Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

“Why Not Look?”

Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
March 18, 2012
© 2012

When I was growing up, every few years our family would drive from
Oakland, California to visit my father’s relatives in Detroit, Michigan. The
ideal plan was to leave in the afternoon so we could have supper in Reno,
Nevada. Then my parents took turns driving across the desert through the night
so we could have breakfast in Salt Lake City, Utah. The plan was reversed for
the return trip: supper in Salt Lake City, breakfast in Reno, and in our own
beds that night. It was a strategy for managing the hottest and dullest part of
the trip. Our trip east was well under way before my sister and I would start
asking, “Are we there yet?” As we got old enough to read maps, our parents gave
us the AAA Trip Tic so we could follow our progress one manageable page at a time.
In the days before the Interstate Highway system, my sister and I would read
the AAA Tour Books and pick out something we wanted to see in small towns along
the way. We usually avoided the gaudy tourist traps but would stop at an
historical marker or unusual natural phenomenon. Calculating estimated times of
arrival and navigating from the back seat kept us from getting too annoying
with the refrain, “Are we there yet?”
We read in Numbers 21 that the Israelites grew impatient on the way and
grumbled against God and Moses. The path to the Promised Land lay northwest
through Edom, but Edom refused passage, so the backtracked southeast. The fiery serpents were an embodiment of their
venomous attack on Moses and on God.
1st Christian Church, Duncanville, is on a long, circuitous
journey to a new pastor. I’m sure the Search and Call Committee has felt like
they’ve done plenty of backtracking. Are you getting impatient?
Waiting patiently through a job search or recovery from surgery or
illness is not easy. The presidential campaign already seems long, and the
Texas primary is not here yet, and the November election seems impossibly far
off. Have you noticed your impatience along the way becoming venomous?
John 3:16 is perhaps the best known verse in the New Testament. It
comes in John 3:14-21 as part of Jesus’ discourse following his conversation
with Nicodemus. Placing this in the chronology of Jesus’ ministry is
impossible, but John puts it early in his Gospel with the bronze serpent as a
powerful pointer to the cross.
And just as Moses lifted up the
serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that
whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 17“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. 18Those
who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are
condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son
of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the
world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were
evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,
so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But
those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen
that their deeds have been done in God.”
If John had not reported Jesus’ discussion of Moses lifting up the
serpent in the wilderness, it would have remained one of many obscure and
puzzling incidents in Israel’s 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Jesus
makes the serpent that embodied the curse and became the cure foreshadow the
significance of his death on the cross.
The curse of the serpents is that they inflict the Israelites’ venomous
grumbling back on them, inflicting hopeless death. They are more consequences
than punishment. The serpents personify the theological reality of Ephesians
2:5 that “the wages of sin is death.” This death is not just the last event of
this life but a permeating power. Thus, Ephesians 2:1 says we are “dead through
trespasses and sins.” Even before the serpents invaded the camp, the Israelites
were poisoned by their grumbling. Similarly, Jesus said that “those who do not
believe are condemned already.” (John 3:18-19) The judgment is not far off in
the future; it is now. When the people come to Moses they are desperate. While
more people are bitten and die, Moses takes time to pray and to fabricate the
bronze serpent that will become their cure. When Jesus said the Son of Man
would be lifted up as the serpent was lifted up, the word can mean lifted up
for execution on a gibbet or it can mean lifted up for glory and adulation.
Thus, by being
lifted up on the cross for crucifixion, Jesus transforms the curse to the cure.
Just as the Israelites who looked at the bronze serpent went from death to
life, everyone who believes in Jesus goes from perishing to eternal life. Just
as death is not an event but a permeating power, eternal life is not something
we await in a distant future but is a present relationship with God. In his
great prayer in John 17:3 Jesus said, “This is
eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom
you have sent.”
Look! The loving
grace of God brings you from death to life in Jesus Christ!
In John 3:16
Jesus said, “Everyone who believes in [God’s only
Son] may not perish but may have eternal life.” Ephesians 2:8 says we “have
been saved through faith.” What does it mean to believe and have faith?
Jesus said, “God
so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” and Ephesians 2:8 says that God’s
loving grace is a gift, not of our own doing. To believe, to have faith is to
trust that by his death and resurrection, Jesus has transformed you from death
unto life. You don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to grit your teeth and
try to pump up your faith. You just accept the gift.
The story of the
bronze serpent is a picture of believing faith. All the Israelites had to do
was look at the serpent Moses had lifted up. They didn’t have to explain how it
worked. They didn’t have to sign a promise never to grumble again. They didn’t even
have to believe it would work. They only had to look! Imagine how it felt and
how they responded when it worked!
Look! The loving
grace of God brings you from death to life in Jesus Christ!
III. What does it mean to live by grace? What does it mean
to live by faith?
We can get a hint
in George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the
Floss. Maggie Tulliver’s tangled loves for her brother Tom, Philip Wakem
the son of the lawyer who pursued her father into bankruptcy, and Stephen Guest
her best friend’s fiancé keep her in perpetual turmoil. The one respite she
gets is from a seemingly chance encounter with Thomas á Kempis’ 15th
century book The Imitation of Christ.
Maggie’s response conveys the thrill of looking at Christ.
She took up the
little, old, clumsy book with some curiosity: it had the corners turned down in
many places, and some hand, now for ever quiet, had made at certain places
strong pen-and-ink marks, long since browned by time. Maggie turned from leaf
to leaf, and read where the quiet hand pointed.
A strange thrill of
awe passed through Maggie while she read, as if she had been wakened in the
night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir
while hers was in stupor. She went on from one brown mark to another, where the
quiet hand seemed to point, hardly conscious that she was reading – seeming
rather to listen while a low voice [spoke].
Maggie drew a long
breath and pusher her heavy hair back, as if to see a sudden vision more
clearly. Here, then, was a secret of life that would enable her to renounce all
other secrets – here was a sublime height to be reached without the help of
outward things – here was insight, and strength, and conquest, to be won by
means entirely within her own soul, where a supreme Teacher was waiting to be
heard. It flashed through her like the suddenly apprehended solution of a
problem, that all the miseries of her young life had come from fixing her heart
on her own pleasure, as if that were the central necessity of the universe; and
for the first time she saw the possibility of shifting the position from which
she looked at the gratification of her own desires – of taking her stand out of
herself. And looking at her own life as an insignificant part of a
divinely-guided whole. She read on and on in the old book, devouring eagerly
the dialogues with the invisible Teacher, the pattern of sorrow, the source of
all strength; returning to it after she had been called away, and reading till
the sun went down behind the willows.
was still panting for happiness and was in ecstasy because she had found the
key to it. … This voice out of the far-off middle ages was the direct
communication of a human soul’s belief and experience and came to Maggie as an
unquestioned message. (Riverside
Edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1961, IV. iii. pp. 253-255)
The way The Mill
on the Floss plays out, Maggie turns this ecstatic freedom into a
performance of isolating self-righteousness that she abandons and returns to
the turmoil of her conflicting loves, which is only resolved by reconciliation
with her brother Tom as they are swept to their deaths by a flood at the end of
the story.
The picture we
get of living by grace and faith in John 3 and Ephesians 2 is quite different. In
John 3:21 Jesus says that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that
it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Ephesians 2:10
says that “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared
beforehand to be our way of life.” Literally, we are God’s poem.
To live in grace
and faith is not just doing good deeds
Taylor was a gifted physician and pioneer missionary to China in the 19th
century. He rejected the connection between British colonialism and the mission
of Christ that was accepted at the time. He left the British colonial port
cities where missionaries lived in compounds that were microcosms of England.
He dressed as a Chinese Confucian teacher and headed inland. When the British
mission societies would no longer accept him, he founded the China Inland
Mission reflecting that vision. It continues today as the Overseas Missionary
After six
years of seemingly fruitless hard work and the death of their son, Hudson and
Maria Taylor returned to England. Hudson’s health had collapsed, and his spirit
was broken. In the next five or six years as he recovered, he grew to discover
what he called “the exchanged life.”
That is, rather than trying to live as a Christian, he could simply trust the
Christ would live his life in him. His grandson James Howard Taylor wrote a
biography in which he describes “the exchanged life” as Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret.
Taylors returned to China. Life was still difficult. Some of their children
died as did Maria. Yet the mission began to flourish and the work load
increased. But never again was Hudson Taylor to experience the dark brokenness
of spirit that had crushed him years before. Believing that Christ was living
his life in him, Hudson Taylor was able to find joy and freedom in not only his
mission work but even more so in his relationship with God.
None of us are likely to become pioneer missionaries
or to be revered as spiritual giants a century after our deaths, but we can
live every day by faith in God’s grace. Just as you trusted Christ to forgive
you and give you the hope of resurrection to eternal life, you can trust God
that Jesus will live his life in you. You are God’s poem. God has created you
in grace to do the deeds God prepared beforehand to be your way of life. You
can come to the light, confident that it will be clearly seen that your deeds
are done in God. As paradoxical as it sounds, the Christian life is not about
trying harder and harder to imitate Jesus or do what is right. No! The
Christian life is trusting that Jesus will live his life in you!

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