all the frustrations and bad news of the day by making time to listen to the Lord speak to you through the reading of your Bible. You don’t have to face life alone. Not only is the Lord at your side, He gives us each other to turn to for help and encouragement. Joining with one another for prayer and worship at home and at church is like a cheerful ray of sunshine for our souls.
As we go through life and meet people at work, school, the store, and wherever we may be, do people see us with a smile or a scowl on our face? Do we give the impression that life is a hopeless struggle, or do others see Christian hope and peace? May we meet every day and every circumstance with the joy which only Christ can give, the joy of knowing that God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son. May others come to see God’s love for them in us, and so with us receive the gift of eternal life. God loved us so much! That makes all the difference in life! Let’s look up to Christ’s cross and really live! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.