Numbers 21: 4 – 9
Psalm 107: 1 – 3, 17 – 22
Ephesians 2: 1 – 10
John 3: 14 – 21
If it feels as though you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, it’s because you have! No wonder, then, if you are shaking your head, and thinking to yourself, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that way today. I bet a number of people are thinking to themselves, did I miss something?
Our gospel lesson today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in a sense secretly, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation about water, and being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’* Nicodemus 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.* Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You* must be born from above.”* The 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Nicodemus is clearly baffled, as no doubt you or I would be. And is it any wonder? For the two of them seem to be speaking, not so much at cross purposes, but on completely different planes. Nicodemus is struggling to understand the literal meaning of what Jesus says, while Jesus is speaking in metaphorical, almost mystical images. This conversation should remind you of another one, because it is not unlike the one between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, which comes in the very next chapter of John’s Gospel, almost immediately after this story.
It is at this point that we walk into the middle of the conversation, with Nicodemus scratching his head wondering how someone can enter a second time into the mother’s womb, and Jesus speaking of water, and spirit and wind.
In this conversation about being born and born again, we hear an echo of what comes a little before this passage.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
There in John’s Prologue we hear curious words about being born, and once again they are pointing beyond themselves, to something much, much larger.
You have heard me say before that the gospels are not history, although in many ways they are historical. Some, perhaps many of the events in the gospels, actually took place. Nor are the gospels biographies of Jesus, describing the details of his life. Although, in many ways they are biographical, and we find in them details of his life.
But if the gospels are not history, or biography, what are they? We are told that at the end of John’s Gospel. He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth. That’s what the gospels are for, indeed that what all Scripture is for: so that you may believe.
So what is it that we are to believe?
And that’s where we have walked in today.
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.
John is setting the scene. He’s giving us a clue as to who Jesus truly is, and what will happen. He’s inviting us to see in Jesus someone much, much larger than simply a man, simply a teacher, simply a healer. Indeed he is inviting us into faith, into belief, into becoming a child of God, born not of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God. And to do that John looks forward, forward to the crucifixion, by looking backwards, backwards to Moses, the liberator of Israel, the friend of God, the great prophet. And John is telling us that Jesus is more, much, much more, than even Moses.
The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.
And that’s where this curious story of the poisonous serpents comes in. We heard it this morning. The people of Israel are impatient, they are tired, hungry and weary. They want to go home, or at least back to Egypt, to the known, to the familiar, even if it means slavery. And so they complain: about the food, about the water, about Moses, even about God. But all their complaining doesn’t result in Moses turning them around and heading back to Egypt, instead it results in poisonous serpents who bite them. And they begin to die, shocking them back to their senses. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’
The people are dying because of their sin and so Moses is instructed to ‘Make a poisonous* serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So 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, which is exactly what Moses does, and the people live.
If all this sounds vaguely like something else, it’s because it should!
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.*
Bells should be ringing in your head right now because you have heard this phrase before!
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
So there we have it. At the very beginning of his Gospel, John tells us what’s about to happen, and he does that by looking backwards, backwards all the way to Moses, and the story of the poisonous serpents, so that we can look forward, forward all the way to the story of the crucifixion and to the lifting up of the Son of Man. In the one we see the other. In both we see healing, life and salvation. In the first, that healing and wholeness comes through looking upon the bronze serpent, in the second it comes through Jesus, both of which have been lifted up from the earth.
So this morning we walked into the middle of a conversation, but it is a conversation that has been going on for eons, not just for the few verses we heard today in the Gospel. From the very first In the beginning of Genesis, to the very last Amen of Revelation, God has been inviting the people of God into a relationship of love which brings life, and healing, and salvation. As Christians we see that invitation into love most clearly through the Paschal Mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that is what John is pointing us towards in today’s gospel reading.
Yes, we walked into the middle of a conversation this morning, but more importantly we walked into the middle of an invitation. And that invitation is an invitation to life, and healing, wholeness and salvation. And it’s yours for the taking, or maybe even just for the looking:
‘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. ‘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.*
 John 3: 2
 John 19: 38 – 42
 John 3: 3 – 10
 John 4: 1 – 42
 John 1: 12 – 13
 John 19: 35
 John 3: 14 – 15
 Exodus 33: 33
 John 1: 17 – 18
 Numbers 21: 7
 Numbers 21: 8 – 9
 John 3: 14 – 15
 John 12: 32 – 33
 Genesis 1: 1
 Revelation 22: 21
 John 3: 16 – 17
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