Second Sunday in Lent (John 3:1-17)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Second Sunday in Lent + March 12, 2017
Text: John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the world.,.,” (you know it, finish it!)  This passage contains one of the most beloved verses in the Bible, the Gospel in a nutshell.   Let’s go deeper, though.  Hearing these words of Jesus in context opens us up to the full depth of what it means to not perish but have everlasting life, and what that gift cost.
God granting eternal life to all who believe is not to be thought of the way H&R Block advertises tax refund money.  God is not holding out on people, waiting for them to unlock the right way to discover everlasting life.  The way He gives eternal life to mortal, sinful people is not just a matter of making a change in His records.
Eternal life is a costly gift.  We understand that preserving someone’s years is a costly thing.  A couple weeks in the hospital is likely to cost more than a family makes in a year.  But after all that money is spent, you still only have mortal life.
Instead, the Lord purchased and won eternal life not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.[1]  In order to gain eternal life, He bore rejection by all, the agony of body and soul, the nails, and death.  This is what it cost to undo the power of sin and death so that “everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
How is this gift bestowed?  Jesus compares it to the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  On Jesus’ part is the bloody agony and death, on our part is the faith which looks to Him.  Yet even that believing is God’s work,[2] for no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again by God.
Then there’s the flip side of eternal life.  What would we have if we had no Son of Man on the cross in which to trust?  We ought to look back to the account of the bronze serpent in Number 21:5-9:
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
What came first was the people’s impatience and rebellion against God and His servant, Moses.  God gave them what that sin deserved: death.  They perished in their sin instead of reaching the Promised Land.  Yet, God in His mercy commanded a way of salvation: raise a bronze serpent on a pole and every bitten rebel who looks upon it will live.  Though they rebelled, God forgave them and gave them life in the Promised Land.
The same is true for each of us.  We are children of Adam and Eve, whose rebellion we heard about last Sunday in Genesis 3.  “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die…My Spirit shall not abide with man forever but his days shall be 120 years…Death spread to all because all sinned.”[3]  The bite of the fiery serpent has touched us all, and we deserve temporal and eternal death.
Yet God in His love sent His own Son to be lifted up, nailed to the tree of the cross, that every sinner who looks at Him in faith should not perish—should not die under the wrath of God, should not be condemned to hell with the devil and his angels—but have eternal life.
But for all who refuse to look upon the Son of Man, who turn away from His voice and deny both that they have rebelled and the fiery serpent’s bite, they shall perish.  Sure, they may seem to be alive today, going about their business, enjoying family time, eating and drinking.  But without faith in the Son of Man, they will surely perish.  Their good things will come to an end, and their eternal inheritance will be the fires of hell.  “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
But God gives eternal life to all who believe.  When you reach 100 years old, it’s a milestone.  You get a letter from the President and everyone wonders what your secret was to such a long life.  What would you say if you met some of the patriarchs before the Flood?  Methusaleh, what’s your secret to such a long life of 969 years?  I don’t know, my father Enoch only walked with God for 365 before God took him.[4]
Eternal life is not something we can measure by the standards we know.  We need a new way of thinking about eternal life.  It’s not just an extension of status quo life as we know it.  Maybe that’s a shortcoming of the word “everlasting” as King James English translates it.
Eternal life is a present possession of all who believe.  “Whoever believes in Him has eternal life”—not “will have,” but has eternal life.  You and I, and all who belong to the Lord through faith have eternal life already.
That means death’s power over us is empty.  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”[5]  Because God, who raised Jesus from the dead, has given us eternal life, we live even if we should be taken by God.
That’s why Enoch is significant.  We might say he lived only 365 years before God took him, but what does that matter?  Whether he lived on earth or with God, he had eternal life.
It’s the same for us when we’re smitten with dreadful illness and even when our bodies succumb to death.  What does death matter?  It’s an empty shadow.  Painful? Yes, but it is powerless over the one who has eternal life.  So our prayers for those who are sick are to the end that God preserves them in faith that they keep the gift of eternal life and their Savior’s victory over the grave.  The prayer is not necessariy answered by restoration of health, but by keeping them in the true faith until they are delivered from evil and lie down in their grave.  Our prayer for those who have wandered from the faith or are in doubt is that they would believe so that they too would not perish, but also have eternal life.  Amen.
[1] Small Catechism, Creed, 2nd Article, alluding to 1 Peter 1:18-19
[2] John 6:29
[3] Genesis 2:17, Genesis 6:3, Romans 5:12
[4] Genesis 5:21-24, 27
[5] Psalm 23:4 KJV