Text: John 3:14-21
Date: Lent IV + 3/11/18
The account of Jesus’ night time teaching of Nicodemus is a sedes doctrinae or main seat of the doctrine of the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It therefore plays an important part in the Lenten forming of candidates new to the faith of the Church with the goal of baptism at the Easter Vigil. It is helpful today for you to know that our Gospel is from the end of Jesus’ teaching Nicodemus, saying, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” and, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3, 5). It seems, however, that we have a similar problem as last week hearing of the cleansing of the temple already at the beginning of John’s Gospel. For if you think purely in terms of the historic sequence of events one is left with questions, not the least of which is, how can Jesus teach about the sacrament of baptism when He hasn’t commanded it yet, until one of the very last things He said before His ascension? The answer from St. John is that baptism receives its power not only from the command to do it, but from the cross of Christ before it and especially the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan river. When a person is baptized he or she receives the new birth from above which is that new creation resulting from the redemptive work of Christ.
Water is everywhere in the first chapters of John. John the Baptist came as a witness, baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins and in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. When he reluctantly baptized the Lord, John saw the Holy Spirit descending on Him, the voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son.” It is because of Jesus’ baptism that John bore testimony that Jesus is the Christ. It is because of Jesus’ baptism that God has set apart all water in service of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the creating of the gift of faith in all who are baptized.
Water is everywhere in the first chapters of John. Interestingly John tells us it wasn’t only the Baptist doing the baptizing. The Evangelist tells us straight out, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing…and people were coming and being baptized” (Jn 3:22-23). It is only in chapter four that we are told, “Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (Jn 4:1-3).
We need to learn with Nicodemus that the rebirth of baptism is a matter of Jesus, His baptism for us and now our baptism in Him. So, Jesus points us to that dramatic incident we heard of in our first lesson from Numbers 21, The Bronze Serpent. For the whole point was to point forward to the cross of Christ. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Recall that “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people” because of their complaining, “and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” This brought about almost immediate repentance by the people, saying, “We have sinned,” and the request that the Lord “take away the serpents from us.”
This is a picture of our deadly sin. Notice, however, that the Lord did not take away the serpents but gave the people instead an antidote to their poisonous bite. In a similar way, while we depend on God, the Lamb of God, to take our sins away, sin still affects us. But we have been given an antidote to the poisonous, deadly bite of sin.
Moses was commanded to fashion an image of the very enemy, that is the fiery serpents, “and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” “So must the Son of Man be lifted up,” says Jesus, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
It worked! “If a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” But we’re not told whether everyone who was bitten bothered to look. So Jesus was lifted up on the cross. We are to look at the crucified Christ. That look is faith. When we do we not only live a few days longer. This is the first time our deliverance is termed “eternal life” in John’s Gospel. However not all will give that saving glance but ignore the cross and bear the burden of their sin alone. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The most beloved sentence in the Bible is known by all: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is to say God loved the world in this way. Not just sending a love note or Valentine telling us of His love, but by giving his only Son. Like the serpent on the pole of Moses, on the cross we see not only the tragic end of a good man. On the cross Jesus becomes like that serpent, that is, He takes our place and becomes the Sinner on our behalf. He dies our death, the wages of the sin of the world. In this way He, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world. In this way God so loved the world.
Jesus will say, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Whoever does not believe will be condemned.” You need to believe in Christ, baptized for you, crucified for you, risen from the dead for you. Which is to say if a person does not believe he will be condemned whether he is baptized or not! Look at the serpent. Look to the cross. And keep looking! For we’re not there yet. Whoever believes in him has eternal life, now and forever.