St. Luke's Anglican Church
Traditional Anglican Service from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer
Sermon for Trinity Sunday
June 16, 2019
David J. Kapley, Priest
St. Luke's Anglican Church
Bowling Green, Kentucky
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up….” The Gospel according to St. John, chapter 3, verse 14.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be alway acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my Redeemer.
Today's Gospel reading describes the famous encounter between Jesus Christ and Nicodemus the Pharisee. Nicodemus was trying to figure out Jesus. Nicodemus apparently saw Jesus perform miracles. He concluded that Jesus was sent from God. Yet Nicodemus did not at this time understand that Jesus is God, the Son of God, and man, the Son of Man.
Nicodemus was confused--- and even more confused by the teaching of Jesus when he met Jesus at night. St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth and fifth century, emphasizes what a strange encounter this must have been for Nicodemus. St. Chrysostom says that Nicodemus was "confused and startled and perplexed on learning greater things than any human being could speak-- things no one had ever heard before."
I hope that you and I will not be as confused as Nicodemus.
We cannot discuss everything that confused Nicodemus. The sermon would be too long. In today’s sermon we will concentrate on the story of the Children of Israel and the brazen serpent. Jesus said to Nicodemus: "[a]nd as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of man must be lifted up....." St. John 3:14. The Bible does not record the reaction of Nicodemus to that statement. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who had devoted serious study to the Jewish Bible. He must have been familiar with this story of the brazen serpent from Chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers. But I imagine that Nicodemus must have been bewildered when Jesus suddenly began to discuss the story of Moses and the brazen serpent. That story is one of the strangest stories of the Bible. What did Jesus mean by His unusual comment to Nicodemus?
During the time of the Exodus the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. Repeatedly God had shown love and miracles to the Israelites. They had been delivered from Egypt through the effort of the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians. They saw the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea and witnessed the destruction of Pharaoh and Pharaoh's army - - - an army which Pharaoh had sent to slaughter them. The Israelites received the miraculous delivery of the Ten Commandments when Moses had ascended to Mount Sinai. On many occasions they saw physical proof of the presence of God. They were led by the Cloud by day as they wandered in the wilderness. They received the pillar of fire by night as they camped in the wilderness. God provided miraculous delivery of water to them in the wilderness. God gave them manna, a miraculous food delivered from Heaven. Their clothes and shoes did not wear out despite they wandered in the wilderness for decades. And the list goes on and on and on concerning the miracles bestowed upon the Israelites.
Yet despite all this, again and again and again they rebelled against God. And we must ask ourselves, are we any different? How often in our lives have we not been grateful to God for the many good things that He has given to us? How often in our own lives have we rebelled against God?
We love to hear that God is love. And that is true. John, the Beloved Apostle, in his First Letter tells us that God is love. We love to hear that God is merciful. And that is true. Both the Old and the New Testaments are filled with examples and statements of the mercy of God. We love to hear that God is long-suffering and slow to anger. And that is true. You can find numerous examples of those traits of God in both the Old and the New Testaments.
But we do not enjoy hearing that God is a God of judgment. And that is also true. It is frightening to imagine that we will have to give an accounting to God for all our sins.
The Israelites in the wilderness in the story of the Brazen Serpent had sinned greatly against God. They rebelled against both Moses and God. They accused God of leading them into the wilderness to die. They complained bitterly against having to eat the miraculous food of manna. They said that the manna was loathsome, in other words, something horrible and hated. Their lack of gratitude and their pridefulness were great. They despised the miracle of the manna even though it was by manna they had survived in the wilderness.
God sent fiery serpents that bit some of the Israelites. Some who were bitten did die. Then God gave a strange command to Moses. Moses obeyed. Moses made at God’s command a metallic serpent, in the King James Bible described as a brazen serpent. Moses lifted that metallic serpent high up on a pole and urged Israelites who were bitten to gaze upon that serpent so that they would be healed. Those Israelites who had been bitten and who did gaze upon that metallic serpent lifted high up on the pole were in fact miraculously healed. The Israelites died who were bitten and who did not gaze at the serpent.
Why would God propose such a strange way that the Israelites could be saved from their rebellion against God?
The Israelites could not figure it out. What is even stranger, some of the Israelites began to revere the metallic serpent lifted high on the pole. This was such a problem that hundreds of years later in the Kingdom of Judah the righteous King Hezekiah had that metallic serpent destroyed because some of the Israelites had made the metallic serpent into an idol.
The Miracle of the Brazen Serpent occurred more than 1,000 years before the night when Jesus Christ spoke to Nicodemus. But on that night Jesus revealed to Nicodemus the purpose of that old miracle. Nicodemus was confused that night.
Today, you and I are greatly blessed to understand the purpose of the Miracle of the Brazen Serpent. Jesus said: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up...." St. John 3:14. The brazen serpent in the wilderness was a prefiguring, a foreshadowing, of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The miraculous healing by the brazen serpent pointed the way more than 1,000 years later to the miraculous healing by the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
The sinfulness of the Israelites in the wilderness was punished by the fiery serpents that were sent to them. Sinfulness leads to death and separation from God. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans explains, "the wages of sin is death...." Romans 6:23. Some of the Israelites died. God had Moses make a symbol of sinfulness that was lifted high on a pole. Ever since the Garden of Eden the serpent has represented rebellion against God. In the wilderness the Israelites who gazed at the symbol of sin on the pole were saved from death - - - saved from their own sinfulness.
This is the story of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Jesus Christ, the only Man free from sin in all of human history, accepted on the Cross the consequences of our sinfulness, and died on the Cross. Jesus died to atone for our sins.
The ancient Israelites in the wilderness repented and were saved when they looked upon the brazen serpent raised on the pole. However, the Israelites died who were bitten, but who did not repent, and who did not gaze upon the brazen serpent. We must renounce our pride, renounce our rebellion against God, repent of our sins, and with humility gaze upon the Son of Man, the Son of God. The Christ was raised high on the Cross so that we can have everlasting life. Just as the Israelites in the wilderness had faith to gaze upon the brazen serpent, so we must have faith to gaze upon Christ on the Cross. As St. Paul told the Romans, "for the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 6:23.
We can learn much from the story of the brazen serpent in the Book of Numbers. The Bible records that as the Israelites were marching in the desert "the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way." Numbers 21:4. In the 21st century we live better than kings and queens in the days of Moses. The march of the ancient Israelites through the desert was difficult. Their great error was their self-centeredness, which made them forget the many mercies and miracles of God. Here was the great tragedy. They despised the actual miraculous food that nourished them, the manna in the desert.
Like the Israelites, we face our own trials in life. Like the Israelites, we march along our own way. We must not fall to the trap that we become self-centered, and turn away from God.
In a few minutes we are called to remember the mercies and the miracles of God. Jesus Christ says of the Eucharist "this do in remembrance of me." St. Luke 22:19. The Minister who gives the cup to the faithful during the Eucharist says "Drink this in remembrance that Christ's blood was shed for thee, and be thankful." When we are self-centered, we forget God. When we remember, and are thankful, we turn towards God, and are closer to God.
The Miracle of the Brazen Serpent in the wilderness tells us of the judgment of God, the love of God, and the mercy of God. That same message is conveyed by the Cross, the death, the Resurrection, and the Ascension of Jesus.
Now you can understand how the strange story of the brazen serpent is connected with one of the most famous verses in the New Testament. This famous verse is from the night that Jesus met with Nicodemus the Pharisee. The American football player Tim Tebow once wrote the citation to the verse on his face: John 3:16. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy; to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.