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The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Num. 21:4-9, Eph. 2:1-10 & Jn. 3:14-21

I’ve heard some people say that the God of the New Testament is not the same God as the God of the Old Testament. They say that the God of the Old Testament is a violent and vengeful God, whereas the God of the New Testament is a compassionate and loving God. And when we look at the contrast between the God depicted in the reading from the Book of Numbers, and the God mentioned in the reading from the Gospel of John, we can see why people might think this way.

Because in the reading from the Book of Numbers, God sent poisonous snakes among the Israelites in the desert, which killed many of the Israelites. But in the Gospel of John, God loved the world so much, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him would not perish. So if it is the same God, why is there such a difference in the two representations of Him?

Well the first thing we have to remember, are the circumstances leading up to the event described in the Book of Numbers. God had already rescued the Israelites from slavery and oppression in Egypt. Then when they complained to Moses, that they would rather have stayed in Egypt, than die of starvation in the wilderness, God gave them manna and quails, to satisfy their hunger. Then when they complained to Moses again that they would rather have stayed in Egypt, than die of thirst in the wilderness, God gave them water from the rock at Horeb. But even after all of this, the people still did not put their trust in God,but they made the golden calf to worship, when they thought that Moses had deserted them. God must have been at His wit’s end with the Israelites. But He still didn’t abandon them to die at the hands, or should I say at the fangs, of the snakes.

Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites, and God responded. Mind you, in His response God, did not take away the snakes. But He did provide a cure for those who were bitten by them; a fiery serpent that was to be raised up on a pole. The presence of this raised serpent did not guarantee that someone would not be bitten by one of the snakes, but it did guarantee that if an individual was bitten, all they had to do was look at the raised serpent and they would be healed.

We can see a parallel between the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole in the Book of Numbers, and Jesus lifted up on the cross in the Gospel of John. In the same way that God did not get rid of the snakes, He also did not abolish sin. But just as the Israelites were healed by the bronze serpent on the pole, so people are ‘healed’ of their sin by Jesus on the cross.

When we talk of sin, we can describe it as “the act of people choosing their own way and ignoring God”–much like the ancient Israelites continued to do when they were in the wilderness. That is why Paul said:

“Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

If God is the giver of life, every act that ignores God is sin. When we try to find life in ourselves and our own desires, we cut ourselves off from the Giver of life.

This was basically the message from today’s passage in the Letter to the Ephesians. That before coming to faith in Christ, the Ephesians were dead, that is, cut off from God because of their sins. They had followed their own passion and desires. They had been more concerned with worldly pleasures than with finding God, and as a result, had been separated from God.

But today’s passage is also about value and hope. Without God humanity has little of either; but with God, humanity is given immense hope and lasting value.1 The concern of the author of Ephesians, was to contrast the plight of humanity without God, with the privilege of humanity with God and in Christ. Jesus identified with the plight of humanity, and he became one with humanity, in the process taking on the penalty of sin for the sake of humanity.2

Through baptism, we identify with Christ’s death and resurrection. We are baptised into Christ’s death and cleansed from sin through his death. As a result, we are “resurrected”, born again to lead a new life, where we are free to choose whether we want to cut ourselves off from God, or to give ourselves over to God, and humbly accept the gift of His grace, which we do through faith in Jesus Christ.

But even though this “new” age, has been ushered in with the death and resurrection of Christ, the “old” age still exists where we can be led astray from God. We still face the same temptations that the Ephesians faced. We are still attracted to the glitz and glamour of the world, which can turn our attention away from God. As Christians, we must always distinguish between life with, and without God.

That means distinguishing between what belongs to life as God created and gave for our enjoyment, and what belongs to the world, as an attempt to find life in one’s self without God.3 At first glance the two may seem the same — all humans have the same needs and drives, but the two approaches are very different.4 The world that God created leads to worship of God, but the world that human beings subvert to their own purposes, leads to the wrath of God.5

The author of Ephesians talked about this wrath, when he referred to the Ephesians as being:

“by nature children of wrath”,

because the focus of their lives had previously been on the passions and pleasures of the flesh. By focussing on such things, they had turned their attention away from God, and therefore separated themselves from God, much like the Israelites in the wilderness, who had continually turned their attention away from God as well.

But now the Ephesians had been saved from the wrath of God. They were no longer separated from God. By God’s grace, and because of the great love He had for them, they had been saved through the death of Jesus Christ. All they needed to do, was to have faith–that is, to believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. And this is what John was saying when he wrote in his gospel:

“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.”

Out of the great love which He had for the world that He created, God sacrificed Jesus Christ, even though the world had largely turned away from Him, so that those who believed in Jesus would be reconciled to God. Jesus had not been sent into the world by God to condemn the world, but to save the world. All that was required was for people in the world to believe in Jesus Christ. Those who didn’t believe in Jesus had already been condemned, because they had already chosen to turn away from God, and had therefore separated themselves from God.

The same challenge exists for us today that existed both for the Israelites in the wilderness, and for the Ephesians. We can turn our attention to God, the giver of life, and give ourselves over to Him to do His will, as He intended for each of us; or we can attempt to find life in ourselves without God, to find our own purpose, and risk being separated from Him. The choice is ours.

The Lord be with you.

Reference:
1 Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 108,
2 Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 113,
3 Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 116,
4 Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 116,
5 Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 116.

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