“There Is An Antidote!” (John 3:14-21)

The Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 14, 2021)

Many of the naturopathic health experts often insist that for every disease or illness that afflicts our world God has provided an antidote.  I for one do not doubt it in the slightest.  After all, we know God is gracious and that He is the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  The problem is we must know where to look for this antidote.  Perhaps it is some chemical contained within the leaf of a plant, or a naturally occurring element in the soil, or, as in the case of such things as menopause or thyroid conditions, the antidote is one of the very hormones produced within our own body.  Certainly, we all pray that God would help us find the antidotes to such things as cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, rare blood diseases, or most especially Covid 19. 

Unfortunately, disease and pandemics are not the only evils afflicting us in our world.  After reading all the horrifying headlines in the newspaper, an exasperated man exclaimed the other day, “What’s wrong with people today?”  When you think about, it is like we are all diseased with something that is making everyone go absolutely mad!  The Natural Order of our world and common sense are being totally denied and dismissed. The universally shared understanding of what it means to be human and the values of morality among all people groups since the beginning of creation are being condemned as not only old fashioned but in themselves inherently evil and the scourge of humanity.  Think about this:  in our country it is perfectly legal and even called humane to kill an unborn child in the womb but people who chose not to wear a mask or get an experimental and unproven vaccine are labeled unloving, unpatriotic and, by some, even murderers!  I mean, is this sanity?  Or how about this; our U.S. Congress just past the so called Equality Act  which does away with the natural binary sex difference of male and female and makes it mandatory that we all recognize and accept people by whatever gender they claim to be at the moment?  By any stretch of the imagination can we possibly think there is not some evil that is affecting our collective mind, heart and soul as a nation?

Has God left in our world a natural cure for all these deadly scourges?  Will sanity reassert itself among us?  If we just vote in the right politicians will they save us from the madness?  Maybe the United Nations will come to our rescue?  Will the prevailing god of most people today; that is, Science, come up with a vaccine?  I’m afraid we all know the answer to these questions.  Even with our combined best efforts all we can do is the same thing aspirin does; relieve some of the symptoms of what ails us but never cure it. 

Before one can heal anything, he first has to discover the real cause.  That is true for the physician seeking to heal his patient… government leaders that struggle with problems of national or worldwide security, as well as you and me, who wrestle daily with family and interpersonal conflict.  We might do some things to alleviate some symptoms, but until we can get at the root cause of the evil, we will never be able to cure it.

To help us recognize the true antidote to the deadly disease that afflicts us, Jesus in His discussion with Nicodemus directs our attention to an occurrence in Israel’s distant past.  It occurred shortly after God had saved Israel from her enslavement in Egypt.  At God’s command and appointment, Moses was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness of the Negev.  In short order the people began to complain against not only Moses’ leadership, but also God’s providence.  They complained about their daily rations of Manna and cried out for some real food. They complained that Moses was just leading them out to die.  They turned to seek help from the gods of the Egyptians, as well as ones of their own making. 

Now, if the people of Israel thought they were suffering and being abused before, God dealt them a deadly blow that made them understand what true suffering was.  He sent poisonous snakes among these ungrateful and disobedient people. The original text in Numbers calls them fiery serpents.  This description could have referred to the fact that these snakes had an appearance as if they were on fire or that the sting of their bite burned its victims, making them feel as though they were on fire. What is clear is that the venom of these serpents was so deadly that death was always the automatic result for anyone bitten by them.  Nothing they could do would alter or change the fate of the bitten.  It was always lethal.  There was no cure!

Clearly, the root cause of the people’s death was not the poisonous snakes.  The fiery serpents were simply agents of God’s wrath against sin.  The real cause of their suffering and death was their own rebellion against God.  And until the people came to the realization that the real cause was their sin and unbelief, there was no antidote available.

I’m going to go back to the question asked by the gentleman reading the newspaper that I mentioned a moment ago, “What is wrong with people today?”  Until we identify the true source of what is wrong with people, we will never be able to find the cure to all their maladies. War, terrorism, suicide bombings, murders, divorces, abortions, or you name the evil, they all are merely symptoms caused by something else.  Alleviating the symptoms might give us some breathing space, but it will not bring us peace in the world, in our families, or even in our own relationship with God. We have got to clearly identify the cause of all this distress.

As Israel learned, finding the cause will hurt.  Eventually, through the plague of the snakes and Moses’ continual preaching about their disobedience, the people were brought to an acute awareness of just where the problem was.  It was in them.  Their sinful an idolatrous hearts had brought this scourge upon them.  They turned to Moses and confessed their sin and implored him to ask God to forgive them.

When a physician is trying to diagnose the cause of his patient’s ailment, he will find it necessary to conduct some procedures or tests that sometimes will be quite painful to the patient. Whether it be the poking with needles or the surgical procedure of taking a biopsy, discovering the cause can hurt.

In order for us to discover what truly ails us and our whole human race, we also need to receive some painful diagnostic testing.  The Great Physician of body and soul, God the Father Almighty, performs these diagnostic tests through the Law.  Contrary to what many might wish to believe, the Law of God is not merely some moral suggestions to help us live more civilized lives.  The Ten Commandments are instruments of diagnosis of what truly ails us.  The Law, as we all learned in our catechetical instruction, shows us our sin. The Law shows us that the problem with the world and in our own lives is not out there somewhere, but in here, that is; in each and every one of our hearts.  Jesus says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:19).  Under the scrutiny of God’s MRI, not one of us can hide the real cause of all the world’s problems, as well as all our own problems.  The Law clearly reveals that our own sinful nature, as well as all our own actual sins, is the culprit.  A bad tree can only bear bad fruit.  This diagnosis hurts doesn’t it?  No one likes to hear that he is the culprit!

But our pain does not end there. The Law of God also brings us to the necessary realization that our condition is terminal.  The Law confirms: “The wages of sin is death.”  Death is the curse of sin.  Death is the penalty God had already established in the beginning for sin.  He said to the first man and first woman, “The day you eat of the tree of which I told you not to eat, You will die.”   The Law and its accompanying threats of God’s wrath and punishment enable us to see that we are in and of ourselves hopelessly terminal.  Death under God’s eternal wrath is all that anyone of us can ever expect.  Neither do we possess in and of ourselves, or even in our collective abilities, the cure for what ails us.

O, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!” cried out the apostle Paul. (Ro. 7:24)  That’s being truly “woke,” made aware by methodical scrutiny and prosecution of God’s Law that as a sinner you and I are the problem not the solution… the deadly virus not the cure.  But Paul also rejoices in the cure… the real antidote;  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Ro. 7:25). 

This is why verse 16 of this third chapter of John’s Gospel becomes such Good News to all of us.  It points us to God’s grace in the face of our dilemma and to the antidote He lovingly gives us.  We read: “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.”

To help us come to grips with just what exactly this means for all of us terminal sinners, Jesus directs us to the cure God had graciously provided to the snake-bitten children of Israel. In His mercy for the people’s plight, God had Moses make a brass replica of one of the snakes and place it upon a pole. Then God promised that whoever would look upon that brass snake would be saved.  Even those who had already been bitten were healed when they looked upon that raised serpent.  The brass serpent was the antidote.  It was indeed a miracle cure!  The raised brass serpent represented what was killing the people of Israel and also the very means of their salvation.

That brass serpent points us to the Good News of our antidote as well!  The deadly serpent in our lives is sin.  It poisons us so that we die.  But God has lifted up on the wood of the cross our antidote.  Lifted up in Jesus is the serpent of our sin.  Holy Scripture clearly tells us that God made Jesus, who knew no sin to be sin for us. God placed on Jesus all our guilt and iniquity.  Jesus became the curse for us.  He then suffered our fate of death under God’s wrath. We hear the excruciating agony of this punishment from His suffering lips on the cross:  “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”  But this suffering was necessary to cure us.  For in Jesus’ flesh the sins of the whole world were atoned for. 

Accordingly, God’s promise is that all who look to Jesus, the Crucified, in faith will be healed, saved from death and everlasting punishment under the wrath of God.  Jesus’ death brings us life! 

What is even more wonderful is that this antidote comes as a gift. God loved us terminal sinners so much that He gave us His one and only Son.  Notice, Jesus does not say God sent His Son, but He gave us His Son.  By its very nature a gift comes solely from the grace of the giver.  It is neither earned or deserved.  Accordingly, we heard Paul tell us in our Epistle reading today, “It is by grace you have been saved.”  Our antidote is wrapped up in God’s pure grace. 

Jesus the crucified is our only antidote.  Many today seem to be saying that since God is love, everyone, no matter what they believe will be saved.  Others are insisting as long a you believe in God, no matter what you name him or how you worship him, you too will be saved.  But how can this be?  If the Israelites could have found another antidote from a desert cactus, or by praying to one of their idols, to heal themselves from the venom of the fiery serpents, why did God give them the bronze serpent?  If you and I could be saved from the poison of sin and not die in hell by simply being outwardly good, or by worshiping Allah or Buddha, then Jesus would not have needed to be lifted up.  It would all have been for naught. 

But our text is very clear: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  There is no salvation in any one else than in Jesus Christ.  One is only saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  Only He who was lifted up in punishment for our sin is the antidote for what ails the world.  Any other healing or salvation that anyone offers you, has only the illusion of a cure.  The crucified Jesus is the only cure for our terminal condition!

What is even more, the cure Jesus provides us is not only for some future healing but actually provides true healing to what is wrong in our lives even now.  Jesus says, “He who believes in Him has eternal life.”  Our outer nature may be wasting away because of the effects of sin in our bodies, but as Scripture reminds us, our inner nature is being renewed every day, through the forgiveness of sins Jesus brings us now. (2 Cor. 4:16).   God bathed you in this antidote in your baptism.  There He plunged you into Christ’s death and raised you in Him that you might live a new life now.  God medicinally applies the antidote to your sin every time you hear God’s absolution: “Your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.” Likewise, every time you eat of the bread that comes down out of heaven and drink of the Blood that flows through Jesus’ veins, you are receiving the antidote to insure that you will not die eternally but live.  The antidote is being given you now and you are being cured now!

Our degenerating American society and our world do not need more laws, more or the right kind of politicians, more science, or even more vaccines.  They need the Crucified One.   We owe it to ourselves and to our world to do what Moses did; lift up before the people their cure.  Through the right proclamation of the Gospel and the proper administration of the Sacraments, we not only hold before people’s eyes the antidote that will save their souls but we bring that antidote to them that they might be cured forever.   God bless us in this medical mission!  Amen.

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