By Reverend Dr. Fontella Irons
Bible Texts: Gospel of John 3:1-17; Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10
Most of us can appreciate a gift. This is especially true when that gift is unexpected or undeserved. Sometimes we are able to look at people in our lives and see how much their daily presence provides ongoing gifts to us. Sometimes we are able to think about people who are unknown to us, but we know that their work results in tangible gifts to us, to our family, to our community, to our world. I especially think about food this way. I think about farmers and those who work on farms as migrant laborers as gifts to all of us. We may never meet those who prepare the soil or plant the seeds or harvest the fruit, but we know that they exist and that their labor results in nourishment for us. This gift of their labor blesses all of us. And, for the most part, most of us find it challenging to reject the gift of a good meal. Still, some gifts are rejected.
The main text for the message today is John 3:1-17. At verse 16, we find these words: “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,” (NRSV). God loves you. God loved you from the beginning of time
and God continues to love you. Because of God’s love for humanity, God chose to send Jesus Christ as the atoning sacrifice for sin. The blood of animals could not pay the price for sin. Only Christ.
In this passage from the Gospel of John, we find Jesus in a conversation with Nicodemus. The setting was a nighttime visit. The passage tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He wanted to understand a very important aspect of Jesus’ teaching. Have you ever had that type of moment? Some is speaking and you do not quite understand the meaning of what’s being said. Perhaps you’ve been a classroom lecture hall and a professor has been speaking, but you did not fully understand the lecture? In this case, we do not know how Nicodemus first heard this particular aspect of Jesus’ teaching, but it is clear that Nicodemus wanted to know more. He did not wish to reject what might be the biggest gift of his lifetime. So, he goes to Jesus and he asks this question: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus does not hesitate to help him.
In short, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has missed the lesson. Jesus tells him that the idea of a second physical birth is not what is needed. Why? Because a second physical birth would not change the problem. Why? Because even when tiny, beautiful babies enter our world that child
enters a world where sin already exists. That child’s first cry takes place in a fallen world. Jesus helps Nicodemus by reminding him of ancient Israel’s history; specifically, Jesus points to Moses. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of a pivotal moment in Moses’s ministry: “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 3:14-15 (NRSV).
The biblical text being referred to is Numbers 21:4-9. God had sent poisonous snakes among the people because the people sinned by speaking against God and against the prophet of God, Moses. God permitted the poisonous snakes to bite the people and God permitted people to die from their wounds. Eventually, the people turned to Moses and asked him to intervene, to pray to God, to ask God to “take away the serpents.” Moses does. God does not remove the snakes. God does instruct Moses to do the following: “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live,” Numbers 21:8 (NRSV).
God did not take away the poisonous snakes. In the same way, God did not take away “sin” when Jesus came into the world. But, as Jesus tells Nicodemus, “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. 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 3:14-17 (NRSV). Jesus was “lifted up” on the Cross and that death gave us access to the greatest gift of all – the gift of eternal life. This is the way in which the writer of Ephesians reflects on that gift: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God …,” Ephesians 2:4-8 (NRSV).
In the passage from the Book of Numbers, the people chose to reject the gifts of God. God had given them the gift of deliverance. The people responded by complaining against God. Got had given them the gift of protection. The people responded by complaining against God. God had give the people food. The people responded by rejecting this gift from God. It is not possible to reject the gifts of God and be pleasing to God. It is not possible to reject the gift of Jesus Christ and be pleasing to God. But why reject this greatest gift of all? The rejection of Jesus as Savior
means to reject life. The rejection of Jesus as Savior means to live condemned. The acceptance of Jesus as Savior means to receive the gift of salvation. Saved. Eternal life. The greatest of all of the gifts of God. Amen.