A Reading from the Second Book of Numbers (21:4-9)
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 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.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 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.
PSALM 107:1-3, 17-2
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3 He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
17 Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.
18 They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death’s door.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
20 He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.
21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.
22 Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (2:1-10)
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (3:14-21)
And just 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. “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. 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. 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. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“There seems to be no way out of the stalemate. Flesh and Spirit, as here represented by Nicodemus and Jesus, simply do not comprehend each other.” So observes New Testament scholar Gerard Sloyan in his commentary on today’s gospel reading.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the people, had come to Jesus by night. He had heard some amazing things about this teacher from Galilee, and he wanted to meet him personally. More than that, he wanted some answers. But, in the narrative that St. John gives us, Nicodemus left with more questions than he had when he came. What Jesus said made no sense to him: being born from above? being born of water and spirit? What did any of that mean? Flesh and Spirit simply did not comprehend each other.
Nicodemus was not at all a bad man, although Jesus seems to assert that there are such people. He was, as we find out, a good and honest man. Nicodemus simply did not understand. From that perspective, he serves, I think, as a good prototype for many people whom we encounter today.
As we try in various ways to share our faith, to share with others the Good News of God in Christ, we may encounter some people who consciously choose “darkness rather than light” – to use Jesus’ image. But by and large, we tend to encounter people like Nicodemus: people who simply do not comprehend why they need to be hearing the Good News: people who just simply are not interested, people for whom the message of Jesus seems to make no sense whatsoever, people who see no need for embracing and living the Christian faith.
“Well, the Christian faith provides a basic set of values by which we can live a good life.” “I already have what I think is a good set of values, and I live a pretty good life right now.”
“The Christian life provides an opportunity to be a part of a community of people who genuinely care for one another.” “I already have a good family and some wonderful, caring friends who provide me with all of that.”
The Christian life helps us to live in a way in which we can find genuine happiness and fulfillment.” “I’m pretty happy right now; and, if I’m not, I can always watch some TV show or read a self-help book or attend some ‘gospel-light’ mega-church to help me feel good about myself.”
“And the Christian life calls us to give completely of ourselves in order to find ourselves, to die to self in order that we might live, to embrace and follow the example of a crucified savior so that we might come to share in his resurrection.” “Huh? What in the world are you talking about? I never heard that in any self-help seminar or from any feel-good-about-yourself talk-show guest. I just don’t understand.”
Some of the struggle that we face in sharing our faith is the need to overcome what people think they know about Christians: the impression given by folks whose views are very narrow, whose approach is very fundamentalist, and who portray themselves as representing the Christian point-of-view, while their attitudes are anything but those of Jesus.
But increasingly, our struggle is one of trying to enable people to comprehend a message that is alien to them, a message that is alien to our culture, a message that is alien to what we are told over and over again in our society. So often in our public media, in what passes for entertainment, and in the circus that passes for political discourse, we are told that the key to happiness is to focus on and hold onto our own self-interest: that what we can have and cling to for ourselves is more important than giving of all that we have in order to serve the common good. We are told that denigrating and even verbally destroying those who differ from us is an acceptable way to live in a diverse society: taking priority over trying to understand one another, over trying to compromise with one another for the good of all, and over trying to recognize and acknowledge our own limitations and fallibility.
Directly contrary to these messages that people hear over and over again is the message of the gospel, the message that we have been sent to preach and to exemplify. It is the message of the one who allowed himself to be lifted up on the cross, sacrificing all that he had and all that he was for the sake of others. It is the message that we are called to follow his example in our lives. And it is the message that this is the way to genuine and lasting happiness and life.
But how do we get that message across? How do we counter the dominant messages that people hear preached to them in many different ways, day after day?
There is always some new program or catch-phrase or author or speaker who is ready to tell us how to do that. But the fundamental and most effective way still has not changed from the beginning of the church until now. From the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection onward, faithful Christians have dedicated their lives to lifting Jesus up to the world: as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert, as our faith has lifted the crucified and risen Jesus up before the world for nearly two millennia. It is by proclaiming him in word and example that we help the Nicodemuses of our time to come to understand and embrace something that they had not seen before, something that they had not comprehended before
That approach is not as exciting as clinging to the latest church evangelism initiative. It is not a quick and easy process, but then it wasn’t for Jesus either. This scene from the gospel according to John is not the only one in which Nicodemus appears. It is only the first of three. Later on, Nicodemus, still not a believer, challenges his fellow leaders at least to listen to Jesus: not to condemn him without a trial. That in itself was a gutsy move. “I don’t know whether he is right or not, but let’s not reject him outright just because he is saying something different, just because he is challenging the way that we think.” Predictably, he was met with ridicule. We just might be, too.
And at the end of the gospel, Nicodemus, the one who had come to Jesus by night, is finally ready to step out into the light. After Jesus’ death, he comes forward and asks for Jesus’s body in order to give it a decent burial. Nicodemus has, at last, understood. Notice that Jesus did not live to see it, but his patient work and patient witness enabled him to accomplish the work that God had given him to do.
The same is true for us. We, too, can do nothing more important than lifting Jesus up to others by our words and example. In most cases, we are not going to get quick results; but then, neither did Jesus. And like him, we might not even see the results in our lifetime. But then, we are not the focus. God is the focus. And if, in some way, the light of God, shining in Jesus Christ, comes to shine more brightly in the life of others, then we have fulfilled our mission. We have done our part in lifting him up so that others may see him and, in him, may find eternal life.