March 22, 2015 Sermon
“Tempted to Keep Jesus a Secret”
Old Testament Reading – Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[b] to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous[c] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous[d] serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Gospel Reading – John 3:14-21
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.”
“Tempted to Keep Jesus a Secret”
Can you imagine having been alive in the time of our Old Testament reading for this morning?
I mean, imagine having been there. This takes place sometime during the 40-year wilderness wandering of the Israelites, on that journey from Egypt to the Promised Land that should have taken months but took decades.
Imagine having been alive as part of a nation of people who were enslaved to another nation of people, only to witness that slavery end when God sent 10 plagues upon your oppressors. One of those plagues was a death plague that struck down every firstborn of Egypt but miraculously passed by all of your people. Imagine having witnessed God leading you and your people onward – in the form of a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. Imagine having watched as God first parted the Red Sea and then closed it upon the Egyptian army, killing every soldier. Imagine having witnessed God’s amazing power as water flowed out of rocks and manna and quail appeared as if by magic to feed you. Imagine having stood upon the mountain of God and having heard the thunder crash that was God’s voice speaking to you and your people all the while lightning flashed and smoke billowed from the mountain…and being so terrified by the experience that EVERYONE, yourself included, demanded that God not speak directly to you again. Imagine watching as people who opposed God’s chosen leaders, watching as people who rebelled against those leaders and God, died strange and horrible deaths, like having their dwellings and families swallowed up by the ground or consumed by fire.
Imagine all of THAT. What would your conception of God be? Would it be different than it is as a 21st century Christian? Would God be more REAL to you or more like an abstract concept that is only occasionally relevant in your life? Would you be more AFRAID of God or would you think of God as a warm and fuzzy friend? Would you be more RELIANT on God for every need of life or more likely to just call upon God when it suits you?
I’m guessing you would be absolutely terrified of crossing God. But I’m also guessing you would never be able to forget all of those instances in which God gave you and everyone with you exactly what you needed: freedom, guidance, protection, water, food…you name it; if you had a need, God provided what you needed. That’s a little different than how we conceive of God, I think.
Now imagine that the people around you are complaining once again. And their complaints make no sense. In the same breathe they complain about having NO food and also complain about the QUALITY of the food they presumably have (after just having complained that they have no food). (PAUSE) Would you be trying to get as far away from these people as possible…given what you have experienced, what you have lived through so far on this journey? Would you be worried that God was about to swallow them up and maybe you along with them?
Then the poisonous serpents come. And more people start dying. All around you people get bitten by the serpents and die. But Moses, the leader who everyone has been complaining against and about, the one person in this whole assembly who has spoken directly with God since that day on the mountain months or maybe years ago, makes a bronze serpent and tells everyone that if you get bit, all you have to do is look at the bronze serpent up on that pole and you will live.
And you notice that all the people who get bitten but look at the bronze serpent do, in fact, live.
So let’s say someone you didn’t know comes around and apparently hasn’t gotten the message about the bronze serpent…because this someone has been bitten and is afraid the end is near. This someone just collapses in a corner and prepares to die. I’m curious, would you tell this someone what you know…would you tell this someone to look at the bronze serpent…or not?
The question sounds hypothetical, right? I mean, WE will never be those Israelites on that journey long ago. But I would suggest there is one way we can relate to them. Maybe not physically, but metaphorically, we are in that position ALL the time of having the knowledge that God gives life, of having the knowledge of HOW God gives life. Yet, we are tempted to keep that knowledge to ourselves. We are tempted to keep Jesus a secret.
Fast forward from our Old Testament reading to the time of our gospel reading. Jesus was speaking. He said some amazing words. Some of those words are confusing – something about Moses and a serpent. And some of those words are so seemingly clear and straightforward and POWERFUL that almost 2,000 years later, most people of God (and probably a lot of people who have little to do with God) can remember them:
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.
I’m curious, though, how is it that you have heard those words or remembered them all these years? Did you hear them as words spoken by Jesus…or maybe a claim made ABOUT Jesus by the gospel writer, John? If you heard them as words spoken by Jesus, did you hear them as words spoken in general and to a crowd, kind of like the sermon on the Mount, so that they provide a general theological principle, or have you heard them as spoken to the disciples in a more private setting, or have you heard them as having been spoken in a specific context outside of a crowd or a group of disciples, a context to which these words SPECIFICALLY apply?
I can’t speak for you…but I can speak for myself…and I can tell you that it wasn’t until I became a minister and started STUDYING and PREACHING this passage that I realized that these words weren’t part of a sermon, they weren’t part of a teaching to a large group or even to a gathering of Jesus’ disciples. No, they were spoken in private, by Jesus, to a man named Nicodemus. And Jesus didn’t speak these words to Nicodemus to teach him the gospel in one sentence – which is kind of how I think most Christians view this passage – but instead Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus as part of a conversation the two men were having. And understanding that conversation is ESSENTIAL to understanding what these words mean.
I want to read to you the first 2 verses of John chapter 3, so you will understand how this conversation came about.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by
night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no
one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.'”
We learn some very important things from these verses. First, we learn that Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. Folks, the Pharisees and leaders of the Jews are the people who are typically presented in John’s gospel as being in OPPOSITION to Jesus. Which leads me to the second important thing we learn from these verses. Nicodemus is a BELIEVER. He acknowledges Jesus not as a heretic but as a teacher who has come from God. He might not have all his beliefs about Jesus absolutely 100% correct, but he is presented to us as one who believes in Jesus. Which brings me to the third important thing we learn about Nicodemus from these verses. Nicodemus isn’t alone as a believer in Jesus among the Pharisees and leaders of the Jews. He speaks in the 1st person plural, saying “we”. There are more like Nicodemus. Which leads me to the fourth and MOST important thing we learn from these verses: Nicodemus and those like him among the Pharisees and leaders of the Jews have been and are continuing to keep what they know to be true about Jesus a SECRET. How do I know? I know because Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” In other words, Nicodemus wouldn’t openly be seen visiting Jesus; he was keeping his visit to, association with, and belief in Jesus a secret. And I know because Nicodemus and those like him were not persecuted for their beliefs.
In this context, let’s re-evaluate the meaning of our gospel passage for today, starting with verses 19-21. Jesus talks about the light coming into the world – that’s Jesus. And people’s response to the light – their response to Jesus – will determine whether they are evil or good.
Makes sense, right? But when we apply this concept specifically to Nicodemus and those like him, something new emerges. In order for people to be judged as good or evil, they must have an encounter with the light. They must be given an opportunity to believe, to respond to the light with their hearts and words and actions in a way that demonstrates they are good. Folks, back at that time, when Jesus was still alive, there just weren’t very many people who KNEW who Jesus was and why he came into the world. Part of what Jesus was doing in his discourse with Nicodemus was telling him that there was great URGENCY for Nicodemus and others like him who believed, who KNEW, to share what they KNEW, to bring it out into the light instead of keeping it hidden. If Nicodemus didn’t share the news of the light, others would MISS the opportunity to know the light. So think back to John 3:16 for a second. In this context, Jesus words weren’t about saying who’s in and who’s out (which is the way I hear so many Christians USE this passage); rather, Jesus words were giving people who DO believe an IMPERATIVE for sharing their belief, for evangelizing. “You need to TELL people Jesus came to save them so they have the opportunity to be saved. You better tell people about the LIGHT so they know about the light and have the opportunity to EXPERIENCE the light.”
As I try to explain the significance of this passage for us…who live in a very different time and place than Nicodemus, I want to take you back to a question I asked a while ago…a question that connects our gospel reading to our Old Testament text.
If you were alive in the time of our Old Testament reading and someone you didn’t know approached you and was concerned about dying because she or he had been bitten by a serpent – and apparently hadn’t gotten the message about the way to keep on living – I’m curious, would you tell this someone what you know…would you tell this someone to look at the bronze serpent…or not?
That was the heart of what Jesus was telling Nicodemus. “Dude, you need to tell people what you KNOW so they will have an opportunity to LIVE.”
I know, I already said that the situation appeared to be a little more urgent in Jesus’ time than in ours – not very many people KNEW, not many people BELIEVED, not many people had EXPERIENCED the light, so there was great urgency in ensuring that every person who DID know would share what they knew about Jesus, would NOT give in to the temptation to keep Jesus a secret. And as I thought about the world we were born into and how it’s different from the world Nicodemus was born into, I realized something: our change in context has made the TEMPTATION to keep Jesus a secret stronger.
After all, when you tell yourself that:
- Everybody already KNOWS about Jesus; there’s really not much you can add to the conversation that will make a difference;
- You don’t KNOW enough about the Bible to share Jesus;
- You don’t speak well enough to tell other people about your faith;
- It’s the job of the Pastor, the paid professional, to reach new people;
- There are so many people out there who are better quipped, better gifted, to share their faith, so you don’t need to;
When you tell yourself any of these things, you’re really giving into temptation, a temptation that keeps other people in the dark and that even places YOU in the darkness. Because, let’s face it, the gospel writer John presented Nicodemus as being in the dark, as moving about under the cover of night, of darkness, so that Jesus’ words about “those who do what is true come to the light” apply to Nicodemus and to YOU. Part of “coming to the light” is sharing what you know to be true so that other people may know, as well.
Folks, now as much as any time in the past thousand years, the urgency of getting what we know out into the light is INCREASING. We may have been BORN into a world in which everybody knew about Jesus, but THAT..HAS…CHANGED. SO many people are growing up without that knowledge. And SO many people are even turning away…which, to me, anyway, suggests that what they have not REALLY encountered Jesus but rather have encountered some flawed human attempt to co-opt Jesus for worldly purposes.
And folks, I know this is one of the easiest temptations to give in to. Because we all feel inadequate to EXPLAIN God, to explain Jesus. We all feel like our KNOWLEDGE of the Bible is inadequate, like we wouldn’t be able to answer tough questions, because the Bible IS confusing. But here’s the thing, every one of you is uniquely equipped to talk about YOUR experiences with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with God. Whatever experience brought you to decide your faith is important enough to bring you to church and keep you involved in church. That’s all you need. And it’s a reminder of what God, what Jesus, provided in this passage to help you get through this temptation. Jesus told Nicodemus, Jesus told all of us, that what we are sharing is life, real life, abundant life, BETTER life than what the world offers. And what we are sharing isn’t time-limited but eternal. Jesus told Nicodemus that God because loved the world, God sent his Son so that the people of the world might have new life. If you truly believe that, don’t you WANT to share it?
Folks, all around us, as in the time of Moses, people are dying. Literally, everyone dies. Metaphorically, people are dying to the ways of this world long before their earthly bodies give out. Just as the people of Moses’ time had to gaze upon the serpent if they wanted to live, people of our time must gaze upon Christ, must look up to Him and experience Him and make a decision to follow Him, in order that they might have the new life God offers through Him. Will you give them a chance to see Christ? Will you help them look up? Amen.