John 3:14-21 (EHV)
14 Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned, but the one who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. 19 This is the basis for the judgment: The light has come into the world, yet people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 In fact, everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, or else his deeds would be exposed. 21 But the one who does what is true comes toward the light, in order that his deeds may be seen as having been done in connection with God.”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may believe in the One who was lifted up for us and so receive eternal life for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
The following may be real or imagined situations:
A man lies in intensive care in hospital. He’s had emergency surgery and now fights for his life. His wife sits alongside holding his hand. She’s been there with him for the whole time; watching, sitting, thinking, praying, and crying. She looks for any sign of hope on the monitors and in his face, but the broken man in front of her doesn’t offer her much hope. There’s an occasional good sign, but it’s usually followed by other signs that strip away that hope from her once again. She feels the darkness of grief building in her. As her hope fades, she hangs her head in despair.
A young woman cries herself to sleep. Well, at least she’s hoping sleep will come. She’s been abused and picked on by people she thought were friends. Her parents weren’t able to protect her, in fact, her parents have also hurt her. When she told them, they didn’t seem to care. No one seems to care. All she wants is to be loved, but the attention she received was anything but loving. As a result, she feels unloved, lonely, filthy, and ugly. Her hope for a life filled with joy and love seems futile. She feels she’s not worth anything to anyone, and any hope of friendship and love she was looking for from others is just a sham. As her hope diminishes, she curls up into a ball with her face tucked into her body and sobs.
A man sits in his car late at night. Clothes are strewn in crumpled piles all through the car. He and his wife had fought again, but this time she threw him out. There’s been so many fights; too many arguments, and so little love and forgiveness. Images of his distraught and horrified children looking through the windows now haunt him. He knows it’s not all his fault, but he also knows much of it is his fault. He worked so hard, perhaps on the wrong priorities, but the result is loneliness, guilt, and shame. He feels powerless, lost, and terribly isolated. Even though he sits alone, it’s almost as if the fight goes on as the arguments echo around in his head. He feels there’s no hope of love and joy and peace anymore, and he hangs his head in disgrace and despair.
A mother wails long into the night while her husband sits with a blank yet tortured face beside her. One of their children has died in a car accident. The dreams they had for their child’s future have been dashed. Instead of planning weddings and celebrations, they need to arrange a funeral. They feel angry. They feel numb. They feel as if, when they bury their child, they’re also burying their hopes and dreams. They both lean toward each other, and hang their heads on each other’s shoulders, and pour out their grief in their own ways.
These are just a few examples of how so many feel the brokenness of sinful humanity. So many are in trouble. So many strained or shattered relationships. So many stung by the inevitability of death. So many are without hope. Sooner or later, they all hang their heads. Their faces point toward their belly buttons, but there’s no hope there. Despite what they say in books and movies and TV shows, hope never comes from within.
You see, that place within is where we hide all our secrets, shame, and guilt. There’s darkness and selfishness and hidden secrets within. Within is where we attempt to hide the darkness of sins committed by us as well as those sins committed against us. These hidden shames and guilts don’t like to remain hidden as they leach out through our nightmares and memories to cripple our hearts and minds and relationships.
What’s so unfortunate for many of us is that we don’t always let the light of Christ shine on much of the darkness we’ve hidden within. We think it’s better left there, ignored, overlooked, or disregarded, but while it sits there within, it leaks like a poison to steal our self-worth, our peace, our joy, and our hope. If hope is to be found anywhere in this troubled world, it’s not going to be found within us. It needs to come from outside of ourselves.
Today we hear part of a conversation happening in the dark night hours between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. In this conversation Jesus refers to the Old Testament reading we had today where the Israelites had been grumbling again, and this time God sent them something to really grumble about. He sent them snakes. They had a particularly painful bite and many people died. In response they confessed their sin and asked God to take the snakes away. Like many of us, their hope was in the disappearance of all their troubles.
But what happened next wasn’t what we expected. We might expect our patient and loving God to take away the snakes, but he didn’t. Instead, he asked for one more snake to enter the camp. In this case, the snake was made of bronze. If anyone took their gaze away from their own belly button and pains and instead looked up to the snake fixed on a pole, they would live.
This meant that, while the source of all their pain and misery wasn’t taken away, they were given hope. All they had to do was shift their gaze to their promised hope. By looking to this snake lifted up on the pole while trusting God’s promise, they would be saved.
What Jesus says to Nicodemus is, like the snake on the pole was lifted up to give the Israelites hope, the Son of Man would also be lifted up to give all people hope. Anyone who believes in him will have eternal life, no matter what troubles or pains or sorrows they’re facing. Because God doesn’t want anyone to perish, as long as people take their gaze away from their own misery, sorrow, grief, and pain, and look instead to Jesus Christ who was lifted up on the cross, and trust in him, they will live. The source of their pain and misery won’t disappear, but now they’ll have hope.
Now, perhaps we want all the bad things in this world to go away. We pray for healing, but sometimes it doesn’t come. We pray for miracle cancer cures, but sometimes people still die. We pray God will protect our young on the roads, but accidents still happen. We pray for those who are married, but some marriages still break down. We pray for our world to get back to some normality in response to the Coronavirus, but it will remain with us.
When God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want him to, we might feel angry toward him and accuse him of injustice. This is natural. But the fact he doesn’t take all the bad and evil away from us doesn’t mean he’s against us. It’s just the reality of living in a world tainted by the ugliness and destructiveness of sin, but our troubles also force us to look for hope. Our true and lasting hope isn’t found within us, or found in the troubles which continue to encircle us, but our hope is in the One who suffered, died, and was raised to new life for us.
God’s miracle cure on the cross of Christ wasn’t to make our lives perfect in this broken world because we still live in bodies infected by sin. But the hope we’re to look to is the fact that there on the cross Jesus offers forgiveness for all our sins through his loving sacrifice. There on the cross everything necessary for our salvation has been finished, which we accept by faith. There on the cross (and later in the empty grave) he gives us hope of life eternal in a new creation untainted by sin and its ugly effects. When we look to Jesus on the cross we see he was lifted there to assure us of God’s love and mercy, which gives us hope as we face our own suffering and death.
When you’re troubled by the scars of sin in this world, don’t look for hope in those scars, but look for hope in the One who still bears the scars of sinful human beings for you.
When you’re beaten and abused by others in this world, don’t look for hope in the bruises on your bodies or hearts, but look for hope in the One beaten and bruised for you.
When relationships break down and you feel betrayed, don’t look for hope in the arguments or the separations, but look for hope in the One who was betrayed, denied and forsaken for you.
When you’re struggling with guilt or shame, don’t look for hope in your regrets, but look for hope in the forgiveness of your sins by the One who paid the penalty of all your sins for you.
When you’re struggling to forgive others for the way they hurt you, don’t look for hope in your own demands for justice, but see the radical justice of God displayed on the cross as Jesus suffers and dies for them too so that they might be forgiven.
When your loved ones die, don’t look for hope in their death, but look for hope in the death and resurrection of your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who died and rose again for you.
We lift up the crosses in our churches to remind us not to look at, or within, ourselves for hope, joy, peace or life, but we’re to lift our gaze from our own bellies and look to Jesus Christ alone for our hope, our joy, our forgiveness, our cleansing, our peace, and our life.
As we look to the cross, which is lifted up, we’re reminded God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn us, but he sent his Son into the world in order to save us through him who was lifted up for all people.
Just like hope is likened to a light shining on a dark and stormy night, Jesus is your light of hope and life who now shines in your own darkened lives. Don’t look to the darkness, because there’s no hope there, but look instead to the Light of the world. Raise your eyes to look to your Lord and Saviour and trust him. He is your only hope in a world filled with so much darkness and despair.
Which is why the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.