Fourth Sunday of Lent  /  March 18, 2012  /  Resurrection Lutheran Church  /  Fredericksburg

Gospel Text:  John 3: 14-21  /  Message by Rev. Carol Haynes Kniseley  /  Title:  John 3: 16

John 3: 16

John 3:16.    Just say the name with the numbers and people within earshot begin to recite the verse.   A name and some numbers that normally have no meaning when looked at separately.   But when scribbled on a sign and held up at a sports event…or better yet, painted on either side of a famous quarterback’s face…that’s when people begin to take notice.     The point being that we can all “read” the signs….but do we get the message?   

Apparently not.    Oh, we may have memorized the verse in Sunday school as a child…and as an adult even be aware that it is the most well-known Bible verse in all of Scripture.     But like all Bible verses, when taken out of context…the original intent can be lost or even worse, misinterpreted.     John’s Gospel reminds us that these words were first spoken in the midst of a private conversation that occurred between a seasoned Pharisee named Nicodemus…and a young Rabbi named Jesus.   The men could not have been further apart in their understanding of the Kingdom of God…which, by the way, was Jesus’ favorite topic.      He lived and breathed and spoke of the Kingdom as if it were already here and a very real part of our daily life. 

Here’s where Nicodemus would have disagreed.   His entire life was built on teaching that the Kingdom of God could not possibly appear until the coming of the Messiah…and that anyone who had studied the scriptures could affirm, that wouldn’t occur until the end of time.      Either way one slices it, this was a meeting that would have been too risky to take place in the light of day.    And so under cover of darkness, it was Nicodemus who decided to step out of his comfort zone…and engage in a conversation with Jesus.  

Today’s Gospel picks up with the discussion well underway and Jesus alluding to an incident that took place during the time of Moses when the people of Israel had begun complaining about God and the food service God was providing.    Found in the Book of Numbers, God then sent poisonous serpents among the people…many of whom were bitten by the snakes and died.    It was when those remaining turned back toward God that God told Moses to fashion a giant  serpent out of bronze…fasten it to a pole…and lift it up high for the people to see.   Everyone who was bitten and looked upon the serpent, we are told...was then saved.    

It was a story that on the surface appeared noncontroversial.   That is until Jesus alluded to a parallel version whereas instead of a serpent being lifted up on a pole, he refers to a person being lifted up…presumably on a cross…and then nailed into place.    Undoubtedly, Jesus…as well as Nicodemus…would have been all too familiar with the reality of living under Roman occupation…and the ever present threat of crucifixion.    

But it wasn’t until Jesus used the actual title, Son of Man, that the picture being unveiled began to take on an entirely new life of its own.     So…says Jesus… the Son of Man himself will be lifted up (just like the serpent was lifted by Moses)…so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.   

For Jesus to then state that the ‘Son of Man’ will be lifted up, is it any wonder that Nicodemus must have already surmised to whom he was referring.      To those who knew him, the title Son of Man was used exclusively by Jesus…and only when referring to himself.     And so to hear him speak of his own impending death with such conviction, must have given Nicodemus reason to pause.      And consider something that he had never allowed himself to consider before.      What if this Jesus…this young Rabbi from Galilee…really was who he claimed to be?      And if he is the self proclaimed ‘Son of Man’…then by all rights…he must then be the one chosen by God to usher in his Kingdom.    A Kingdom that he says…has already begun.   

How could Jesus possibly know…unless…he is the one who came from heaven.     It was a lot for Nicodemus to get his mind around…let alone his heart.    And in truth, we don’t know for sure if he ever did.     What we do know…is that when the lifeless body of Jesus was taken down from the cross after a horrid crucifixion…it was Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who carefully wrapped the body with the finest strips of linen that they could get their hands on.    And we can’t help but wonder…if it wasn’t during those last precious moments with our Lord that out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of that old cross…and the truth of Jesus’ words came flooding back in:

          “…and 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.    

          For God so loved the world…

that he gave his only begotten Son,

that whosoever believes in him shall not perish…

but shall have eternal life.”            Amen