Monday, September 14, 2009

For God Sent Not His Son Into The World To Condemn The World; But That The World Through Him Might Be Saved

Today’s first reading is taken from Numbers 21:4b-9.

When the king of Edom refused to allow the Israelites to travel through his country, they had to go around it, which delayed them on their journey to the Promised Land. Moreover, the route was difficult. So the people became impatient and directed their anger against Moses, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the desert? There is no bread and no water! And we detest this miserable stuff!” The “stuff” was manna, which was a gift from God.

So, God punished them, by sending poisonous snakes among them. The Hebrew word for “poisonous” is “seraph” which also means “burning”. It refers to the pain one feels when bit by one of these serpents. But the word also refers to the angels that serve God in heaven (cf. Isaiah 6:2). So, the use of this word further emphasizes that God sent the snakes not only as punishment, but as a warning.

On this occasion, the people are quick to repent. They acknowledge that they have sinned against God, and they are genuinely contrite. They ask Moses to pray, asking God to remove the snakes. But instead, God provided a way for everyone whom the snakes had bitten to be cured. Moses had a bronze serpent made, and mounted it on a pole. Those who looked up at the bronze serpent were healed. Those who did not, died.

This story is very important for Christians. Jesus referred to it when he was talking to his disciples about his impending death (John 3:14). Jesus compared himself with the bronze serpent on a pole, and his death on the cross is a true image of the bronze serpent in the desert.

Just as God did not remove the serpents in the desert, he does not remove all sin from the world. Instead, he provides a way for everyone to be cured from the consequences of sin. Like the Israelites, we have to look upon the cross. We must have faith in Jesus, who died on the cross for our sake. He suffered the punishment that we deserve. It is up to each of us to accept the grace he has won for us by taking upon himself the burden of our sins.

Today’s Second Reading is taken from Philippians 2:6-11.

Jesus did not have to seize the same honor as God the Father. It was his by right. But he did not consider his equality with the Father as something to be coveted. Instead, he laid aside all appearances of his divinity, giving up his place of honor in heaven to become a servant. He left his home in heaven, but he never had a home on earth that he could call his own. He gave up the glory that was his at the right hand of the Father, and took on the form of a man, like us in all things except sin.

Jesus' identification with his human sisters and brothers moved him to obedience to the will of the Father, emptying himself of any visible sign of his divinity and dying on the cross of Calvary to remove from us the burden of our offenses against God.

Yet, it is because of this that God raised just from death to life with him in the highest place of honor. The name which he was given, which is “higher than any other name” is Kyrios, which is translated “Lord.” It was the official title of the Roman Emperors, and it reflects the truth that Jesus is the Lord of Heaven and of Earth, to the glory of God the Father.

The third chapter of the Gospel of John opens with a long conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and prominent leader of the Jews, who came to him in the middle of the night, presumably because he wanted to keep his visit secret. The dialogue opens with these words of Nicodemus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him." From there, Jesus the teacher leads the dialogue.

Today’s gospel takes up the dialogue at John 3: 13-17.

The one person who creates a bridge between heaven and earth is Jesus, who was in heaven but left his place at the right hand of the Father to take human form and human flesh , becoming at that moment both Son of God and Son of Mary. After his death and resurrection, Jesus returned to Heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father. Now, he lives in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus then makes a reference to an incident in the Old Testament (Numbers 21:8-9). The people of Israel were wandering in the desert and they complained against God, who sent a plague of serpents to punish them for the bad attitude. The snakes bit and killed many people. Then God told Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze, and to place it at the top of a pole. Whenever people who had been bitten looked up at the bronze serpent, they would be healed.

Sin affects us in much the same way as the bite of a venomous snake. But God has provided a way to save us from sin and spiritual death. Jesus said that he would be lifted up like the bronze serpent. He was referring, of course, to his crucifixion and death on the cross. For the Israelites the way to be healed of the snake bite was to look up at the bronze serpent. The only way we can be freed from the burden of our sins is to look up at Jesus on the cross, and allow our sorrow for giving in to the urgings of our human nature to lead us, by his grace, to repentance, and from repentance to forgiveness. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is effective to take away the sins of every sinner, no matter how dreadful. But there is one exception to the axiom, “Nothing is impossible for God”. It is impossible for Jesus to forgive the sins of someone who does not want to be forgiven and does not express contrition for sin. The Creator gave us the gift of free will. We can disobey God’s will, even knowing the consequences. He will never cease to give us grace to move us toward repentance, but he will not heal us of our wounds unless we seek mercy and forgiveness. We must look up at the Savior on the cross.

John 3:16-17 may well be the best known couplet of verses in the Bible. It expresses in just a few words the reason God sent his Son to die on our behalf. Many a preacher and teacher has written great sermons and lectures, and many a composer wonderful musical settings, but today, let us close simply with the words of the gospel in its most familiar form:

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;
but that the world through him might be saved.

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