Monday, March 19, 2012

18 March 2012: Year B, Fourth Sunday in Lent. Texts: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, and John 3:14-21

Preaching: ValenOfGray

This week's readings focus on Salvation, on mankind's need for it, and in God's loving provision that we might have it. Covering not only one of the most powerful and contested doctrines in the Christian faith, but the single most known Bible verse is something I have been weighing over since it was assigned to me. I want to first say that with such varied opinions and insights on salvation, it will not be surprising that many of you will not agree with me and how I view or read this. I only hope that this message serves to contribute, if only a little, to the conversation. Anyway, on with the show!

Denominational Background: I was raised in a "Christ-less Christian" home until the age of 13-14, by way of life-changing events we began to attend a Southern Baptist church in my home state of Maine, where I began to receive my first feeding of scripture, doctrine, and faith. A decade later we now attend a independent baptist church.

Educational Background: Assoc. Degree in Computer Sciences, looking into doing an online degree program focusing in Theology.

Vocational Background: My father, my brother, and I all work in Law Enforcement (all in different departments across the area). I work night shift doing E-911/Fire/Police/EMS Dispatching specifically and have been for several years.

For as far back as I can remember, God seemed trivial or unnecessary to me. I never felt, at the age of 13, that I was really "missing" anything. Then in November of 2001, it was revealed to me that my loving, devoted father, had been a drunk and a drug user for decades. After his coming to God one morning on his knees, beginning to attend AA & NA (Alcoholics Anonymous & Narcotics Anonymous), and his starting on the life journey that is the 12 Steps, we began to attend Church as a family. Having not really "known" God or retaining much about God for much of my childhood, and yet being raised in a home where there was so much care and love, at first the need for God did not make much sense to me. If we had love for each other, then that was enough, right?

I tell you this because the doctrine of salvation has always held a special place in my heart ever since. When you revere a person like my father, who was always there, always sacrificing his own happiness and time for us, who I looked up to as the picture of what being a husband and father should be. Then, after all that, finding out that behind it all was a sad, depraved, empty person, it forces you to comprehend that on the inside, behind the outside person, lies what man is truly like. It makes you reevaluate much of what you thought you knew about the good-ness of the world.

God, however, does not experience such surprise. He knows the state of man, the sin that corrupts His Creation. Even so, even knowing all of mankind's flaws, failings, sin, and depravity, He still loves us. And so, instead of justly judging His creation, He made provision for our salvation, in Christ his son. One of my favorite radio preachers, Adrian Rogers, has said that "God loves His Son so much that he wants to give us many illustrations of His son, and God wants us to be saved so much that He gives us so many illustrations of salvation."

Throughout the Old Testament, we find illustrations, prophesies and types of Christ, and few are more explicit in this than the passage of the Brass Serpent.

Here we find the people of Israel, having had the Canaanites delivered to them, having been delivered themselves through the Exodus and throughout the journey by God through divine miracles, we find them beginning to speak against the very God who delivered them. The people who witnessed these miracles, who ate the manna of heaven cried out against God. God had given them everything they needed and more, but they did not trust God and still spoke against Him. This is a picture of man's own heart, even with his needs met, the sin-nature still haunts him and can cause him to sin against God.

As with any sin, their are consequences for its effects. The people believed that they were to die in the wilderness, contrary to everything God has told them, so God "took them at their word", and with fiery serpents righteously judged His people. However, the people came to Moses and repented, confessing their own sins and asking for forgiveness. God would then provide for their salvation from the serpents by having Moses erect a brass serpent on a pole for all that were bit to look upon and live - giving a picture of Christ on the Cross. In this, those that thought themselves above God might humble themselves, looking up not to the pole per se, but to God Himself to find remission of Judgment. Moses too shows a picture of Christ, as he made intercession for those who had until recently cried out against him, to love those that hate us.

Our reading in the Psalms shows us what the Israelites reaction should have been - to praise God for His goodness and for all He has done for them. Psalm 107 in its entirety is used to illustrate that God is faithful and gracious to His People, and that in return we must give glory and honor to Him, especially after having come to the other side of salvation, and possessing the knowledge of truth that the salvation experience brings. The second reading from Psalm 107 itself gives a picture of salvation - from affliction due to sins bearing their deathly fruit, to man's crying out to the Lord and being delivered, and then praising Him for the wondrous works He has done.

So we come to Paul and one of (in my opinion) the best passages about salvation in the New Testament. From the outset, Paul quickly outlines the initial human condition and predisposed presence of the sin nature, and the consequences of that sin - namely being dead in those sins and our longing for them. Even then, the critical word comes into play at the very beginning of verse 4 - But. From that, Paul expounds upon what God saw fit to do with Love for the very creation that by its nature seeks anything but God. Instead of judgment, Grace instead enters the picture. We see that by Grace, believers come to Christ, sitting with Him, that He might show us those "exceeding riches of His Grace in His Kindness". Compare this loving relationship with the Divine Creator against that original misery of those who in the first verses chose everything but God.

We then come to the more widely known portions of this passage, verses 8 & 9. Paul makes it clear that it is Grace, that free gift, alone that provides our salvation, that with our sin nature as it stands defies any attempt we may make in the flesh to work our own salvation. While I do very much love these two verses, too often verse 10 is forgotten - that after we are saved our work is not done, but only just beginning. Works are laid out for us to do after we come to be saved, that God's glory may be shown to man, and that more might come to know Him. It should never be forgotten that Faith without those works is dead, and a saving faith works toward God's ends and Will.

Lastly, we come to John 3, with Christ speaking to Nicodemus. Christ points back to the serpent erected by Moses as a picture of himself, making Nicodemus to ponder on the greater meaning behind His words. In the major verse 16, we find Christ giving words to the great love God has for His creation, and we find yet another very crucial word - that. God wanted us to draw to Him so much, to love Him and spend eternity with Him so much, and so God did something - He performed an action - the giving and sacrifice of His Son as a means for Grace to be imparted to His people. Christ makes poignant mention of condemnation, and man's current state, being that we are already condemned, loving the darkness (being that which is not of God) over the light. The need for something greater than the Law is made blatantly plain throughout the passage.

The law of the Old Testament was not enough to bring about a change in the hearts of man. Consider yourself, that you were driving on a road going a single mile over the speed limit, and were caught by an officer of the Law. Doing his duty, and as you were breaking the Law, he issues you a summons for you to face judgment and pay your fine. What attitude would any of us have toward that officer, toward the Law? Would you not act much as the Israelites did during their early days in their land, sputtering, murmuring, and complaining? Would you not come to curse the Law and those that enforce it?

However, think instead if you were driving, and found that you were speeding, and instead went to the officer patrolling the roadway, saying "Officer, I must confess to you that I was breaking the Law, please forgive my misdeed and give me my ticket." What if, the officer said back to you "Sir, I appreciate your honesty to me and yourself, and that you have the ability to see and accept the consequences of your actions. I am not here to make you miserable or ruin your day, but to keep people safe from others and themselves, and to let people enjoy life. You may go free, and do better next time." What would your reaction be? Instead of cursing the Law and he that enforces it, would not this show of grace change your view to that of praise and thankfulness that He who upholds the Law does so with a compassionate heart and not one of sheer judgment?

By way of the Law, man's heart grew hard toward God, filling with hatred toward a God who judged (albeit justly and righteously). The Law did not serve to bring man closer to God, but only separated us from Him. Grace, however, inspires an opposite reaction, one that is continuously shown to be the right one - one of thankfulness, praise, and reverence toward a God who has a love so great that it moved Him to action, and is reflected not only in the present, but throughout all of time itself.