Rev. Matthew Zickler’s Sermon for March 12, 2017

March 12, 2017
John 3:1-17

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read, especially those famous words “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

As we look at those words, words which we have all heard so many times, and as we look at the lessons as a whole for this week, what do we see that they’re all about?  They’re all about faith, aren’t they?  Abraham hears a promise from God that God is going to bless all nations through him, that he is going to be the father of many nations.  And what happens?  He believes God and it is counted to him as righteousness, as Paul points out in our reading from Romans.  And as a note when Paul talks about that faith being counted to him as righteousness, that word there for counted is a sort of accounting term.  Literally it comes from the Greek word Logos, which is the word used in John 1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  So, in a sense this righteousness is worded it Abraham.  It bespeaks Abraham righteous as we say in the hymn “Thy Strong Word.”  Or to come back to the accounting sense, if you look at all of the unrighteousness that Abraham has built up in His account, the Divine bookkeeper comes and cancels that out by the cross, and through the cross adds all of Christ’s righteousness.  And as I say all of that, then you can see that Paul talks about not only Abraham, but your faith too.  These readings are about faith.

As we think about faith then, we have to say that we have our ideas, but what does Scripture say?  In other words, what is faith really?  Well, if you remember what the writer to the Hebrews says, he says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is what?  It’s assurance.  It’s certainty.  In other words, God wants your faith to be certain.  In fact, to come back to Paul for a moment, we can see this there.  Look at what Paul says in the Epistle Lesson.  He says, “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring.”  You see, what Paul is saying there is that when you look at the Law, there’s not certainty, but with the Gospel, there is.  In other words, when you look at what God commands of you, there is no certainty you’ll receive eternal life.  Why?  Is it because the Law has no promise?  No God’s commands have a promise, for sure.  What is the promise?  The promise of the Law is, “do this and you will live.”  Now, if I tell you that if you keep God’s commandments, then you’ll go to heaven, are you going to be certain about where you’re going?  You won’t, right?  Why not?  Because you haven’t done them!  You haven’t kept them!  Sure, you might feel like overall you’re not that bad, but when it comes down to brass tacks, you just haven’t done what God says you have to do.  So where is your certainty?  Where is your assurance?  It’s gone, right?  And so, the certainty comes by the promise of the Son.

In fact, as we broaden this a bit, what does that faith trust in?  Think about what Jesus said, “God sent His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life,” right?  So, this faith believes in Jesus.  And if it believes in Jesus, then it believes what Jesus says, doesn’t it?  By that I mean that if we believe in someone who died and rose again, that seems like we should believe what He said, doesn’t it?  And how do we know what He said?  It’s in the Scripture, it’s in the Bible.

So, as we think about this faith in relation to certainty.  As we think about this faith in relation to it not being about what we do, then when we hear what Jesus says, should we look to that, or to ourselves?  Well, if we’re not looking to ourselves for good works, and we’re looking to Jesus for certainty, where should we look for understanding when it comes to how to look at the world and God?  Should we believe whatever we want?  Or should we believe the Scriptures?  We should believe the Scriptures, right?

This week I was listening to Issues, Etc., that I’ve mentioned a few times.  And as I was listening, the pastor who was a guest made a statement that really hit this home well.  He said that every time we come to the Scriptures, we should come assuming we are wrong.  Every time we come to the Scriptures, we should assume we are wrong.  Now when I heard that, at first I thought he was taking away certainty.  I thought he was saying that when we read them we should assume that we’re not getting what we’re reading.  But then I realized what he was really saying.  He wasn’t saying that at all.  Instead he was saying that when we come to hear what God’s Word says, we should be more certain that that word is correct than we are of ourselves.  In other words, we should check all of our baggage at the door about what we think God is like, we should cast aside all of our preconceived notions about how we think Jesus would respond in a particular situation or circumstance, and we should hear what the word has to say.  We should assume that we’re wrong and the Bible is right.  Christians, this is faith.

In fact, as I say this then, I’m reminded of a comment that someone made in a confirmation class.  We had gone through the whole class, and this gentleman still had some questions.  In particular, he was having trouble with understanding Closed Communion.  In many ways, this was the last hang up he had to becoming Lutheran.  So, he and I spent some time talking about what Paul says in I Corinthians Ten and Eleven.  We talked about how Paul says there that when you partake of the food of an altar you participate in that altar, and how that means you put your OK on what the officiants of that altar confess.  Then we talked about how Paul makes the point that you can take the body and blood of Jesus to your harm, and we don’t want people to receive it to their harm.  And after we looked at it or a while, we got done and he said, “OK, well, I believe this.  But I don’t like it.  Is that OK that I don’t like it?”  And I said, “Yes!  That’s faith!”  Faith clings to that word even when it doesn’t like what the word says.  It says, “Lord, I trust you even more than I trust myself, even more than I trust my experiences.  Even more than I trust how I feel.”

And faith trusts that promise of God.  It looks to what God says, it looks outside of itself, it looks outside of me and it looks to God.  I was reading this week in the Old Testament in the book of 2 Kings, and I was reminded of a wonderful example of faith from that.  Faith that you could say understood in a sense that God sends His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.  Of course, this is the Old Testament, so Jesus isn’t explicitly there, but the story I read still showed a great amount of trust in the Lord.  It was the story of King Hezekiah.

In the story, Rabshakeh, a representative of Assyria came to taunt the Kingdom of Judah, telling them how the Assyrians were about to come in and conquer them.  He was mocking them and jeering at them, jibing them all the more about how Hezekiah was going to tell them to trust in the Lord, but that Hezekiah was going to be embarrassed pretty soon, because the Assyrians were going to come in and take over.  And the Lord wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.  Well in the midst of this Hezekiah had faith.  He prayed to God, and He sent a representative to go talk to Isaiah the prophet.  And Isaiah the prophet told Hezekiah not to be afraid.  He told him, in fact that the Lord said He would destroy the Assyrians.  And so, Hezekiah believed the Lord.  And the Lord did just what He said He would do.

And as we hear these words, of Jesus we have the same promise as well.  Jesus promises to destroy our enemies too.  Now, to be clear, who are our enemies?  Are our enemies foreign kings?  Are they just people we don’t like?  Are they people that are trying to hurt us?  Well, those all may manifest our enemies at times, but our real enemies are sin, death and the devil.  And these have all infected us.  Or I should say by the Devil’s taunts, temptations, and deception we have been infected with sin that will lead to death.

And as we think about this as an infection this way, think about what Jesus said just before those words we are looking at.  He said, “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.”  And what He is referencing there is when the Israelites are in the desert, after they have been freed from Egypt and they’re wandering in their forty years.  And they get to a point where they are grumbling as they often did, like I said last week.  And while they’re grumbling God gets fed up with them, and he causes serpents to come out of the ground and bite them.  And these snakes are venomous, so the people getting bitten are dying.  So, they petition Moses and Moses intercedes for them before God.  So, the Lord tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake on a staff.  And whoever looks at it will be healed.

Christians, Jesus is our bronze snake.  See, we now have the venom of sin in us.  And we’re going to die.  That’s the sinful flesh Jesus is talking about when He says that that which is born of flesh is flesh.  But our Bronze Snake has created treatment for us.  He has killed the serpents through His cross and in His resurrection.  And He gives us treatment for the infection.  If we change how we think of this a bit and think of it more like a cancer, we could say that He’s the doctor.  He comes with healing for us.  He performs surgery to remove the tumor—surgery He’s qualified to perform by His death and resurrection—but He needs to give us ongoing weekly treatment.  We’ve had the baptism.  We’ve been born of water and the Spirit.  We’ve had he tumor removed.  We are no longer flesh, but spirit.  But we still need the radiation of the Word spoken to us that we would hear it and believe it.  We need the chemotherapy of the body and the blood which is medicine of immortality.  And all of this keeps that flesh at bay sustaining faith.

This is what faith clings to then.  It clings to those promises of Jesus.  It clings to our Bronze Snake.  And it is certain.  It clings to His Word which says that we shall not perish but have eternal life.  Faith looks to that certainty.  We so often don’t think we’re doubting, but speak of the strength of our faith.  We shouldn’t.  Our faith is weak.  Yes, we believe, but Lord help our unbelief.  And He will.  He helps us to cling not to ourselves, but to Him.  To cling not to our goodness, but to His.  To cling not the strength of our faith, but to the strength of His forgiveness and love, that forgiveness and love which He gives to us in His gifts of Word and in His body and blood.  That’s faith, it looks up to the One lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness.  And as it looks to Him with certainty, we are healed.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Matthew Zickler