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God SO Loved the World

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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight – our Lord and our incarnate Saviour – Amen

The Gospel of John is known to many scholars as the ‘Gospel of Signs and Wonders’

When I was considering the Readings this past week for the sermon – a song titled ‘signs’ kept running through my mind – it was from the Canadian 60’s group – known as the Five Man Electrical Band – the chorus repeatedly claims “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign”

In our Old Testament reading – we are brought to the story of the saving power of God for the people looking at the bronze snake raised on a pole – a sign of God’s provision

This sign is referenced in our Gospel reading, and in the midst of that, we have the beautiful message which many understand simply as John 3:16

                                                Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

                                                            Pointing us… reminding us… of God, and God’s love

Three years ago (2009), Tim Tebow wore John 3:16 on his eye black while playing in a college championship game. 

Eye black is greasepaint that athletes smear under their eyes to reduce glare from the sun or stadium lights. 

Sometimes athletes write a short message across their eye black. 

There isn't much room there, but Tebow wrote "John" under his right eye and "3:16" under his left eye. 

Seeing him on camera, you would see "John 3:16" written across his eye black.

Tebow's idea, of course, was to use his "bully pulpit" to broadcast the message of God's love. 

When Tebow wrote "John 3:16" on his eye black, within 24 hours, 90 million… 90 million people did a Google search on "John 3:16." 

In fact, for that 24 hour period, "John 3:16" was Google's highest-ranked search term. 

Whatever you think of Tim Tebow, he is making a powerful witness.

The following year (2010), the NCAA, which regulates college football, created a new rule banning messages on eye paint. 

The NFL already had that sort of rule in place when Tebow moved from college to pro football––so he isn't supposed to wear messages in his eye black. 

However, the message still gets through. 

When Tebow's team––the Denver Broncos–– defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, Tebow threw 316 yards––and his passes averaged 31.6 yards per completion. 

Those 3's and 16's in Tebow's yardage set commentators to commentating.

Was that the hand of God?  Tebow, of course, didn't have any doubt!

I think that Jesus, over and above, the NCAA or the NFL, would be OK with Tim Tebow’s display of evangelism.[1]

I for one, think what Tim Tebow did was great, he chose to make a sign for all the viewing public to see – to make a sign in a creative and captivating way.

            And he choose John 3:16 – because it is for many, the most compelling verse in the whole Bible

The whole Bible cannot be contained in one short verse – but in many ways it is sign for much, much more

Martin Luther has famously called John 3:16 as "the gospel in miniature.", is an online Bible resource,

They looked at the viewing habits of some of their 8 million monthly visitors.

They found that John 3:16 was the most-searched-for verse in 2010.

I don’t think it’s surprising that it would be number one on the list.

It tells us that God loved us so much that He sent His Son to rescue us from our sin and give us everlasting life. [2]

Today as we try to understand something of what is being told to us in John 3:16 – it is helpful to see it in the context that it is given to us

It is part of conversation that Jesus is having with Nicodemus, who was a leading Pharisee that came to speak with Jesus under the vale of nighttime

Jesus is answering Nicodemus’ questions by trying to explain in a few different ways our Lord’s purpose

Jesus first speaks of being transformed so dramatically that we are to consider it like being born again

Born again or born from above is a difficult thing for Nicodemus to understand so Jesus approaches it another way

He draws Nicodemus into a story that the expert of the Law would have known – He declares “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.” (John 3:14-15)

Jesus is comparing and claiming His role as a sign of salvation – a sign of healing and restoration, and making a direct reference to a famous moment in Hebrew history (which we had as our Old Testament lesson today)

And Jesus is also prophesying - He is pointing Nicodemus to understand what will happen to Him – that Jesus will be crucified.

In Numbers 21 — which includes the story of Moses lifting up the snake — the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt. 

And they are growing impatient with year after year of hiking around the Sinai Peninsula. 

They don’t like the food and there’s not enough water. 

And in one of those classic Hebrew Bible moments, God responds to their complaints by sending “poisonous serpents among the people.” 

It’s kind of like treating a broken arm by smashing the patient’s toe with a hammer. 

Your arm may not feel better, but you’re too busy screaming about your toe to complain about your arm.

In this case, all those poisonous serpents biting people, gave the Israelites some perspective. 

They stopped complaining about the quality of the food, and started praying for God to contain the snakes. 

In response God told Moses to “‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’

So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9)

That is the immediate background the writer of the Gospel of John has in mind: just as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to cure people bitten by the snakes,

So God lifted up Jesus “that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” 

But we can dive deeper still past the surface of John 3:16 in our search for the rest of the story

In 2 Kings 18, Hezekiah has just become the ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah. 

He was twenty-five at the time, and reigned for twenty-nine years.  

At least according the writer of Kings, Hezekiah, “did what was right in the sight of the Lord”

What matters in regard to this week’s Gospel lesson is the specific acts that he did that the book of Kings deems “right in the sight of God.” 

In the first part of verse four, we learn that Hezekiah, “Removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole.” 

The high places, pillars, and sacred pole are all associated with idolatry — worshipping gods other than Yahweh.

But it is the second part of verse four that is particularly relevant: “[Hezekiah] broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” 

Apparently, the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness was kept in the Temple as a relic

Over time, people had begun to worship Moses’ bronze serpent as an idol.

Just as the people of Israel had found healing from venomous snake bites in the wilderness by looking at Moses’ bronze serpent, hundreds of years later, some Judeans hoped to find healing from the bronze serpent displayed in the Temple.

Ironically, the bronze serpent had originally been built to remind the Israelites to trust God, to look to God for healing and salvation

To stop complaining about minor inconveniences like food quality and to be grateful for major events like freedom from oppression. 

In Hezekiah’s day that same bronze serpent had become an end in itself. 

Judeans were worshiping the snake instead of the God to whom the statue pointed. 

So, that idol-smashing King Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made.”

Now, having dove past the surface of John 3:16, past Numbers, and, deeper still, to 2 Kings, we are ready to push off back to the surface, returning full circle to John 3,

Bringing with us what we have learned along the way. 

The writer of the Gospel of John finds healing in Jesus being lifted up on the cross

Just as the Israelites found healing in Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness

But in 2 Kings we see how the symbol of the serpent has hardened. 

It no longer points beyond itself to God. 

Instead it has become a simplistic formula: if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple.  But God cannot be reduced to a formula.

Today, for many Christians, John 3:16 has become this same sort of gimmick: read this verse and you’re saved.  Done and done.  But God cannot be reduced to a formula

Neither can the way of God, revealed in the life of Jesus. 

And just as in Hezekiah’s day, the idol of John 3:16 needs to be broken.

Like the bronze serpent in Hezekiah’s day, John 3:16 alone is an insufficient guide for healing and salvation. 

Instead, we need an authentic encounter with the Mysterious, Loving, and Gracious Presence that we call God

And concrete steps transforming one’s life to follow the way of Jesus.

Just as it is not enough to visit a sanctuary and pay homage to a relic (like a cross on a wall), it is insufficient to admire Jesus’ death while ignoring life,

Especially his call to “take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).[3]

The story of the Ancient Hebrews also recognizes an important detail – that is, that all of us are going to be bitten—painfully bitten—in this life.

Most of us learn that truth fairly quickly just from experience.

But, according to the story, and the Gospel repositioning of the story, it is not the being bitten that we in this imperfect world can do anything about;

It is only the how we respond to being bitten that we can control.

Over 200 years ago, John Newton, a drunken sailor, got off a ship on the docks of London.

He was a slave trader and an alcoholic, a street fighter, a man who had morally hit bottom.

As he was weaving his way through the streets of London, Newton passed a little Methodist mission hall where he heard singing.

He felt compelled in his heart to go in. Inside, the people were singing about the grace of God, and the preacher spoke of God's holy love for everybody.

When he gave the invitation to come to Christ, John Newton made his way to the front and surrendered his life and was born anew.

Later, as he was contemplating the experience, and had had time to test its veracity, Newton wrote the great hymn:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it was the wayward son who knew he was a sinner that was cured, not the self-righteous older brother who didn't think he was sick.

The significance of the serpent in Moses' time… and in Jesus' time… and in our time… is that we first recognize that we have been bitten and then seek our cure in God's provision.[4]

Evidence of God’s provision can be seen all around us

            We can see it in the beauty and wonder of nature, so glorious this springtime of the year

We see it in our church community – this morning before, during and after our worship service, each and every week

We see it last night, as we gathered together as a community in our pot-luck dinner, and welcomed SO many others – and enjoyed the gifts of entertainment that children’s drama camp preformed

            We experience it with the provision of our families and friends

                        Our homes… our places of work

                                    Signs of God’s grace are all over – if we have eyes to see

And God’s grace is experienced each time someone looks deeply into the meaning of the most famous of all Biblical scripture – available from highways signs, hand drawn signs held up at sports events, bummer stickers, bracelets and even found once in the greasy eye black of a quarterback

            Thanks be to God for all His signs that drawn us closer to experience His Love

In closing I would like to share with you a prayer found on the Canadian Foodgrains Bank website

God, you loved this world so much that you sent your own son, Jesus Christ

To live and die among us, in order that we might have life

Forgive us for keeping that abundant life to ourselves, for jealously hoarding your generous gifts,

For choosing self-interest over compassion and justice

Teach us what it means to live as children of the light,

Generously sharing your abundance with our brothers and sisters in need – Amen.


[1] From Sermon Writer

[2] Our Daily Bread - A Search For The Top Ten – March 15th 2012


[4] Illustration Sourcebook II - # 2547, REDEMPTION, REPENTANCE

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