Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 22:30 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are a number of opposites here in John 3: light and darkness, life and death, those who do evil and those who do what is true. Also, love and hate. But the opposites are actually two different loves: God loved the world; and the world loved the darkness. In John’s Gospel, “the world” is almost always what is opposed to God. The world is a world of condemnation. The people of the world love the darkness. They do evil. They hate the light and refuse to come into the light because then what they do would be exposed, open to scrutiny, to examination. This is the world that has rejected the God who made it and the Word by which all things were made.
And it is precisely this world that God loves. This is the world God loves! And this is how God loves the world: He gives His only Son, His unique Son, into the world. And God and the Son both know what it’s going to mean that the Son is given into the world. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up. And as He says later, when He is lifted up on the cross, that is when He will draw the whole world to Himself.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent. Why does Moses lift up the serpent? Because this is the sort of world it is. When God brings Israel out of slavery, on the way to the land of promise, they become impatient with God and with Moses, and they complain and grumble and murmur against the God who saved them. So God sends them serpents, who bite and kill them. Finally they come to confess their sins to Moses and ask him to pray that God would take away the serpents. Moses prays, and God tells him to set up a bronze serpent on a pole.
Which must have seemed strange. The people dying of snake venom need almost anything but a picture of a serpent on a pole. And God doesn’t take away the serpents, either. But He gives a promise through Moses: whoever looks at that serpent on the pole will be saved, will be healed, will live. So whoever believes that promise and looks at the sign, will be healed. God sets up a picture of the very thing that was causing their deaths and turns it into the sign of their salvation from death. The word and the sign are not the same, however. The serpent is not the salvation; the word is. So later when the people begin to worship that serpent on a pole as if it were their salvation, making it into an idol, the serpent has to be destroyed.
But now God has set up another and greater sign. Here, the sign and the salvation are no longer separate; the promise and the life are now the same. The Savior, who is the Word, is to be believed, looked on, and worshiped. And this sign too, a man dying on a cross instead of a serpent on a pole, this too is the sign of all the sin, death, and darkness in the world. The very things by which we die are seen there. This is the sort of world where people who love the darkness try to extinguish the light. This is the sort of world where the eternal Son takes on flesh, and the world does not see its life, light, and salvation, but a threat: that its works might be exposed.
But this is how God loves the world; even this killing of the Son is not enough to bring an end to the love of God for the world. Even this does not mean condemnation. Instead, God makes this very thing into the salvation of the world. This is your God, and your salvation. This is the weakness of God by which He shames and destroys all the strength of the world. This is the foolishness of God by which He shames and destroys all the wisdom of the world. As foolish as it would seem to look at a picture of a snake, instead of receiving some anti-venom or a doctor or something else, all the more foolish to believe in this dying and dead man on a cross.
But the word of God will not be broken. The Jesus who was lifted up on the cross has been lifted up from the grave. He has been raised, and this is the end of all the opposites in this creation. This is no yin-and-yang situation where the opposites need each other in order to provide balance in the world. This is how God brings to an end death: by the death of God in the flesh. This is how God brings an end to the darkness: by allowing the light to be extinguished. This is how God brings an end to the love of the world: by loving the world even to the end of its hatred.
So far we have not seen sin and death taken away. The Israelites were probably still bitten by those fiery serpents. And we haven’t seen the end of pandemics and viruses and sicknesses and vaccines and all the ways there are to die. But right here in the midst of it, and every day until sin and death and darkness are no more, we have our salvation proclaimed and given to us. See Him, the crucified one, raised up on the cross to draw you to Himself. This is how He loves you! See Him give you the bread of His body and the wine of His blood, so that even if you die, you will live. You are not condemned. You will not perish. And you who have been created new in Christ come to the light, so that it may be seen that your works have been carried out in God, rather than in yourself. Here is the free gift of God to you: Himself, life for death, light for darkness, His love for yours. This is how God loved the world. This is how God loves you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/13/21