4th Sunday in Lent – 3/14/2021
Many naturopathic health experts often insist that God has provided an antidote for every disease or illness that afflicts our world. I, for one, do not doubt it in the slightest. After all, we know God is gracious and 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. Indeed, we all pray that God would help us find cures for such things as cancer, multiple sclerosis, rare blood diseases, or—most significantly—COVID-19.
Unfortunately, disease and pandemics are not the only evils afflicting 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, it is like we are all diseased with something that makes everyone mad! The natural order of our world and common sense are being denied and dismissed. Since the beginning of creation, the universally shared understanding of what it means to be human and the values of morality among all people groups have been condemned as not only old-fashioned but 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 choose 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 passed 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 some evil is not affecting our collective mind, heart, and soul as a nation?
Has God left our world a natural cure for all these deadly scourges? Will sanity reassert itself among us? If we vote for 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, science, develop a vaccine? We all know the answers to these questions. Even with our combined best efforts, all we can do is the same thing aspirin does: relieve some symptoms of what ails us but never cure it.
Before one can heal anything, one must discover the actual cause. That is true for the physician seeking to cure his patient. Government leaders struggle with problems of national or worldwide security, as do you and me, who wrestle daily with family and interpersonal conflict. We might do some things to alleviate some symptoms, but we will only be able to cure it once we can get at the root cause of the evil.
To help us recognize the proper 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 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, the people began complaining about Moses' leadership and God's providence. They complained about their daily rations of Manna and cried out for some real food. They complained that Moses was leading them out to die. They sought help from the Egyptian gods and those of their own making.
If the people of Israel thought they were suffering and being abused before, God dealt them a deadly blow that made them understand true suffering. He sent poisonous snakes among these ungrateful and disobedient people. The original text in Numbers calls them "fierce serpents. This description could have referred to the fact that these snakes appeared as if they were on fire or that the sting of their bite burned their victims, making them feel like they were on fire. These serpents' venom 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!
The root cause of the people's deaths was not the poisonous snakes. The fiery serpents were simply agents of God's wrath against sin. The actual cause of their suffering and death was their rebellion against God. And until the people realized that the real reason was their sin and unbelief, no antidote was available.
I will go back to the question asked by the gentleman reading the newspaper that I mentioned a moment ago, "What is wrong with people today?" We need to identify the trustworthy source of what is wrong with people before we can find the cure for all their maladies. War, terrorism, suicide bombings, murders, divorces, abortions, or you name the evil. They are all 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 our relationship with God. We have got to 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 and idolatrous hearts had brought this scourge upon them. They turned to Moses, confessed their sin, and implored him to ask God to forgive them.
When a physician tries to diagnose the cause of his patient's ailment, he will find it necessary to conduct some procedures or tests that may be pretty painful. Whether poking with needles or the surgical procedure of taking a biopsy, discovering the cause can hurt.
We must also receive some painful diagnostic testing to discover what truly ails us and our human race. 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 suggestion to help us live more civilized lives. The Ten Commandments are instruments of diagnosis for what truly ails us. As we all learned in our catechetical instruction, the law shows us our sins. The law shows us that the problem with the world and in our own lives is not out there somewhere but right here, that is, in 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. The law reveals that our sinful nature and actual sins are the culprits. A bad tree can only bear bad fruit. This diagnosis hurts. 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 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 told the first man and 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 we can ever expect. We neither possess the cure for what ails us in and of ourselves nor our collective abilities.
"O, wretched man that I am! "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" cried the apostle Paul. (Ro. 7:24). That's being truly "woke," made aware by methodical scrutiny and prosecution of God's Law that as sinners, 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).
That 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 understand what exactly this means for all terminal sinners, Jesus directs us to the cure God graciously provided to the snake-bitten children of Israel. God had Moses make a brass replica of one of the snakes in His mercy for the people's plight and place it on a pole. Then God promised that whoever would look at 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 both what was killing the people of Israel and the very means of their salvation.
That brass serpent also points us to the good news of our antidote! The deadly serpent in our lives is sin. It poisons us so that we die. But God has lifted the wood of the cross as our antidote. Lifted in Jesus is the serpent of our sin. Holy Scripture tells us that God made Jesus, who knew no sin, 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, he atoned for the whole world's sins.
Accordingly, God promises that all who look to Jesus, the Crucified, in faith will be healed, saved from death, and endure everlasting punishment under the wrath of God. Jesus' death brings us life!
What is even more astounding is that this antidote comes as a gift. God loved us terminal sinners so much that He gave us His only Son. Notice that 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 nor 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 say that since God is love, everyone will be saved regardless of their beliefs. Others insist that as long as 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 worshipping Allah or Buddha, then Jesus would not have needed to be lifted. It would all have been for naught.
But our text is evident: "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 anyone else but in Jesus Christ. One is only saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Only the punishment He lifted 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 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. He plunged you into Christ's death and raised you in Him, so you might live a new life now. When you hear God's absolution, God medicinally applies the antidote to your sin: "Your sins are forgiven for Jesus' sake." Likewise, whenever you eat the bread from heaven and drink the blood that flows through Jesus' veins, you receive the antidote to ensure that you will not die eternally but live. The antidote is being given to you now, and you are being cured!
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 their cure before them. Through the correct 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 so that they might be cured forever. God bless us in this medical mission! Amen.