This past Monday night I read this passage from John’s Gospel to our church council as the Scripture for our opening devotions. And I asked a question. If you were to preach on this Gospel reading, what would you preach about? Or, if you were hearing this Gospel being read to you, what would you want the preacher to tell you about it?
Now, as a preacher those can be dangerous questions to ask. However, for a preacher they can be very enlightening questions to ask. Although I try to explain what I think you need to know about any given Scripture passage – I am realistic to know that when I take aim, I might not always hit that mark.
So, I asked the questions. And what I got back was two things. “Explain what Jesus meant about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.” And the second thing was, “What does it mean when it talks about light and darkness?” SO let’s see if I can preach a sermon here that will weave together an answer to those two questions. Serpents – or snakes – and just what is John talking about here when he tells us that the light has come into the world. Snakes and light. SO the questions have been asked. And therefore to cover everything that’s been asked – I am going to be mixing metaphors. Is that alright? Ok, So! Are you ready?
There’s a story about three men who live on a ranch out West, the father John, the sons Jake and Joe. They never had had any use for the church until one day Jake is bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor is summoned, but the prognosis is not good. Jake is going to die. The younger son is sent to bring the preacher. The preacher is asked to offer a prayer for Jake:
“O Father God, we give you thanks that you have sent this snake to bite Jake. It has brought him to seek you. We ask, Lord, that you would send another snake to bite Joe and a really big one to bite the old man, so that they, too, might come to seek you. We thank you for your providence and ask that you send among us bigger and better rattlesnakes. Amen.”
Talk about a gutsy prayer. But had it not been for that snake, poor Jake would not have been drawn to God. If it hadn’t been for that snake, poor Jake would not have been drawn to the light.
Now, I’ll get back to the snakes in a minute. Because right now, I want to say something about light and darkness – since our lesson today from John’s Gospel contrasts light and dark.
Simply put – those who do evil hate the light. Those who love God – those who live a life that is true – are drawn to the light. You see, God sees and knows our sin. But what is also true is that God helps us to see – God helps us to know our own sin too. And when we do, we have a choice. We can stay in that sin – stay there in that dark place – OR recognizing our sin – knowing our need for forgiveness – we can choose recognize our need for God – to be drawn to the light of God – drawn to the love and forgiveness of God.
But sometimes, we need to be snake-bitten in order to see it.
That’s where our first lesson from the book of Numbers comes in. That reading tells of a time when God’s people – the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They began to mumble and grumble against God and Moses. So God sent the snakes. I told you I’d get back to the snakes.
Anyway, that’s when the people repented. “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you [Moses], pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” The Lord heard their prayer, and instructed Moses to fashion a snake of bronze, and to erect it on a pole. And whenever anyone was bitten – whenever anyone was snake-bitten – all they had to do was look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Jesus, in our Gospel lesson, compares his upcoming crucifixion to this time when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness when he says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” And then Jesus goes on to say words that are probably the first words – the first Bible verse I ever memorized as a child. And I daresay the same is true for many of you. Say it with me – and it’s okay if it comes out different because we probably all learned it slightly differently – but if you know it, say it with me:
“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.”
In other words, if you would be saved from sin – saved from those times when you’re snake bitten – saved from those places of darkness – if you would experience God’s salvation – in other words, God’s gift of eternal life – then come to the light. Come to the light of Christ. Just look to the cross. If you would experience God’s love and forgiveness – just look to the cross.
And what is this love of God like? What is this forgiveness of God like?
There is a story that comes out of the Bedouin culture. “Bedouin” is the Aramaic name for “desert dwellers.” These people live today much as the society of the Old Testament did. During a heated argument, according to this story, a young Bedouin struck and killed a friend of his. Knowing the ancient, inflexible customs of his people, the young man fled under the cover of darkness, seeking safety. He eventually found his way to the tent of the tribal chief, seeking his protection. The old chief took the young Arab in. He assured the young man that he would be safe until the matter could be settled legally.
The next day, the young man’s pursuers arrived, demanding that the murderer be turned over to them. They wanted to administer justice in their own way. But the chief would not allow them to get at the young man. “I have given my word,” protested the chief.
“But you don’t know who he killed!” they countered.
“I have given my word,” the chief repeated.
“He killed your son!” one of them blurted out.
Abruptly, there was silence. The chief was deeply and visibly shaken. He stood speechless with his head bowed for a very long time. The crowd waited breathlessly for the chief’s next words. What would happen to the young man?
Finally, their leader raised his head. “Then he shall become my son,” he told them, “and everything I have will one day be his.”
That young man certainly did not deserve, neither did he earn the chief’s forgiveness and generosity. That story is a picture of grace – God’s undeserved love and favor. For it is by this, God’s grace – as our second lesson from Ephesians tells us – “that you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God.”
It is the gift of God. If you want to see what this gift looks life – if you want to receive this gift into your life – look to the cross. Look to the cross.
What has brought you here today? What has brought you near to the cross? Have you been snake bitten by something? Maybe things aren’t going right – at least not the way you want them to. Perhaps you’ve messed up, and are looking for a word of forgiveness. Maybe you’re angry or bitter about something, upset and disappointed, and you don’t know where to turn. Listen to another story.
Billy Graham tells of meeting a young man at one of his crusades who was confined to a wheelchair. The young man was suffering through the final stages of terminal cancer. He was filled with anger and bitterness. He had read too many books promising health to believers. He had met too many well-meaning Christians who had promised him a miraculous healing from his disease. And as he continued to get sicker and sicker he grew more and more uncertain.
His parents loved him dearly and took him to one faith healer after another. Each one prayed for his dramatic healing. The young man had prayed and fasted. He sincerely believed in Jesus. But the healings never worked. Instead, he was dying. Billy Graham’s crusade was the last meeting the young man would ever attend.
At the crusade that night there was a youth emphasis. The speaker was Joni Erickson Tada. Some of you know her story. At the age of 17 Joni was paralyzed in a diving accident. She too had prayed for healing. Yet she remained confined to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. Sitting there in that wheelchair, Joni spoke from the heart, confessing her early anger at remaining crippled after praying and believing a miracle would occur. But a miracle did take place in her life, though not the one she had been praying for. Instead of being healed physically, God met her in her pain and gave her life new meaning and a new direction, in spite of her suffering and disappointment.
Joni’s frankness set that dying young man free. He was able to let go of his bitterness and anger. He stopped seeing himself as one who did not have enough faith. Instead he came to see Christ in a new way.
Not long after that crusade, the young man died, “but his parents were able to rejoice,” Dr. Graham says, “because he had not died angry and bitter. He simply gave his life back to his loving Father by giving himself completely to Jesus Christ.”
My friends, let me invite you to come to the light. Look to the cross. Come to the light. If you’ve been snake-bit by sin, fear, hopelessness, anger, bitterness, despair, or whatever. If you find yourself walking in darkness – come to the light. Look to the cross.
With His arms wide open, God is waiting there. Amen