Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Lenten Sermon by Fr. Chad Kendall

[Note: I have the privilege to review sermons in my highly-lucrative job as Sermons Editor of Gottesdienst.  As the bribes get more lavish with each issue, it is sometimes hard to select just two.  The good news is that GO provides an outlet for even more fine preaching than can be contained in our print edition (the current issue, Passiontide-Easter 2011, includes a Good Friday Sermon by Fr. William Weedon and an Easter proclamation by our own GO Editor Fr. Heath Curtis).  Please find another outstanding Lenten sermon preached last year on Laetare, March 3, 2010 by Fr. Chad Kendall.   +LB]

St. John 3:1-15; Numbers 21

Dearly beloved,

We continue the Lenten theme of seeing glimpses of Jesus and His acts of salvation as they give us snapshots from the Old Testament and then the fulfillment of those snapshots in the gospels. The Old Testament, as we often discover, is a difficult collection of God’s word. Those of us who are brave enough to attempt to understand the Old Testament often walk away getting some historical accounts but we often leave wondering what it really means for the big picture. “What does it have to do with Jesus?” we may say.

Jesus makes it clear throughout the gospels that the Old Testament prophesies of Him. In other words, the interpretive lens that we use to understand the Old Testament is Jesus, His cross, and His empty tomb. The same is true today as we muse upon the mystery of the holy scriptures. The Old Testament lection for today is from Numbers. It gives us some important history of the desert wanderings of God’s people. They had been wandering and waiting for the Lord to give them the promised land. They journey toward it.

Suddenly, they come upon the land called Edom. Edom was a fruitful and good land with much wild game and water. The Israelites ask the Edomites of they could pass through Edom and they would pay for whatever they ate and drank. The Edomites refused. They warned the Israelites that if they even stepped foot in Edom, they would be slain with the sword. This left Israel with a very unfriendly option: the Israelites had to pass through a terrible desert. There was nothing to drink, nothing to eat, and it was horribly hot. It was quite a contrast to the fertile land of Edom.

To get to the promised land, they had to move on, so they go into the desert. The people begin to grumble against God and Moses for they are hungry and thirsty. They even complained about the manna that God rained down from heaven. This made God angry, and He responded by sending snakes. It is said that they were fiery serpents. What this meant is that they had the appearance of fire. They were a hot orange color. They were everywhere and they bit the Israelites. Many of the people began to die. This took place that the people would see their sin and repent.

They did see their sins and they asked Moses to pray to God that God would take away the serpents. There is a very important detail here and it has bearing for your life. As is the case in the Bible, the point is hidden in the details. Notice that God doesn’t take away the serpents. What God does instead is He gives an anti-dote for when they get bit. Remember this because I will come back to it.

God tells Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze. Why bronze? Because when the sun shone on the bronze, it looked just like the fiery serpents that were biting the people. Then God tells Moses to fasten that bronze serpent on a pole and raise it up for all to see. Whoever would look at it would be healed of the deadly venom of the serpent. The first dimension to this is that it is history that includes God’s hand. But there is the spiritual side to this, too. In St. John 3:15, Jesus makes one statement that packs a punch and gives us the other dimension to the account in Numbers.

Jesus says, “And 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.” Jesus is the fulfillment of the serpent on the pole. But why? Well, as I mentioned, when the people ask Moses to ask God to take away the fiery serpents, God doesn’t take them away. This bears meaning for your life. The fiery serpents represent sin and Satan. Satan is in this world and no matter how much we would like him gone, he is here.

How often do we watch the news on TV and shake our heads at the horrible occurrences in the world today? We think about the tragedies, the hardships, the sicknesses and catastrophes in the world, and we wish the world were different. How often do we privately think within our own minds, being careful not to share our innermost thoughts about our own sin? We look at our sin and we exclaim quietly to ourselves that we just can’t stop the sins that trouble us?

We may even pray that God will take away the sinful urges, the sinful tendencies, the most evil thoughts we have. But, we find that those same sins keep coming up, even though we ask God to take them away. What must we conclude? That God does not hear us? Or worse, that there is no God? Or that God does not want to help us? By no means! The answer to your sins are wrapped up in the account of the fiery serpent. The serpent is here to stay. God has allowed Satan to roam the earth for a time.

So what must we conclude? Jesus gives you a way out. The bronze serpent looked just like the real thing. It had the fiery appearance, it was in the form of the serpent. But it was God’s appointed means of healing. Anyone who looked upon the bronze serpent on the pole and believed that God had appointed that to be the healing anti-dote for the deadly venom, that person would by healed of the deadly bite and live. Jesus shows us once again that the Old Testament is about Him.

As Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Why? Because whoever looks upon Christ crucified and believes that Jesus on the cross has been appointed to die for the sins of the world, that person shall be healed of the deadly venomous bite of the serpent Satan. Jesus is God in the flesh. He looked just like we sinners, but with one exception–Jesus had no sin. What does this mean for Christians? It means that you will never live in this world and be free from sin. It means that the fiery serpent Satan is always lurking under logs and rocks. He may bite you at any time.

What this means, is that you never really leave the cross of Jesus. This is why Christians are fond of the crucifix. It is that continual reminder that Jesus died on the cross in order to heal mankind of the deadly snake bite. So, St. Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified.” Christ crucified means life for us. We look to the cross and find the anti-venom that gives life. The sting of death, sin, and hell came at Jesus on the cross, so that we experience the blessing of redemption.

So, as we listen to the history of God’s people, we see God’s hand descending from heaven in order to forgive, heal, bring mercy and love from heaven to earth. Jesus descended from heaven, took on flesh, came as one of us and was raised up for all to see that those who believe, shall find all the blessings of the forgiveness of their sins. Your sins are forgiven. Your sinful urges and tendencies have been atoned for by Jesus. So, we behold Christ on the cross this Lenten season, as we see the cross in the horizon, yet all the while we find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross looking upon God hanging there for our salvation. Amen.

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