Text: John 3:1-17
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Look where you want to go!” That is what the driver instructor kept saying to me when I was learning to drive. At the time I wondered what she was talking about, it seems pretty straightforward to look where you want the car to go when you are driving. You want to go straight, look straight. You want to turn left, look left. But I learned one day a little while later what she really meant. I was driving with my dad in rural Alberta in the middle of January and, while trying to make a left turn, put the car into the deep, snow-filled ditch. I realized as the car was getting pulled out of the ditch that I had stared right at the ditch once I realized that I might hit it. Sure enough, the car went right where I was looking.
If you watch the show “Canada’s Worst Driver” you can see how this works too. They teach people to “look where they want to go,” but most of the drivers on the show don’t get it. They end up driving right into the obstacles that they are trying to avoid because their eyes become fixated on them.
Looking where you want to go is great advice for driving, it could save your life, but when it comes to our Christians faith Jesus has a very different idea about where we should be looking. Earlier in the service we spoke/sang the gradual: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, let us allow our eyes to become fixated on Him not looking anywhere else. Especially, let us fix our eyes on Jesus as He hangs dying on the cross because that is where we see our salvation.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus is talking with a man named Nicodemus who is a Pharisee. This whole conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus in John 3 is really quite fascinating, but I’d like us to focus on something else that Jesus said while talking with Nicodemus. Just before the John 3:16 part Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.”
In the Old Testament book of Numbers in chapter 21 we find the story that Jesus is talking about here where Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness. The people of Israel were on their way to the Promised Land that God was giving to them, but it was not a straight forward trip. Because the people were scared to enter the Promised Land and did not trust God, God made them wander in the wilderness for 40 years. As they wandered around in the wilderness the people often got frustrated with God because they did not have things the way that they wanted them. On this occasion, like many other occasions, the people complained that they did not have any food or water. The people complained against Moses, their leader, and against God. “Why had God brought them out here to die in the wilderness?” they wondered to themselves. Well, God had something in mind for these complaining and rebellious people. He sent snakes, poisonous ones, “fiery” ones, deadly ones, and whenever anyone got bit with one of these snakes they died. A lot of people died. Finally, after many snake bites and deaths the people realized that they had sinned by complaining against God like this and not trusting Him to provide for them so they asked Moses to pray for them and ask God to take the snakes away. But, kind of surprisingly I think, God did not take the snakes away. Instead, God gave Moses some instructions. Moses was to make a snake out of bronze and set it up high on a pole, whenever one the of the people of Israel was bitten by one of the snakes they could look at the snake on the pole and they would live.
One of the remarkable things about that story is that God uses the very thing that was terrifying the people and even killing them as the source of their salvation. Snakes were biting the people and killing them so God told Moses to put a snake on a pole for the people to look at and be saved. They didn’t need to look where they wanted to go or look away from the danger, but instead God had them look right into the eyes of the very thing that they wanted to be saved from and see their salvation.
And now, in our Gospel reading today, we are called to do the same. As He talks with Nicodemus, Jesus says that just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness “so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Like the serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness to provide salvation to those who had been bitten and were dying, Jesus must be lifted up on the cross to provide salvation for us from sin and death. Jesus calls us to fix our eyes on Him, to look at Him lifted up on the cross, and see our salvation.
If we try to understand Jesus without the cross, if we try to ignore the ugliness of what happened there we will miss the point and understand Jesus entirely. The cross is everything. Looking where we want to go, fixing our gaze and our attention on something else, can’t save us. Positive thoughts can’t save us, generic faith that things will get better can’t save us, and distractions can’t save us. On Jesus dying on the cross can.
Nicodemus has seen many things from Jesus. He starts of his conversation with Jesus by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God because no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Nicodemus and his friends have seen the things that Jesus can do. They have seen the miracles of Jesus, the healings, and they are impressed. Surely only someone with God on his side could do the kinds of things that they have seen Jesus do. But Nicodemus does not understand the cross, he just sees the “signs,” the miracles. He looks at Jesus and sees a teacher from God, not a Saviour, because he hasn’t seen the cross yet. But he will. Nicodemus will see Jesus lifted up. In fact, he will be one of the ones to care for the lifeless body of Jesus when they take Him down from the cross. Nicodemus will help bury Jesus. Then, and only then, will Nicodemus truly understand Jesus. Only when we look at the cross when Jesus suffers and see the lifeless body of Jesus laid in the tomb do we see who Jesus really is. Only when we look at Jesus hanging there and dying do we see our salvation.
Like the people of Israel in the wilderness we have been bitten by the serpent. Satan, the crafty serpent who led Adam and Eve into sin in the Garden of Eden, has bitten us too with his deadly poison of sin. We sin daily in thought, word, and deed. We do not love our neighbour as ourselves and we do not love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We don’t obey God’s commandments. Just like the people of Israel out there in the wilderness we grumble and complain against God when things don’t go our way. Like them we don’t trust God to provide the things that we need and we worry that our daily needs won’t be met. Because of this we are dying. That is a fact that no one can deny, we are all dying. People might argue about the sinful part and suggest that we are all generally good people who try our best, but no one can deny death. That is a reality for all of us. We can try to run from it, but we will never escape. We are born, we live, we die. That is the undeniable pattern for human life. But Jesus has interrupted this pattern.
Jesus invites us to look at Him suspended up high from a cross, bleeding, and dying and see our salvation. Like the serpent in the wilderness He invites us to look at the very thing that terrifies us, the very thing that we are trying at all costs to avoid, death itself, and be saved. Jesus invites us to stare death in the face on the cross and know that through His death we are set free from death. He invites us to look as His death and see our own death happening right there. He has taken our death for us so that our own death becomes nothing to fear, we fall asleep to this world and wake up in the glorious, life giving, out-stretched, nail marked hands of Jesus who is risen from the dead.
So let’s fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, as He hangs on the cross dying. Because right there in His death we see our salvation. And when death comes around and rears its ugly head, whether it is our death or someone else’s, let’s fix our eyes on that cross and know that our Saviour bled and died for us so that we could live. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” and allowed Him to be lifted upon the cross and die for us so “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.