Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent (3/15/15)
Traditionally the 4th Sunday in Lent has been called “Rejoice Sunday.” In the middle of the season of Lent we take this Sunday to remember that even as we sorrow over our sin, we can rejoice because Jesus came!
Text: John 3:14-21
Theme: Rejoice! The Son of Man Was Lifted Up
When is the last time you thanked God for being a Christian in America?
The headlines we’ve see over the last few months about what’s happening in Iraq and Syria give us a good opportunity to thank God that none of us have to worry about literally losing our heads for showing up here today. We American Christians have a lot to be thankful for in our lack of physical persecution.
Christians have been persecuted since Christianity began. Jesus promised that if they persecuted him, they would persecute his followers. According to church tradition, all of Jesus’ original disciples but one were killed for their faith. But in the history of the persecution of the Christian Church, there is one ten year period that earned the inauspicious title, “The Great Persecution”.
It began on February 23, 303 AD. Faced with mounting pressure from without and within to return Rome to its traditional values and religion the Roman emperor Diocletian set the bull’s-eye on the Christians.
Churches were burned to the ground. All Christian services were banned. All across the Roman Empire those who professed to be Christians were told to show up and hand over their Bible’s to the Romans so that every Bible in Rome could be burned. Christians in high places lost their jobs. Christians with homes found themselves homeless. The clergy were thrown into jail.
One year later, in 304, the persecution escalated. Rome decided that every Christian had to make a public sacrifice to the Roman gods – and if you didn’t you would be killed.
And so Christians died. Countless Christians refused to turn their backs on Jesus and died because of it. Whole communities of Christians were wiped from the face of the earth in what has become known as “the era of the martyrs.”
And then in February of 313 a Roman named Constantine took control of Rome. Supposedly, he had a dream in which his destiny was tied to Christianity, so he signed into law the Edict of Milan which formally ended “The Great Persecution.” And just ten years later, Constantine would make Christianity the official religion of Rome.
And then an interesting thing happened. Closet Christians began to come out of the woodworks. Christians who had hidden their faith for a decade, suddenly started professing Christ again. Christians who had caved to the pressure and pretended to worship Roman gods, started worshiping the true God again. And from this sprang one of the first post-persecution problems in the church.
You see, those who had stuck with Christ (displaying strong faith) – those who had lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters because they refused to turn their backs on Christ – they didn’t look too kindly on those weak Christians who had turned their backs on Christ to save their own skin. They didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
So some teaching, some healing had to happen.
Those Christians who had faced persecution and demonstrated incredibly strong faith needed to be reminded of an incredibly important truth. It is not the strength of our faith that saves us. It is the object of our faith that saves us – a lesson Jesus teaches very powerfully and clearly in John chapter 3.
The Gospel I just read from John 3 is a portion of Jesus’ midnight conversation with a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a fascinating man in the Bible. He is a man who seems to have had faith in Jesus (he’s one of the men that helped give Jesus a proper burial after his death on the cross) – but it appears that this faith was pretty weak to start with.
John tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee – and it’s no secret that Jesus wasn’t at the top of the Pharisees “People We Love” list. But Nicodemus wasn’t ready to write Jesus off like the rest of the Pharisees. He was drawn to Jesus. He wanted to talk to Jesus, to learn from Jesus. But, perhaps understanding the persecution he might face if he displayed genuine curiosity in Jesus, he comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, in secret.
He came to Jesus and essentially started the conversation with the classic hedging: “So I know a guy, Jesus – a guy who wants to know more about you. It appears from all these miracles you’re doing that you must be someone from God.” He didn’t even ask a question. He just floated this out there and hoped Jesus would bite, hoped that Jesus would respond.
And Jesus did respond. He did what we can’t – he saw the weak faith in the heart of Nicodemus, and he told Nicodemus what he needed to hear.
And what Jesus says to Nicodemus here in John 3 is one of the most beautiful and clear explanations of how one gets to heaven in the whole Bible (John 3:16, the one passage that 99% of Americans know). It’s God’s Great Exchange, the beauty of the whole Bible boiled down to one short, to the point, conversation.
How are you going to be saved, friends?
Is it going to be based on how much you love Jesus? How well you love Jesus? How long you’ve loved Jesus? How transparently you love Jesus? Are you going to be saved because your faith was just strong enough? Are you going to be saved because your faith was stronger than the next guy?…
Most of you here today are members here at Christ Our Savior. You come to church on a regular basis, you volunteer, you read your Bibles at home, you pray regularly. Do you ever find yourself having some of those thoughts that the prodigal son’s older brother had – you know the one who didn’t run off, turning his back on Jesus to live a life of sin? You’ve been working hard. You’ve been growing your faith by studying God’s word. You’ve been living your life deliberately praising God through the choices you’ve made. That’s got to count for something extra, right? You ought to have at least a little bit of pride in how hard you’ve worked at serving God, right? You may not be perfect, but at least you are trying. You may not be perfect, but you are pretty good. Some of the same thoughts those persecuted Christians in Rome were thinking.
Maybe some of you aren’t so strong in faith. Maybe some of the stories we read and talk about here are brand new to you, or just the second or third time you’ve heard them. Maybe you are like Nicodemus – not quite sure about this whole Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus thing. Maybe you have some questions, some doubts, some worries, some fears.
Today Jesus answers that question (the question that ought to be the single most important question in our lives): how are you going to be saved? When you die and are standing at the gates of heaven and God asks you, “Why should I let you in?” What’s the right answer?
“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
How will you be saved?
Is it because your faith is so rock solid? Is it because your faith-life is so much more apparent than the next guy?
I sure hope not. Because I, even a full time servant of God, have to confess that more often than I would like to admit, I find myself clinging to the darkness of sin. I have faith in Jesus. I have what I would consider strong faith in Jesus, but the strength of that faith doesn’t matter a lick when it comes to walking through the gates of heaven. For all of the times I’ve stood up for Jesus in faith, there are just as many, if not more times, when doubt, fear, worry, and selfishness made me cower in the dark corners of sin – hoping that no one sees.
And I have to imagine Nicodemus felt the same way. He was a Pharisee, one of those people who followed the Pharisaical book of over 400 “do’s” and “do not’s,” one of those people who dedicated their lives to serving God, and they desperately wanted that to count for something – but it didn’t, not when it comes to getting into heaven, it didn’t.
You see, when it comes to answering this question – the single most important question in the world: how will you be saved – it doesn’t matter how strong your faith is. It doesn’t matter if you have the courageous faith of a 4th century martyr, or the timid faith of a fourth century closet Christian. It doesn’t matter if you have the well-informed, powerful faith of a John or the weak and timid faith of Nicodemus. It doesn’t matter if how much or how little sweat and blood you have poured into your faith life. It’s not the strength of your faith that saves you. It’s the object of your faith that saves you.
No, it’s like that snake on a pole in the middle of the desert we read about in our first lesson today. No one got to say, “I looked at the snake first. I looked at the snake more intently than you. I looked at the snake better than you!”
No, they simply looked at the snake and lived, because the object of their faith (the promise God connected with that snake) is what saved them.
And just like that snake was lifted up in the desert, so the Son of Man was lifted up.
Just imagine what this conversation must have meant to Nicodemus when he looked up at Jesus hanging on the cross. Maybe right here in John 3, when Jesus is kind of vaguely talking about the Son of Man having to be lifted up like the snake in the desert, it didn’t all click for Nicodemus. But when he stood there looking at Jesus lifted up on a cross, did it click? Did that lightbulb go off? He’s up there, so I can have life – eternal life.
It’s as easy as looking and believing. We simply look at Jesus, raised up on a cross for me, and we have eternal life, because it is the object of our faith that saves us – not the strength of our faith.
And the object of our faith is quite simply the greatest love story ever told.
God looked at me, someone who is weak, stumbling, and far from lovable, someone whose life is filled with the evil deeds of darkness, and he loved me. In his love he threw caution to the wind, he threw his Son in front of the bus, so that he could go on loving me forever.
Jesus looked at people like us, sinners like you, me, and Nicodemus and he loved us. He would stop at nothing to make us his bride forever in heaven.
Today is “Rejoice Sunday.” We are in the middle of Lent a time of repentance. A time of inward looking as we look at our hearts, our lives of faith, and see just how far short we will fall from heaven if it depends on us. And so today we need this beautiful and all-important reminder that while it is good to look at our hearts and see where we could use some work, we can never forget that there comes a point when we need to stop looking at ourselves and look at the Son of Man lifted up on the cross.
Today we get to rejoice because of the incredibly liberating feeling of stepping out of the darkness. Stepping into the light where all our evil deeds are exposed, to the light of the truth that God loves us anyway.
Today we get to rejoice because of the incredibly liberating feeling of having the weight of our sin, the weight of having to find a way to get to heaven, being completely lifted off our shoulders by the Son of Man – that title for Jesus. That title Daniel and Ezekiel used for the Savior of the world.
Today we rejoice because the Son of Man was lifted up. Look to him and live.