This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Lent (year B). The gospel text was John 3:14-21. This was my first time preaching after a major winter storm came through our area nine days ago, knocking out power for several days.
An illustration for this sermon came to me a few days ago. It seemed so perfect at the time, but I’m not sure if it really is. Let’s talk about it and see.
I have to start with the first reading today, the story about the Israelites and the serpents. Poisonous snakes were killing many of the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness to get to the promised land. God ordered Moses to make a snake of bronze, and lift it high on a pole. Anyone who was bitten by a snake just had to look up at the bronze snake, and they would live, and be healed.
Jesus referred to this story in the gospel today. He said that the cross is a lot like that snake. He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus didn’t say the word cross, but when he said that the Son of Man will be lifted up, that’s clearly what he was referring to, the moment when Jesus too would be lifted high up on a pole as well, the pole of the cross. And just as the bronze snake would provide healing and life for any who looked upon it, so Jesus on that cross would provide healing and life for all who believed.
Jesus also said that what happened on the cross was that light came into the world.
So I was thinking this week, about somebody lifted up on a pole, and light coming into the world. Hmm. Here’s my illustration:
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the line workers of Met-Ed be lifted up onto the telephone pole, so that everyone who believes in them might receive the light coming into the world.
Because I don’t know about you, but I lived in darkness for a few days last week. And it was only because of the brave and dedicated line workers that light has returned to my home. And heat and running water and internet service, for that matter. But I digress.
It’s a great image, but the metaphor isn’t perfect, is it? I mean Jesus said that everyone who believes in him will receive eternal life. And I really didn’t need to believe in Met-Ed or their workers in order to receive light and power, did I? Once they did their work, the darkness was over, and there was nothing I needed to do at all. The power was simply on.
Well…on the other hand…imagine that the line workers repaired the power, but that I just didn’t believe it. Imagine that one of them knocked on my door, and said, “Sir, the power’s back on. You can turn on your lights now!” But I said, “No, I don’t believe it. It’s not true.” He said, “But sir, it is. In fact, I think I can hear your refrigerator running. Just flip the switch, and you’ll have light!” And I said, “No. I live in darkness now. I am not touching that switch, because I don’t believe it will work. Leave me alone.”
So I did have to believe in them. I had to believe in them enough to trust that it was true. That’s all I had to do – just trust them enough to flip that switch, and I’d have light! But that trust, that belief, is important. Without it, yes, the light has indeed come into the world, but it hasn’t come to my house.
But the metaphor still isn’t perfect. Jesus said that everyone who believes in him will receive eternal life. Getting power back on in our homes is important and wonderful, but it doesn’t exactly compare to everlasting life in heaven, does it?
Well…actually, Jesus isn’t talking about everlasting life in heaven here. I’ve talked before about the word “eternal,” about what it means and what it doesn’t mean. I’ve told you that the word eternal doesn’t actually mean “everlasting,” but rather “outside of time.” And that this word gets used differently at different spots in the gospels. There are places where Jesus does seem to be talking about life after death, but there are also many places, particularly in John’s gospel, where Jesus is clearly talking about something else. A way of living here and now. And this is one of those places. Jesus is talking about our life here and now, about how we can have eternal life right now, in this moment, today.
And what is eternal life?
Well, Jesus says here that it’s life lived in the light, where everything is in the open, and we can see our deeds for what they are.
Later, Jesus says that eternal life is obedience to God; those who have eternal life obey Jesus.
Later, Jesus says that eternal life means receiving a spring of water which will never leave you thirsty, and receiving food that will never leave you hungry.
Jesus says that eternal life means not coming under judgment, knowing that we are free of God’s wrath and the judgment of anyone else.
Jesus says that eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ whom God sent.
Paul writes that eternal life is the free gift of God, that it is what we reap by sowing in the Spirit. Paul writes that eternal life is something we are called to, something we can take hold of, something we can put our hope in.
The author of 1 John writes that Jesus himself is eternal life, and that we live in that eternal life by abiding in him.
That’s what Jesus promises us. A full, abundant, courageous, eternal life now. So maybe my illustration is pretty accurate. Jesus is the line worker on the pole. He has been lifted up. He is upon that cross. He has completed his work. Believe in him, trust that he is indeed the source of all light and power and life. Believe in him, flip that switch, and you will receive that light and power and life. You will have it. You will have salvation now.
This isn’t a threat of eternal punishment later. Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but so the world would be saved through him. This is a promise of life right now. Take hold of the life. Flip the switch. Believe that Jesus is the light. And you will have it.