“Men loved the darkness instead of light.” What a word. It’s not that men haven’t seen the light. They have. They chose the dark. The proof’s in the pudding: “their deeds were evil.”
More than just choosing darkness, men actively hate the light. They hate the light because it ruins their lives. “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” It’s simple selfishness. If I stand in the light, people can see me. They can see my foulness. They can see the intentional nature of my sin. I don’t just sin out of ignorance. I don’t just make mistakes. I make decisions. With sound mind and body I decide to do or not do. Knowing full well what my parents say, what my teachers say, what my pastors say, what God says, still, I choose the dark and shun the light.
You have to work hard at it to be this wicked. Israel did. Numbers 21 tells us their complaints: “There’s no water. There’s no bread. This food stinks. Moses stinks. God hates us.” They say that as they collect manna each morning and eat God’s quail. They say that as God brings forth water from a rock. They say that as Moses lifts his arms and the waters of the Red Sea divide and then crush Pharaoh. They say that as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire guide them through a wilderness. They say that as the clothes on their back and the shoes on their feet don’t wear out. No wonder John uses a word for wicked that we bring into English as “foul.” Disgusting. Out of bounds.
And so Jesus says, “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” Jesus could be called for piling on. “Whoever,” that’s indefinitely inclusive: everyone whatsoever. “Stands condemned.” Jesus says, “It’s done then and remains done now.” “Already.” It would be enough for Jesus to say, “Whoever doesn’t believe in me stands condemned.” He says “already.” It’s done. Now. Finished. Condemned. Dead.
Paul says that in Ephesians: “when we were dead in transgressions.” Not sort of dead. Not kind of dead. Not like being dead. Dead. Completely dead. Bereft of life. Stone cold. Dead. In sins. Your sins. They kill you. More, they condemn you. When you sin you walk in darkness. You choose against the light. You hate God. You hate Jesus, the Light of the world.
So God sends punishment. To Israel he sent snakes, poisonous snakes. He fuels our fears. He takes us back to the Garden where a snake first introduced us to death. Now everywhere we turn in this desert, we see snakes. Big ones. Small ones. Skinny ones. Fat ones. All slimy. All venomous. All looking for you. To kill you.
And it’s not random. It’s not tragic. It’s not unfortunate. It’s not accidental. It’s deliberate. You sinned; you die. You chose darkness; the light will condemn you for who you are: the grumbling, impatient sinner. You reap what you sow. You sow sin; you reap death. And not a pleasant death. Death by snakebite, poison, infecting, spreading, stinging. The Israelites found relief eventually: death stops the sting. But Jesus means the sting that never stops, the fires and torments of hell, next to which snakebites pale in comparison. Perhaps you’d beg for them instead of the other.
Numbers 21 today shows us that God does this. He punishes sin, your sin. Israel “just” grumbled and complained. They got impatient. They wanted the Promised Land, you know, the milk and honey. They were sick of waiting. “Give it to me now, Lord!” Of course, we know there’s no “just” with sin. These sins showed active distrust in God. They set aside the first commandment, giving God all fear, love, and trust, and then went on to misuse his name – “You liar!” – followed by despising the Word preached to them and dishonoring, angering, and disobeying those in authority. Bound up in it all was a covetous heart that says, “I want what I want when I want it and no one, not even God can stand in my way.” So God killed them to death in the desert. Just as sin kills us to death, “Death came to all men because all sinned,” Paul writes.
How quickly our sin piles up. How quickly our hatred of God and his light gets exposed. How quickly our doom falls upon us. How suddenly God casts things in a different light. Paul says something stunning in Ephesians 2: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Paul takes us to judgment day, when God gathers the nations before him, when he raises the dead, and he shows us those going to heaven and those going to hell. It’s as if on that day, God points to the ones on his right, those going to heaven and says, “Look at what I’ve saved. Look at it. This is what I had to work this. This! I saved this!”
Everything God has done, is doing, and will do, is about God pointing to what he does and saying, “You can’t even begin to imagine. You can’t compare my grace, my mercy, my love, my kindness, my Christ, with anything.” Your best? Garbage and rot next to Jesus. Your worst? Only serves to emphasize, uplift, and exalt Jesus all the more.
That God did this: when we were dead in sins, our sins, our fault, our miserable fault, God gives us something to look at, he gives a sign with a promise attached, he gives us a sacrament. In response to sin, God brings his word to a thing and makes it a means to save. “Look at God’s serpent and you will live,” Moses said. Jesus doesn’t use the word “look.” He uses the word “believe.” Five times in verses 12-21 Jesus. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus puts an equal sign between the bronze serpent and himself. God will lift him up, crucified. By necessity, it has to be this way. God attaches a promise to the flesh and blood of his Son: “In this you will live.” And a sinful people have a place to look, to trust, and to live.
Nicodemus couldn’t understand. Jesus calls this “heavenly things,” things that can only be believed: rebirth, the Spirit blowing like the wind, the Son of Man coming from heaven. These are the incredibly foolish words of God Paul talked about last week in 1 Corinthians. But they are the only thing we have to hang our hats on. They are the only thing sure and certain, because Jesus says faith equals eternal life. These promises are a possession that comes with faith, not just the guarantee of some future thing. You believe, you live. Now.
This is what Jesus brings into the world. Read John’s Gospel and it’s Jesus enfleshing God’s promises left and right, Jesus bringing all things to himself. The Word that created the world creates salvation. He tabernacles among us, dwelling among us like the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, a temple he says he can destroy and rebuild – the resurrection! He lets John point to him and say, “Look, the Passover Lamb is here, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” He calls himself Jacob’s ladder, the stairway to heaven. He says Israelites ate manna and died, but now, now he has bread that brings everlasting life: his flesh, his blood, him! Now he says, “I am the bronze serpent. I am the one place that God says you can look and live. God attaches a promise to me. I am your sin so that you can be my righteousness.”
And again, God is deliciously and indefinitely inclusive: “Whoever,” “everyone,” “all.” This isn’t universalism. If someone didn’t look at the bronze serpent, they died in that desert. If someone refuses to look at, to believe in Jesus, they too will die, even though he is God’s gift for the world and the sins of the world. God’s words about sin are just as universal as his words about forgiveness. They are for all people.
Those are God’s words, from the lips of Jesus. They produce all the hope we can ever have. We can’t rely on our works, they stink. We can’t rely on our efforts, we’re dead. We need hope from some outside source. So God brings it. He lifts up his Son before our eyes, like the serpent, nailed to the tree, and says, “My Son, cursed for you.” Now there’s hope. “Maybe I don’t have to die.” Then he lifts up his Son before our eyes, like those Israelites who looked to the snake, marked by nails and spear, but alive, resurrected, and says, “M son, vindicated for you.” Now there’s hope. “Maybe I too will live.”
And it’s not maybe. Faith equals life. Our Lutheran confessions talk about this. “Faith makes a distinction between those who obtain salvation and those who do not obtain it. Faith makes the distinction between the worthy and the unworthy, because eternal life has been promised to the justified. Faith justifies.” Jesus: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”
God speaks these words to us. God baptizes us with these words. God thrusts these words into our mouths and down our throats in the sacrament. There the Holy Spirit blows back and forth like the wind, rustling our hair, cooling our souls, stopping our jackhammering hearts. He shows us what God had to work with: poor, miserable sinners. He shows us what God has done: lifted up his Son in our place. He shows us what it means: life, for you, through Jesus. The resurrection of the body, the life everlasting. Even when you were dead in your transgressions. Because God loved the world. Which means he loved you. Amen.