Gospel Lesson: John 3:14-21 (NRSV)
14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that 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. 18 Those 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. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But 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.”
On this day in the year 44 BC, as he was on his way to the Theatre of Pompey, Julius Caesar is said to have encountered a seer who had cautioned him that harm would befall him on the Ides of March. According to the ancient Roman biographer Plutarch, Caesar, who believed that the prophecy had failed to come true, quipped that “The ides of March have come.” The seer is said to have responded by saying “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”[i] And a short while later, Caesar is murdered by members of the Roman Senate. This assassination is said to have led to the downfall of the Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.
William Shakespeare retells this moment in history in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, giving the seer one of the most well-known lines of all time, “Beware the Ides of March!”[ii] Though few remember what the Ides of March actually are, these words have become synonymous with a call to heed the warnings we have received. The very fact that they have remained a part of our popular culture more than four hundred years after the bard first wrote them reveals a great deal about human nature. Our history is filled with moments when we have failed to see the signs in front of us.
Even today, as we read our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Numbers, we see yet again the human propensity to disregard signs of caution and warning. At Mount Hor, the whole congregation of Israel mourned the passing of their priest for thirty days. Aaron died on top of that mountain as punishment for his rebellion against God at the water of Meribah.[iii] And yet, when they had scarcely left the mountain behind, they sinned against God once again.
The impatient people groaned against the Lord and Moses, complaining about the manna that God had provided to sustain the assembly. In response to their complaints, the Lord sent poisonous serpents among them, killing many of the Jewish people. The snake was a fitting punishment, given that this was the same creature that had led Adam and Eve to share in the original sin.[iv] Having been cursed by God to leave the garden as enemies, it is fitting to see serpents set against God’s people out in the wilderness.
But in a demonstration that the Lord’s love and mercy exceed God’s anger, God answers Moses’ prayer on behalf of the people, who have recognized their sin and now seek to be saved from the punishment being carried out among them. And in doing so, the Lord’s sovereignty is demonstrated when God takes the object of the people’s destruction and turns it into the means of their salvation. From that moment on, whenever the sting of the serpent bite threatened their lives, the people had but to have faith in their God and to look to the bronze serpent on the pole, so that they might live.
This is the tale that Jesus remembers during his evening conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Even as they recognized the power of Jesus, demonstrated through the “signs” that he performed, the Jewish leaders struggled to understand the message that this Rabbi had come to teach. And so, Jesus seeks to reveal to Nicodemus the will of God in this present moment by reminding him of the history between the covenant people and their God. If they remember the lesson of the bronze serpent, then they might come to understand the truth of Jesus’ mission.
The long-held expectation was that the Messiah would come and deliver God’s people by leading an army to victory, destroying the evil that oppressed them. But as Jesus reveals, God’s love is for the whole world. And the presence of the “Son of Man” in the world shows that God has once again taken a symbol of destruction and used it for salvation. This time, the one who was to be raised up would not only offer salvation to the people of Israel, but to the people of every nation, so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
But if we would claim to believe in Jesus, we cannot just look at Christ “lifted up” from the tomb in the glory of the Resurrection or even to the majestic Son who is “lifted up” to take his place at his Father’s right hand in the majesty of the Ascension. No. To believe in Jesus is to look upon our Lord “lifted up” on the cross in the humiliating moment of death. For it is only in looking upon Christ crucified that we shall live.
Look and live. It’s a message that we teach our children in so many ways. We teach them to look both ways before crossing the street. We tell our girls and boys to watch out around the stove or the ironing board so that they don’t get burned. We caution them as they play to be aware of the dangers posed by staircases or swimming pools or strangers. Time and again, we encourage our young ones to look around and to be aware of the danger they are in. And yet, it never fails to amaze me how quickly children learn to ignore our warnings.
This occurred to me the other day when I was trying to get Rebecca to slow down. During what I describe as “the witching hour” (that hour before dinner time when both of our children seem to have a burst of hyperactivity), Rebecca kept running into the kitchen where I am constantly afraid that she will slip and fall on the hard linoleum floor.
Pursuing her into the kitchen, I knelt down and caught her up in my arms. I tried to calmly explain why it was important for her to stay in the carpeted areas while we prepare supper. But at two years old, my daughter has already figured out that she can turn her head away and close her eyes when she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. And as frustrating as that moment was, I realize just how aggravated God must be when we who are God’s children do essentially the same thing when confronted by the light of Christ.
Seeing the light of God now lifted up on that pole, many would rather turn their heads away and close their eyes. They prefer to continue in disobedience, choosing to dwell in darkness where they don’t have to face the evil in their own lives. This is the tragic act of a people who have failed to see Christ crucified for who he truly is. Jesus is the light whom God calls us to look upon so that we might live.
But the Good News for those who are willing to face the light of Christ is that the cross not only reveals our sinfulness, but it also shines light on the redemptive work of God that is taking place in and through us. As we claim faith in Jesus, we reflect his light into the world. In doing so, we ensure that there is no place that the light of Christ does not reach.
So friends, as we march onward in these final weeks of Lent, our ongoing task is to examine how we reflect that light of Christ. Are we shining examples of God’s love and Christ’s grace? As we meet others, do we welcome them into a more illuminating experience of belief, through which they too might not only step out of the darkness of their own lives but also look to Christ and become reflections themselves? If we love the light that shines forth from Jesus, do we orient ourselves to that light to maximum effect?
It’s kind of like that microscope that I remember using in high school biology. It was one of the older style ones that required infuriating precision in directing its little mirror. It seemed to take forever to get the lens just right, so that I could see anything at all. Once I was able to properly direct the light, it seemed to open up a whole world that I had never been able to see before. And yet, it was a world that had been there all along.
That is the opportunity that we have today, Brothers and Sisters. We may constantly work to better adjust ourselves to reflect Christ’s light. And as we do so, the view of a whole new world becomes increasingly sharper for all who believe. What emerges is nothing less than the true and everlasting life that has been here among us all along. All we had to do was to look and live.
So today and everyday, let us be dedicated to looking with open eyes so that we might see the light of Christ, which shines down upon us from the cross. May we go forward aware that there are still many in this world who stumble about in darkness, yet long to see the light. For those people, may the words of our mouths, the prayers that fill our hearts, and the actions of our hands and feet all serve to reorient them so that they too might step into the light. And as the light of Christ is shared with the whole world, let us give thanks for the Gospel truth that through God’s only Son, everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.
[i] From page 66 of “Julius Caesar”, one of Plutarch’s volumes in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.
[ii] The soothsayer offers this warning to Caesar in Act 1, Scene 2.
[iii] Numbers 20:22-29
[iv] Genesis 3
This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 15, 2015 (The Fourth Sunday in Lent).