Numbers 21: 4 – 9; John 3: 14 – 21

If you feel you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, you have! No wonder, if you are shaking your head, and thinking, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that. Any number of people are thinking, did I miss something?

Our gospel 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 secret, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God.[1] It is perhaps 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. [2] 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, 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?[3]

Is it any wonder Nicodemus is clearly baffled?  The two are speaking, not so much at cross purposes, but on completely different planes. Nicodemus is struggling to understand the literal meaning, while Jesus is speaking in metaphorical, almost mystical images.

It is at this point that we walk in today. You can imagine Nicodemus scratching his head wondering how someone can enter a second time into the mother’s womb, while Jesus is speaking of water, and spirit and wind.

In this conversation about being born, and born again, we hear an echo of what came 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.[4]

There in John’s Prologue we hear curious words about being born. Like our gospel today they point 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 they biography, describing the details of Jesus’ life. Although, in many ways they are biographical, and we find in them biographical details.

If they 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.[5] That’s what the gospels are for. Indeed’s 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.[6]

John is setting the scene. He’s giving 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. To do so John looks forward, forward to the crucifixion, by looking backwards, backwards to Moses, the liberator of Israel, the friend of God,[7] the great prophet. By doing this, 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.[8]

And that’s where this curious story of the poisonous serpents comes in. 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, the familiar, even if it means slavery. 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.’[9]

The people are dying, and God instructs Moses is 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.[10] That is exactly what Moses does. And the people live.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, 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.[11]

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.[12]

So, there we have it. At the very beginning of his Gospel, John tells us what’s about to happen. 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, 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, a conversation that has been going on for eons, not just for the few verses we heard today. From the very first In the beginning[13] of Genesis, to the very last Amen[14] of Revelation, God has been inviting humanity into a relationship of love which brings life, healing, wholeness, and salvation. As Christians we see that invitation into love most clearly through the Paschal Mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That is what John is pointing us towards in today’s gospel.

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, healing, wholeness and salvation. And it’s yours for the taking, or maybe, yours 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.[15]


Lectionary Year and Proper: Lent 4B

[1] John 3: 2

[2] John 19: 38 – 42

[3] John 3: 3 – 10

[4] John 1: 12 – 13

[5] John 19: 35

[6] John 3: 14 – 15

[7] Exodus 33: 33

[8] John 1: 17 – 18

[9] Numbers 21: 7

[10] Numbers 21: 8 – 9

[11] John 3: 14 – 15

[12] John 12: 32 – 33

[13] Genesis 1: 1

[14] Revelation 22: 21

[15] John 3: 16 – 17

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