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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

John 3:14-21
ďIn the LightĒ
March 15, 2015 - Fourth Sunday of Lent

†††††††† When the sun comes out, the snakes come out. Thatís a rule of thumb for poking around in any high desert country like we have here in Oregon around Bend or by our cabin in northern Arizona. On a warm day after a cold night, watch where you step or where you put your hand as you climb up rocks. Cold-blooded reptiles need to have external heat to warm their bodies, so in the sunshine they become active and, if they are poisonous, more dangerous.

†††††††† In the first verse of our text, Jesus compared Himself to a snake in the sunshine. He was referring to our Old Testament text from Numbers. In the wilderness, the Israelites started grumbling. So God sent them poisonous snakes. Bitten, they began to die. Moses prayed and God gave him an answer: Make a snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. All the snake-bitten who turned and looked at the bronze serpent would be healed.

†††††††† For a long time I thought that was why the symbol of the American Medical Association was a snake. Iíd see that snake wrapped around a rod and think of that story I learned in Sunday School. The snake was a biblical sign of healing.

†††††††† But a snake was already a symbol of healing hundreds of years before Jesus compared His death on the Cross with Moses raising up the bronze serpent. The AMA symbol is from the Greek god Asclepius, who supposedly learned medicine from a snake. Years ago our family visited Epidauros in Greece and saw a statue of Asclepius with his snake. There were ancient medical instruments and sculptures of body parts offered in thanks for healing, like a pair of ears from someone grateful to be healed of deafness. The medical symbol is a single snake coiled round a rod. Itís often confused with two winged snakes which symbolize the god Hermes. Some physicians have mistakenly adopted that dual-snake logo.

†††††††† So when Jesus talked to Nicodemus about being lifted up like Mosesí snake in the wilderness, both Jews and Gentiles would resonate. The church father Justin Martyr taught that God let the ancient Greeks have the snake as a symbol of healing so they would be ready to hear what Jesus said, comparing His own death and resurrection to a serpent raised on high to bring life.

†††††††† Jesus identified lifting up the bronze snake with His own ďlifting up.Ē He would be nailed to a rough cross of wood, lifted and hung up to die. But the effect of Jesus dying that way would be like lifting up Mosesí bronze snake. Everyone who looked at the snake was healed. Everyone who believes, says verse 15, will ďhave eternal life in him.Ē Lifted up, the snake was transformed from a symbol of death to a symbol of life. Lifted up, Jesusí on the Cross transformed a sign of capital punishment into the sign of life.

†††††††† What many of us would choose as the greatest verse in the Bible comes next. Verse 16 says, ďFor God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.Ē Some of you learned it as children. Others are very glad to have heard it as adults.

†††††††† †It begins ďGod so loved the world.Ē Thatís the heart of the story. As Covenant people we believe that the Cross of Jesus Christ is about the love of God, not about the wrath of God. God can be angry. We saw Jesus get angry last week. But as I said last week, God is only angry because He loves us so much. That love is where we have to begin in order to talk about Jesus to people who need His life and healing.

†††††††† We heard that love in Psalm 107 today, the great steadfast love of God which rescues people from all sorts of danger. We heard that love in Paulís letter to the Ephesians chapter 2, ďBut God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.Ē That little phrase we pass over so quickly, that God ďso loved the worldĒ is meant to put the emphasis right there, that Godís love is the beginning and source of everything we believe.

†††††††† Most of us hear and experience that love over and over as we read the Bible and worship here together. We feel that love in a peaceful assurance that in Christ our sins are forgiven and we belong here. We are confident and happy in that love, glad to quote John 3:16 and believe it applies to us. What we might forget is that there are many people not quite so confident that God loves them, or at least not so sure that the God in which Christians believe loves them.

†††††††† This past Wednesday I sat in a workshop and listened as a man who experienced it himself described the pain and rejection felt by a young boy who believes he is attracted to other boys. Itís a feeling of being rejected by family and of being rejected by people who preach that God is love. That presenter passionately asked us to learn how to hold onto the biblical truth about marriage and Godís gift of sexuality while still being able to communicate Godís love to the person who experiences same-sex attraction.

†††††††† †Itís terribly complicated and frankly, Iíd rather not even talk about it. Iím not sure what to say or how to say it. But I am sure of this. Whatever we have to say to gay people has to begin where John 3:16 begins. We have to begin with the fundamental truth that God loves them and that He gave His Son Jesus to die for their sins just as much as He loved us and gave Jesus to die for our sins.

†††††††† None of that excuses or permits sin. It only start where God starts, with His love for everyone. No one is outside that love. No oneís sexual desire, sin or failure puts him or her out of sight of the One who was lifted up for everyone to see.

†††††††† Jesus was lifted on the Cross for the same reason the snake was raised high in the camp of the Israelites. God meant for His Sonís work on the Cross to be visible, to be something anyone could see and believe in. As Jesus said later in John 12:32, when He was lifted up it was to draw all people to Him.

†††††††† We often forget to go on from John 3:16, but in verse 17, the purpose of God to save everyone is made even more clear. ďFor God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.Ē Contrary to what some theology teaches, Jesus did not come to save a select few. Itís not a ďlimited atonement.Ē Itís unlimited grace. When God sent His Son into the world, His clearly stated intention was to make salvation and eternal life available to the whole world, to everyone.

†††††††† Jesus did not come to condemn. He came to save. He came to save everyone. The Gospel is universal. Thatís what the word ďcatholicĒ means when we say it in the Apostlesí or Nicene creeds. Jesus is for everyone. God does not want to condemn anyone. Thatís why in verse 18 we read, ďWhoever believes in Him is not condemned.Ē In John 12:47, we hear Jesus say, ďI did not come to judge the world, but to save it.Ē He came to save the world. Jesus is a Savior for everyone.

†††††††† You may worry that focusing too much on these verses make it too easy. Preaching how God loves everyone is going to give people the idea they can go on sinning. Thatís what the scribes and Pharisees said about Jesus. He was too soft, too friendly with sinners. That was one of the reasons they wanted to get rid of him. That was one of the reasons they lifted Him up on the Cross.

†††††††† The Greek story is that something like that happened to Asclepius. He was just too good at healing people. Hades, the god of the underworld, felt like he was being put out of business. Not enough people were dying. There werenít enough souls in the realm of the dead. So Hades complained to Zeus and Zeus killed Asclepius.

†††††††† Jesus was killed by human beings for a similar reason. We didnít like the idea that God would provide sinners with a way out, that grace and healing would be available to just anyone. We want to reserve it for nice people, for good people, for people like us. But Godís love is where it starts and Godís love in Jesus is enough of a judgment in itself.

†††††††† Not everyone will be saved. The second half of verse 18 says, ďbut whoever does not believe stands con≠demned already because that person has not believed in the name of Godís one and only Son.Ē There is a condemnation, a judgment on those who will not believe. But the condemnation does not come first from Jesus. It does not start with God. It starts with us. We condemn ourselves.

†††††††† Karl Barth, the theologian, was opposed by other theologians, the Dutch Neo-Calvinists. He accepted their dislike of his ideas and calling him a heretic. But they also condemned his taste in music. So he said, ďit is going too far that in their attacks, obviously to offend me the more, they so far forget themselves as to use unrepeatable terms in disparagement of W[olfgang] A[madeus] Mozart. In so doing they have, of course, shown themselves to be men of stupid, cold and stony hearts to whom we need not listen.Ē[1]

†††††††† Barth felt that any decent and sensitive human being would recognize the beauty of Mozartís music. So according to Barth, his opponents judged themselves by their unfavorable judgment on the beautiful work of that composer. In the same way, those who meet Jesus and refuse to accept the bright beauty of Godís love judge themselves. God does not condemn them. They condemn themselves by their cold and stony hearts.

†††††††† Verse 19 paints the judgment in new terms. ďThis is the ver≠dict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.Ē God loves the world. God gave the world the very best He had to give, let the light of His love shine for everyone in Jesus. All they needed to do was come into that light and receive the life, the eternal life in His love. But some people hated the light.

†††††††† A few weeks ago we talked with our daughter Joanna about the bugs in their apartment in Chicago. We remembered living in the Midwest ourselves and having cockroaches in our basement. You would come downstairs to the laundry room and flip on the light, only to see little dark shapes scurry for cover, finding cracks in which to hide.

†††††††† Thatís the kind of judgment verses 19 and 20 say Jesus brings into the world. Itís a self-imposed judgment which comes from knowing we donít belong in the light, that we are creatures of the dark. Itís that aching feeling of shame and wrong that makes us hate and despise anything better and brighter than our own dark hearts. When we refuse to come into that light which is Godís love, but run to hide in the shadows, we condemn ourselves.

†††††††† The light of Godís love exposes evil like sunlight exposes lesser mistakes. A couple weeks before we were married, Beth and I rushed to get our first apartment ready. It was cheap married student housing and we had to clean and paint it ourselves. Time was short one evening we kept painting late, doing our tiny living room by the light of couple bare bulbed lamps we set on the floor. We were so proud of our work. But when we came back the next day as the morning sun came in the uncovered windows, it looked awful. We saw streaks and runs and all the little places we had missed.

†††††††† Light shows our work for what it is and the spiritual light of Godís love in Jesus shows our lives for what they are. That is why Jesus says in verse 20, ďAll those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.Ē The light of Christ does not make anyone a sinner. It only shows that we are.

†††††††† We warn young people and even older people to be careful about what they post on social media. We all shake our heads at stories of drunken students who upload video of themselves doing ridiculous or even criminal things only to have it come back to haunt them when they apply for further education or for jobs. Our denomination warns pastors to be careful what we post on Facebook or send out via Twitter.

†††††††† What would it be like to have a life which could stand that sort of exposure? What if every word and every action you did could be posted on-line for the world to see with absolutely no embarrassment or shame? What if you could be a person who never needed to scuttle for the corners when the light shines on you? Thatís the kind of life God wants to give us by His love to us in Jesus.

†††††††† So verse 21 adds this, ďWhoever does the truth comes into the lightÖĒ People who accept the truth about themselves and their need for Godís love and grace come to where that light is shining, to where truth is spoken. They want to live by Godís truth and not by their own lies.

†††††††† We think we are giving truth to the world when we teach them Christian morality. Challenge evil and shine a light into the darkness. Tell the truth about sin in the world and itís enough. But Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love. Because Godís love for the world in Jesus His Son is the basic truth, the first truth we need to speak.

†††††††† In the Orthodox Church they say that the fire of hell is heated by the light of Godís love. Sunlight can be beneficial or harmful, depending on how you receive it. Sunlight can warm your body, give you Vitamin D, and lift your mental state. But it can also burn your skin, give you cancer, and make it hard to sleep. The light of Godís love in Jesus is like that. For those who receive it and walk in it, Godís love is eternal life. For those who try to hide from it, who donít want to be with God, then His love is eternal torment, the everlasting fire which Jesus talked described. Thatís what verse 18 means when it says ďwhoever does not believe stands condemned already.Ē Itís not that God doesnít love them. Itís that they refuse to accept Godís love and it hurts them, forever.

†††††††† Our job is not to produce light. Itís already shining in the love of God by which He gave us His Son. Our job is to accept and live in that light so those around us see that it is really and truly love, that they are loved. In a week or two we will ask you to make a list and pray for those who havenít yet seen that light, havenít yet felt Godís love. You might want to start thinking about it.

†††††††† But for right now I want to invite you into that light of Godís love. If youíve been running for the shadows for a while, maybe all your life, then please come into the light. Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, start walking in His light, in His love. If youíve already accepted His love, but feel like youíve been in the dark, then please let me welcome you back into the light. Iíd be happy to talk with anyone here about either step.

†††††††† Amen.

†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), III.4, p. xiii.

Last updated March 15, 2015