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March 16, 2014 - John 3.1-20

“The Uplifted Christ”

John 3:1-20

March 16, 2014

 

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

 

Da – da – da – dum.           Da – da – da – dum.

 

That musical phrase is probably the most recognized in history.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is undoubtedly one of the most popular pieces of music ever written.  People know it even if they don’t know any other piece of classical music.  But, did you ever stop to realize that, it’s his FIFTH symphony?  What do the first four sound like?  Are they just as beautiful and powerful?  When you think about it, they have to be pretty good!  There are four other entire symphonies before we get to “Da – da – da – dum.” Yet people are so familiar with the Fifth Symphony, we ignore what builds up to it.

 

The same is true with our biblical text this morning.  You see John 3:16 at every sporting event, carried by some person with various colors of hair.  If people do not have any other passage of scripture committed to memory, they will know this one.  Yet, do any of us know John 3:15 by heart?  How about John 3:14?  Anybody know any of verses 1 through 12?  If you do, congratulations.  Most of us have virtually forgotten what happens to lead up to Jesus saying, “For God so loved the world…”

 

What leads up to this wonderful verse is a meeting between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.  He is a Pharisee that is seeking to understand more about Jesus, because the speculation was running rampant.  He and Jesus have a conversation, and Jesus really boggles Nick’s mind with statements like “you have to be born again.”  Then, as if trying to provide Nicodemus with a handle to understand him Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”  Nicodemus understood the reference that Jesus was making, but he was much more familiar than I am with the book of Numbers, so I had to look it up.

 

In Numbers 21:4-9, the people of Israel were making their way through the wilderness, but they were none too happy about it.  They were complaining and griping and just being basically hard to put up with.  So God sent some snakes to bite them, and kill them.  (It’s in the book; I’m not making this up, really.  It was to teach them a lesson.)  The bite from the snakes was deadly poison.  God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, and place it on top of this pole, and mount it in the middle of the Israelites camp.  God instructed Moses to tell the people, “When you are bitten, all you need to do is look up to the bronze snake that God has provided, believe in your God, and you will be saved.”  And they were.

 

This is the simile that Jesus uses to explain his own crucifixion.  Like the serpent lifted up on the pole, Jesus is likewise lifted up on the cross.  We can all be saved, just by looking to Christ in the same way that the children of Israel looked to that snake as they lay there, slowly dying.  God sent a bronze snake to lead the Israelites to him, and be saved from their snakebites.  Likewise, God sent a human, his son Jesus, to save the world from its own humanity – from our sin.  If only our sin was as serious to us as a snakebite.

 

If we ask people today, “Are you saved?” often the reply is “Saved from what?”  People don’t know they need to be saved.  If sins were snakebites, you’d better believe people would be seeking out Christ urgently.  People somehow treat Jesus as if he is optional, as if he is just another choice for the religious consumer to purchase or to pass up.  It is painful to see how Jesus is treated by modern folk, labeled as a “great teacher” or a “philosopher”.  People don’t seem to pay attention to what Jesus said.

 

Many people insist on keeping a nominal relationship with the church and understand Jesus strictly in terms of his teachings and his reputation.  But these folks have an incomplete picture of Jesus.  They don’t see Jesus as the gospel of John presents him: the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Jesus makes the radical statement that he is not simply a rabbi with God’s approval but he is the One that has descended from God’s very presence.  He says that he must be lifted up so that everyone can have eternal life.  The only thing that saved the Israelites was looking up and believing, and the only thing that can save us is looking to the uplifted Christ and believing.

 

C.S. Lewis wrote concerning the modern treatment of Jesus in the 1940’s.  Much like Nicodemus, many people were ready to think of Jesus in terms of a great teacher, but not as something outside of their realm of expectation:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.”  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.[1] 

People like to keep Jesus at a comfortable distance, keeping their relationship to him, and their involvement in his church, at a “convenient level.”  Please make note, that the cross was neither comfortable, nor convenient.  Do we dare pick up our crosses and follow Jesus?  Do we dare share in his glory and point the way to salvation?  If others are going to ever see the uplifted Christ, it will have to be through us!

 

All of us ought to be concerned when people reject Christ.  And the world today rejects him as often as they did then.  But we should be concerned for a different reason.  In the biblical text, people reject Jesus for a lot of reasons, but they were always rejecting Jesus for the challenge he represented to them.  When people reject Jesus today, more often than not, it has more to do with who we are than who Jesus is. 

People reject Jesus because they look at us – not living as he called us to live. 

People reject Jesus because they look at us – not loving each other as he commanded. 

People reject Jesus because they look at us – judging others when he said not to judge. 

People reject Jesus because they look at us – saying one thing and doing another. 

People reject Jesus because they look at us – because we say we love Jesus most, when we act like we love ourselves way too much. 

People reject Jesus because they look at us – saying “love the sinner but hate the sin” and then use that to say hateful things about sinners not like ourselves. 

People reject Jesus because they look at us – and don’t see Jesus. We have not lifted up Jesus for the world to see him in order that they might be saved.  Let’s lift him up, so that people will see Jesus and not us.

 

There is a really beautiful insight in this scripture that can be gained from a good biblical word study.  To be lifted up is the Greek word hupsoun.  It is used of Jesus in two senses in the New Testament; one, to be lifted up on the cross, during his crucifixion, and two, to be lifted up into heaven, during his ascension. There is a double lifting up in Jesus’ life, one on the cross and one into heaven, and the two are inseparably connected.  The one could not have happened without the other.  For Jesus the cross was the way to glory; had he refused it, had he evaded it, had he taken steps to escape it, as he might have easily done, there would be no glory for him and no eternal life for us.  We can, if we like, choose the easy way; we can, if we like, refuse the cross that every Christian is called to bear; but if we do, then the glory of Christ is not visible to others.  It is an unalterable fact, that if there is no cross, there is no crown.[2]

 

There is a book by Nikos Kazantakis, a work of fiction, in which Satan tempts Jesus one last time while he is on the cross.  He is tempted not with wealth, fame or power.  Simply, he is tempted with the chance to be normal.  Satan tempts him by saying, “Enough is enough.  There is no need for you to suffer anymore, Jesus; you’ve done your job.  Surely what you have done is enough.  Now is your chance for someone else to come and finish this work.  Come down off the cross and have a normal life.”  Jesus is shown a vision of himself coming down off the cross, becoming a carpenter once again, taking a wife, and raising a family.  Everything you would expect of a normal man; everything Jesus was denied.  He is relieved of all this pressure and suffering.  Who of us wouldn’t be tempted in his place?  How many of us have said, “I’ve done my part.”  Jesus rebukes Satan.  He submits to his heavenly Father’s will and is immediately thrust back upon the cross, where he says “It is finished” and he breathes his last.

 

Where would we be if Jesus had decided that the cross was just too much to bear?  Where will this world be if the church of Christ decides that the lifting up the cross is just too much work?  If the body of Jesus Christ is not lifted up, so that people may look upon him and be saved, then they cannot see the glory of Christ.  But if the body of Christ IS lifted up, then the entire world has a chance to look upon him and find salvation.

When you lift up Jesus – you will see your life changed.

When you lift up Jesus – you will see less of yourself and more of Jesus.

When you lift up Jesus – you will love others like Jesus told us.

When you lift up Jesus – your actions will be more consistent and more reflective of Jesus.

When you lift up Jesus – you will love the sinners around you like Jesus loves you.

When you lift up Jesus – people will see Jesus in you.

When we, the church, lift up Jesus – people will be drawn to Jesus.  They will be saved.

Not only is it our job, duty and privilege to lift Jesus up, our world will die around us if we don’t.  Lift Jesus up.

 

Everyone knows how Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins.  Quick…how does it end?  Are you able to come up with it?  It’s elusive, isn’t it?  We forget about how it ends because the beginning dominates our thinking.  Actually, it starts in a minor key, like a funeral dirge – somber, serious.  But it ends in a major key, brighter, lighter and more powerful, triumphant and hopeful.  Its ending is a surprise; it doesn’t end like you think it would, ending in a new key. 

 

And so it is with the story of Christ lifted up on the cross.  The cross was not the end of Christ, but the beginning of our salvation.  You’d expect a dead, crucified man to stay that way, but you’d be wrong.  Instead, we are surprised to find that death is now dead, and God’s glory is finally fully revealed.  It really is finished.  The uplifted Christ is not a symbol of pain, suffering and death.  It is a symbol of love, hope and salvation.  It is a symbol that the best is yet to come.

 

[1] Lewis, C.S.; Mere Christianity, (Scribner, New York, 1943), p.41.

[2] Barclay, William; The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of John, (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975), p. 135.