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Dear friends in Christ,
In his first inaugural address in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said some famous words that have been immortalized, “The only thing we need to fear is fear itself.” The United States was in the grips of the Great Depression. Soup lines were the norm. Millions were out of work. The Depression is a huge part of American history. People feared that they would not have anything to sustain their lives in the future. My parents talked a lot about the rationing that was common.
Fear can be paralyzing. Years ago, when I was a tour guide in Glacier Park, we drove Going to the Sun Highway. It is literally carved out of the side of mountains. To go over the edge would be certain death. You would drop at places 2,000 to 3,000 feet below. I saw people who literally stopped when they saw the challenges of the road. They froze.
If you trace the history of fear, it goes back to the Garden of Eden, like everything else that is bad in our world. Adam and Eve experienced that emotion after their sin of disobedience. When they heard God walking in the garden, “they hid among the trees.” Why? Because they were afraid of God! In fact, the famous quote of Roosevelt should be amended to the “Only Thing we have to fear is sin itself.” Fear was a new emotion for Adam and Eve only after sin. Sin makes people fear God. Why? Because he is perfect; we are not. Martin Luther in his early life said, “I feared Christ more than I feared the Devil. I did not think otherwise than that Christ was sitting in heaven as an angry judge, as indeed he is pictured sitting on a rainbow, I could not call upon him, nay, could not ever bear to hear his name mentioned.” The Church in his day didn’t do a very good job in teaching Luther or anyone else “The Original Love Story.” God would rather love than be angry and punish sin. Today we will study these words of Jesus and “God’s Original Love Story.” We understand it when ee understand that 1) Jesus came to save us; 2) Jesus came to change us.
Nicodemus and Jesus had a meeting at night. Nicodemus was an important man; he was a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, the Sanhedrin. This was the same council that pushed Pilate to judge Jesus guilty of treason. But Jesus had caught the attention of Nicodemus. Jesus was doing humanly impossible things. Only someone who was sent by God could do the things Jesus was doing. So Nicodemus came to Jesus. Jesus taught him a bunch of things - original sin, the necessity of being born again, the power of Baptism. Here he teaches him about God’s love.
Jesus used a picture from the Old Testament. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus took Nicodemus back to the time that Moses was leading the nation of Israel in the Wilderness. I am sure that I would have squawked plenty too, but the two million member nation was a bunch of whiners and complainers. The Bible says, “They spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” This wasn’t by any means the first gripe the voiced but one of many. Even Moses had disqualified himself from entering into the Promised Land by disobeying God too. In every sense of the word, the Children of Israel were showing themselves to be totally unlovable by their own lovelessness.
So God shook them up! They needed it! He sent a plague of snakes. Many were bitten and many died. While there might be some who would debate this, the unlovable Israelites were loved by the LORD. God told Moses to fashion a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole and promised that all who looked upon it would live.
One Bible commentator made an interesting point. He wondered how learned Jewish leaders must have a hard time with this. After all, the commandment “You shall have no other gods” goes on and instructs, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” The point is, as Jesus points out, that bronze snake was really a picture of God’s love in Christ who would be lifted up on the cross like the serpent was raised on a pole.
The Son would be lifted up to show the kind of death that Jesus would die. In fact, as long as the snake was in the hands of Moses, as long as it was lying on the ground, it was of no help to those who had been bitten. It needed to be lifted up so people could look upon it and live. The same with Jesus! If Jesus’ life had only been about his conception and his birth, his humble existence in Nazareth, even his teaching, it would have been of little value. He needed to be lifted up; he needed to be lifted up to die for sins.
There is also something else we see in this picture – the place of faith. I wonder if there were those who tried to discover and invent an antidote that would keep people from dying. Is there some kind of cure? The only cure was that the people needed to look at the brazen serpent. The cure wasn’t found any other place. So it is with the Lord Jesus too. It is not the faith that is so important, but what that faith is in. People look in faith to Allah or some other god. Some people look in faith to themselves to think that they can save themselves for eternity. That’s faith, but it is misplaced. The object of faith is what is important. The cure for sin is found in the lifted up Jesus, the Jesus of the cross and the blood and the sweat. God’s original love story is demonstrated in a picture of the snake lifted up on the wooden pole, picturing the crucified Jesus.
God’s love story is also found in these very carefully chosen words from Jesus himself. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 - probably the first passage we learned! If you never did, then learn it.
Think about this passage. Think about what it means:
God – There is a God. Don’t let anyone persuade you differently. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hand.” He allows himself to be known by what he has made. He also allows himself to be known through a book he caused to be written. Open that book. Read and learn, and believe it.
He so loved. This love is more than wanting to shake our hands; it is more than a pat on the back. In fact, if you want to know about love, look to God himself. God is love. His is totally selfless. He puts love in all that he does. We call it by different names because we see it in different ways. We call it mercy; that’s his forgiving love. We call it providence; that’s his caring love. We call it kindness; that is his understanding love; we call it his passion and death; that’s his proven love. We call it eternity; that’s his never ending love.
He loved the world. That’s the amazing part of his love. The world didn’t love him back. Jesus told Nicodemus “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Some protest those words. Isn’t Jesus coming back to judge? Yes, he is! But that’s the next time. He came to save the first time. Yes, Jesus is coming back a second time to judge those who don’t really care that he came a first time. Let there be a warning from his lips – those who don’t respond to his love will be “cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” While people have a hard time with the punishment on those who reject, but why do those who reject have a hard time with Jesus reaching out his nail pierced hands for them – for all – for the world – on the cross?
“So that he gave!” Notice it is all about him giving. He gave us all things. He gave us life from the womb. He sustains our life with food and shelter and clothing. If he didn’t give, we would all disappear.
He gave us His Son. There is no one like him. Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The apostle also says, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” No words can really describe him. No human can comprehend him. That’s exactly what Paul meant when, in speaking about Jesus, he called him “an indescribable gift.”
But not only did God give this indescribable gift in Jesus, the indescribable gift gave too. He gave. He gave his life as a ransom for all. The gift accepted and endured the forsakenness of the Father. He suffered what people in hell suffer for people, all people, for the world.
“So that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus said it a little differently a little later here to make it very clear, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” I go back to one of my favorite sayings. How do you treat the truth? What do you with the truth? You embrace it! You believe it! You don’t doubt it! You are not skeptical of it! The original love story, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” So easy that a child can explain and understand…if it weren’t for that sinful nature in us.
Because the sinful nature inside of us doesn’t accept it, Jesus says, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” We are proud creatures, we human beings. If you listen to John 3:16, it really is all about God and the gift of his one and only Son, isn’t it?
Many of us are control freaks. I know I am a control freak. You know the old saying “If you want something done right, you do it yourself.” That doesn’t work with our relationship with God. Nothing we can do is that good - not to God’s standards. That’s what Jesus made clear to Nicodemus earlier, when at the beginning of this conversation he said “you must be born again.” We need a spiritual rebirth. Jesus makes that clear when he said, “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The point is that the change that needs to take place in the hearts of man is also covered – by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that it begins at Baptism when the Spirit brings us into a relation ship with God. The Spirit continues his good work in us through the instruction and guidance of his Word. “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
The bottom line is this: Our God just doesn’t stop giving. Those deeds of love and kindness, the love to worship and serve, they too come from God. Whoever lives by the truth, he says, comes into light. The truth is God’s word. Through his Word he keeps supplying us with love.
Back in 1970 there was a movie entitled “Love Story.” Old people like myself saw the movie. It starred Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal. It was up for Oscar nominations. It won one for best song. I don’t remember it too well, except it had a sad ending that left a lot of girls weeping at the end. Ali McGraw died. Ryan O’Neal’s father finally apologizes for not accepting her because of her modest background. After he apologizes, Ryan O’Neal says, “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” No it doesn’t, the original love story is, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”