>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, March 22, 2009.  The passage for this week’s message is John 3:14-21.

There are some passages in Scripture that are familiar to us.  Now, don’t get me wrong, “familiar” is not a codeword for “overused.”  There is a difference between a passage of Scripture being overused and a passage of Scripture that we come back to time and time again.  When Scripture is taken out of context and misconstrued to fit our agendas, then it becomes overused.  And in all honesty, it’s not the Scripture that is overused, it’s the poor interpretation.  I’ve heard it said on more than one occasion, and hear me out before you roll your eyes on this, all Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally important.
Whether we realize it or not, we tend to look at some Scriptures over and over again.  They are cornerstones of our theology and practice in ministry.  And some Scriptures, we ignore.  We don’t do it on purpose.  But think about it for a minute.  How many of us have spent hours pouring over the genealogies that are found at the beginning of 1 Chronicles?  In all honesty, I haven’t.  I read them, but “read” is a verse loose term in this instance.  How about the detailed instructions on how to build the tabernacle in Exodus?  Or the ritual laws of Leviticus?  Anybody read Jude in the last six months?  Do you see what I mean?  I’m not saying that these parts of Scripture are less inspired than other portions, but in our theology and by our actions, we confirm that they don’t appear to be as important to our theological worldview as other portions of Scripture.  But then we have the opposite end of the spectrum – the verses that we constantly turn to, and whether we have done it intentionally or not, we have memorized these verses.  We have become familiar with these passages, and that isn’t always good.
Today’s passage includes one of the most famous Scripture references – John 3:16.  If you watch any major sporting event, you are bound to see somebody in the crowd holding up a sign that says, “John 3:16.”  In-and-Out Burger, a restaurant chain in the Western U.S., prints the reference on the bottom of their cups.  Max Lucado, well-known Christian author, wrote a book called 3:16, which has become another best seller.  Tim Tebow, Florida’s quarterback, had the reference in his eyeblack during the National Championship game against Oklahoma.  And the next day, “John 3:16” was the number one item on the internet search engine Google, which tells me two things about the verse.  First, the reference has become so widely used by Christians that we assume everyone else knows what it means, and second, not everyone knows what it means.
One of the problems that we run into when it comes to John 3:16 is that we don’t really know the context in which it is found.  It’s often been called the “gospel in a nutshell,” but that doesn’t mean it stands alone in the flow of John’s gospel.  It is actually right in the middle of a conversation that Jesus is having with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus in the middle of the night to have this conversation.  And that right there should be the first clue that there is something different going on in this passage.
Throughout John’s gospel, John contrasts the concepts of light and darkness.  In fact, most of the time when John is talking about the dark, he is not just referring to the time of day.  It is a spiritual assessment as well.  There were some that recognized that Jesus was doing amazing things, but they didn’t understand his teaching.  Nicodemus has this conversation with Jesus and tries to understand a little more about what Jesus is talking about.
The conversation begins by talking about what it means to be born again.  This doesn’t make any sense to Nicodemus.  In fact, he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  Essentially, Nicodemus is saying, “What do you mean that I have to be born again?  I’m a Jew.  I’m already born into the covenant.”  Nicodemus thought, as did many other Jews, that there was no need for them to be born again because he was already a Jew and part of the covenant people of God.  But Jesus is saying that being born a Jew is not enough.
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that you are not part of God’s covenant people simply because you are born a Jew.  Likewise, we aren’t Christians because we are born in America.  A couple of weeks ago a report came out stating that the number of people in America that identify themselves as Christian is just below 80% now, a figure that has been in decline over the last decade or so.  Those that would not identify themselves with any religion has nearly doubled since 1990, at 15%.  And, let’s be honest here as well, I seriously doubt that number has doubled, but that people have recognized that they live as though there is no God, so why bother saying that there is one?
We need to face the reality that, in spite of what people may say, we do not live in a Christian nation.  Being born in America does not automatically make a person a Christian.  Of course, if we are really pressed, we would have said that a long time ago.  But the Christian church in America has suffered from the same short-sightedness that was plaguing Nicodemus and the Jewish leaders at the time of this conversation with Jesus.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again, sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car.  Jesus tells him whatever is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  And then Nicodemus asks the question that is on the tip of the reader’s tongue.  How?  How can this be done?
If we aren’t part of God’s covenant people by virtue of our birth, then how can we be part of God’s covenant people?  How can we be born of the Spirit?  Jesus looks at Nicodemus and says, “Don’t you get it?  Think about when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.”  Now, Jesus was getting into something that Nicodemus knew.  It was familiar.  It’s a story that Nicodemus would have memorized as a young boy.  But perhaps it was too familiar, and he didn’t get the whole story. 
 
This is the same problem that we run into.  We think that we’ve heard it all before.  You looked in the bulletin and saw John 3, and you think that won’t hear anything new.  That’s the problem with familiarity.  Nicodemus thinks he knows the story.  He thinks that there is nothing more for him to learn, but Jesus turns his entire world on its head here.  Familiarity helps in this.  It shuts us off from hearing God’s voice in a new, fresh way.  God is still speaking to us in new ways, regardless of the fact that this text was written nearly 2000 years ago.  And if we allow familiarity to shut us off from what God has to say, we are seriously going to miss out on something new that God is doing, or wants to do, in our lives.
In Numbers 21, as Moses is leading the people through the desert after they have left Egypt.  The people were complaining about the journey, and many were asking Moses why he even bothered to get them out of Egypt if they were just going to die in the desert.  Then they started to complain about the food, and that was the last straw.  The food that they were complaining about was manna, which fell from heaven every day with the morning dew.  God is sustaining them by providing them with food in the desert, and they are complaining about it.  So what does God do?  He sends “fiery serpents” among the people.
These serpents make their way through the camp and start biting the people.  Some of them died.  It is then that the people come to Moses and ask him to intercede on their behalf.  They recognized that their complaints were not just harmless complaints, but that they revealed the people’s lack of faith.  They recognized their sin.  Moses prays and God tells him to make a serpent out of bronze, set it on a pole and raise it up for all the people to see.  If they would look upon the bronze serpent, they would live.
Sometimes, we can miss the sin in our lives; the junk that keeps us from hearing God’s voice.  Habits that we may think are harmless cut us off from God.  These habits reveal the ugliness deep inside our hearts and recognizing them helps us to see our need for a savior.  We see just how far away we really are from God.  If we are open to hearing what God has to say, even if it is a message that we have heard over and over again, then our lives will be profoundly changed.
For Nicodemus, this passage of the Israelites in the desert may have been taught over and over again as a lesson in complaining about what God has given.  But what Jesus is saying is that there was a whole lot more to this story than just the surface meaning.  In my study notes, I came across something saying that the Hebrew word for “bronze” could also mean “copper.”  And, in fact, this area was rich in copper, and copper has a reddish tint to it.  And this reddish, copper snake that was raised in the wilderness in order to save those who were poisoned by the serpents, points forward to Christ – the one who was lifted up on the cross in order to save us who have also been poisoned by the Serpent.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that the poison from the serpent was deadly, and that, in Genesis 3, the serpent is what poisoned humanity and caused it to fall.  Jesus says that he must be lifted up, just as the bronze/copper snake in the wilderness was lifted up for the people of Israel.  And those who look upon him will be saved.  This is the backdrop that leads us into John 3:16.
If I were doing an outline of this passage, I would look to verses 16-18 as a unit.  While verse 16, more often than not, is seen by itself, I think that verses 17 and 18 help us to understand the emphasis of verse 16.  While the focus on God’s love and Jesus’ self-sacrifice for humanity are important components of this verse, I think verses 17-18 tell us that the major emphasis for us needs to be on belief.  It’s not enough to simply agree with the idea that Jesus died for our sins.  Belief implies that it is closer to us than a simple acknowledgement.  It is a part of who we are, and it shapes who we are.  For those that believe in Jesus Christ, there is no condemnation.  In fact, not only is there no condemnation, there is healing.
Belief implies a deep sort of trust; a life-restoring trust.  The Israelites had to trust that God would heal them when they looked upon the serpent in the wilderness.  If they didn’t believe, they wouldn’t have looked, and they would not have been healed.  The same can be said for us today.  If we don’t believe in Christ, then we don’t bother to look to him, and we are not healed.  Spiritually, we have been poisoned, and if we don’t take care of this infection it will claim our lives.  The antidote has been raised up for all the world to see.  All we have to do is look to Him and believe. 
 
We can live our lives without ever looking to Jesus.  And in doing so, we have made a choice.  It doesn’t matter if this choice was made consciously or unconsciously.  If we don’t look to Jesus, we have made the choice to not believe in him.  Here’s the hard thing: we don’t have to say out loud that we don’t believe, we show it by our actions.  And this is when Jesus turns again to the discussion of light and darkness.
Those who still live with a poisoned soul live in the darkness, but people like the darkness.  In the dark, we can get away with things that we can’t get away with in the middle of the day.  But when the light comes into our lives, everything changes.  Those who live in the light do things that can be seen clearly by others.  And they don’t do these things so that they can be praised, but to show what God can do.
I have to admit something to y’all this morning.  Sometimes, at Movie Night, when the movie is over, I don’t tell the kids that I’m about to turn on the lights.  I just flip them on, and we all do the same thing when people do that to us.  We groan, shut our eyes and tell people to turn the lights back off.  People do the same thing in their spiritual lives as well.  We become accustomed to the dark.  Our eyes have adjusted to it.  Then along comes Jesus, flipping on the lights, and we shield our eyes and tell him to turn them back off.  We like the dark sometimes, don’t we?
We don’t have to change our lives if we continue in the dark.  We can keep doing whatever it is that we want, and get away with it.  Or so we think.  And here’s the thing, it’s not always a cold, calculated decision that keeps us in the dark.  Sometimes, we are in the dark and we don’t even know it.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he wants to hear what this guy has to say, but he himself is in the dark.  He doesn’t get it, and he is one of leaders of the Jewish people.  He wasn’t intentionally ignorant.  He just didn’t know any better.  But one day, we will be held accountable for the decisions that we’ve made in our lives.  We will be forced into the light and we can no longer run away.  Is this making anybody else uncomfortable yet?  That’s good!  That means you are starting to see a bit of that light that can have such a significant impact on the direction of our lives.  It’s better that we make the decision to stay in the light now, while we still have time.
It’s not going to be easy to stand in the light at first.  There are going to be things in your life that you will have to give up – our desires, our agendas, our wants.  They are all things that keep us in the dark.  The light can be blinding.  But if we wait for just a little bit, our eyes will adjust.  And we begin to see things more clearly.  We begin to see those things for what they really are – things that keep us away from God and away from our ultimate purpose.  We have a choice when it comes to the gospel.  We can stand in the light for a little while, no matter how uncomfortable it is and how much it may hurt our eyes, or we can run back into the darkness.  If we haven’t chosen to be in the light, then we have chosen to be in the dark.  It is a choice that all have to make.
We can’t rely on the fact that we were born into a Christian family.  We can’t rely on the fact that we were born in America.  What we have to do is recognize that our lives have been poisoned by the serpent.  We need to look to Christ, who has been raised up so that we can be healed.  And we have to trust that he will heal us.  From that point on, we live our lives in the light.  It may be uncomfortable at first.  It definitely isn’t going to be an easy thing to do on a daily basis.  But that is what the message of the gospel does – it brings us into the light.  
Whether we decide to stay in the light or run back to the darkness is a choice that will affect us for the rest of our lives.  In those moments where God has turned on the lights, let me encourage you to stay there for just a little longer.  Your eyes will adjust, and you will begin to see things more clearly.  Ultimately, it is a choice that you have to make.
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