In Jesus conversation with Nicodemus, he uses a striking analogy from Numbers 21 to describe the way in which his own atoning death on the cross saves us from our sin. In this sermon, I explore the meaning of this analogy and its relationship to the new life that faith in Christ offers us.
Sermon Text: John 2:23-3:21
[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.]
Recently, as you might have heard, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg became a father for the first time. He and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, had a daughter, Max Chan Zuckerberg. And they’re off to a great start as parents. For one thing, Zuckerberg is taking two months off from his job as Facebook CEO. Two months! Of course, Facebook offers its employees four months of paid leave for parents of newborns. But still… Taking two months paid leave is a lot! Nearly half of all working men in America take less than one week off when they have a child. Fully 97 percent of men are back on the job within two weeks. So Zuckerberg is setting quite an example to fathers everywhere. After all, if I were a new dad, I would worry that I couldn’t afford to be away from work that long—even if I were getting paid, I would worry that it would harm my career, that I would fall too far behind, that other people would get ahead of me.
Like… If I’m away from work that long, and the company gets on fine without me, then maybe they’ll decide they don’t need me at all. I’m supposed to be indispensable. I’m supposed to be irreplaceable.
And yet here we have Mark Zuckerberg, of all people, proving to the world that being a dad is more important even than being a CEO of one of the world’s largest and most influential companies! It’s remarkable!
What’s even more remarkable is that, last December, he and his wife published a letter they wrote to their newborn daughter, telling her how they want to help create a better world for her and for everyone else’s children. To that end, they say they will donate 99 percent of their Facebook stock—valued at $45 billion—to fight hunger and poverty, to cure diseases, and to promote education around the world. The one percent of the $45 billion that they have left over is still a lot of money, of course, so they’ll do just fine.
But you gotta admit, of all the children born to any family anywhere in the world, Max Chan Zuckerberg could hardly have picked a better one, right? She has devoted, generous, compassionate, and incredibly wealthy parents. She is, by all objective standards, well-born.
But imagine that, when she gets older, Jesus comes to her and says, “You need to be born again. There was something wrong with your first birth. You need to belong to a new and different kind of family.” She might understandably be offended or indignant or confused. “What do you mean I need to be born again! I was born perfectly well—into the best family imaginable—the first time around!”
If you can understand her reaction, then you can also understand how Nicodemus felt when Jesus spoke these words to him in today’s scripture. John describes Nicodemus as a ruler of the Jews, which meant he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. While he was no Zuckerberg, this at least least meant that he came from a prominent family; that he had money; that he went to all the best schools; that he possessed all the right credentials to be a theologian, a teacher, a pastor, and a leader of the Jewish people; that he was considered a righteous man, a good man.
The point is, if even someone like Nicodemus needs to be born again, well, guess what? So does everyone else! It used to be popular in the ’70s and ’80s to talk about being a “born again Christian.” One of Nixon’s most trusted advisors, Chuck Colson, went to prison for his role in the Watergate break-in; he was converted; and he published a best-selling memoir called Born Again. And then Jimmy Carter came along shortly after and identified himself as a “born-again Christian.” So a lot of Christians, along with the news media, began talking as if being a “born-again Christian” was one variety of Christians among other varieties—almost like a denomination. The truth is, to say you’re a born-again Christian is redundant—like referring to yourself as an “unmarried bachelor.” If you’re a Christian at all, you’re born again. It’s not some optional extra feature for certain kinds of Christians. It’s for everyone! Everyone in the world needs the new birth that Christ offers us! We come out of the womb defective, damaged, predisposed to sin and idolatry—this is what the Church has called “original sin,” the sin we’re born with and born into. We have what Charles Wesley, in his hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” called a “bent to sinning.” We are bent.
This need for new birth means that humanity is broken beyond repair. It’s not a matter of God doing a little work around the corners of our lives. Our life is not like a house that’s mostly fine except the roof is leaking and needs to be patched, or a room needs to be painted, or a floor needs a new joist. No—the very foundation of the house is defective—and the whole thing is going to come crashing down without divine intervention! This is exactly the crisis we find ourselves in from the moment we’re born. So we all must be born again!
The first thing to notice about being born again, however, is that it’s not something that we do for ourselves. I said earlier that Max Chan Zuckerberg couldn’t have picked a better family to be born into… But of course she didn’t pick them at all. She had no choice whatsoever. Babies don’t really have much control over being born. In fact, every time one of them is born, you’ll notice the baby doesn’t even like it! I mean, they act like being born is the worst thing in the world. They always come out deeply upset—they’re crying; they’re unhappy! They’re like, “Thanks for nothing, Mom!”
But if it’s true that being “born again” is like being born the first time around, and it’s not something that we do but is something that is done to us, then how does it happen?
Jesus gives Nicodemus an illustration from scripture to help him—and us—understand how it is that this new birth is accomplished. In verses 14 and 15, he says: “And 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.” “Moses’ lifting up this serpent” is a reference to something that happens in Numbers 21, beginning with verse 4. The Israelites have become impatient with Moses while wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. And they’re grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They’re referring to manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that God has graciously provided them. They’re literally blaspheming against God.
“Then,” it says in verse 6, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Get the picture? The Israelites would get bit by these poisonous snakes, and when they did, they would look up at this bronze snake on a pole and their lives would be saved. Similarly, Jesus says, when he is “lifted up”—by which he means lifted up on the cross, on Calvary—it’s like Moses lifting up this bronze snake on a pole. Christ on the cross is like that snake on the pole. I know this sounds like a really strange comparison, but let’s think about it:
Because of their blasphemy, because of their unfaithfulness, because of their sin, Israel was facing God’s judgment and God’s wrath. God was justifiably angry because of his people’s sin. As punishment, he was sending these poisonous snakes to kill them—until the people repented and Moses intervened and prayed to God. The bronze snake, please notice, wasn’t preventative medicine; it was only needed by those who were already snake-bitten. Once they had been snake-bitten, their only hope for rescue was to look upon this image of a snake—a symbol of the very thing that was killing them. That’s how they would be saved.
In a similar way, Jesus is saying, we are all snake-bitten by sin. We’re all dying. Because of our sin, we’re all under God’s judgment, and, unless we’re rescued, we will all face God’s wrath for our sins. And what do we do to save ourselves? Just as the Israelites looked at a symbol for the very thing that was killing them, we, too, look to the symbol of the very thing that’s killing us—not a poisonous snake this time, but our sin. That’s exactly what Christ represents for us on the cross. When we look at the cross of Jesus Christ, the Bible says we are looking at our sin. Remember 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, Christ became our sin—it’s as if he took within his own body the deadly venom that was killing us—and died in our place!
Last Thursday was the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. I heard a heartbreaking radio interview with a now retired engineer from the company that manufactured the solid rocket booster’s O-ring seals for the space shuttles. This engineer, Bob Ebeling, wrote a famous memo, months before the Challenger disaster, warning NASA that they shouldn’t launch the shuttle below freezing—that these O-ring seals would fail. And on that morning 30 years ago, the temperature was 18 degrees at Cape Canaveral. His warning, along with a briefing he gave to NASA officials on the morning of the launch, fell on deaf ears.
In the interview last week, however, Ebeling said he blames himself. He said he should have done more to warn NASA. Ebeling, whom the interviewer described as a deeply religious man—I’m guessing he’s a Christian—he said: “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job.” He said he’s going to tell God some day, “You picked a loser.”
You picked a loser. Isn’t that heartbreaking? Especially considering that Ebeling was one of the good guys! He tried to do the right thing! Could he have done more? Maybe… but hindsight is 20/20.
Still, what breaks my heart is that for thirty years Ebeling has been haunted by these memories… these thoughts… these mistakes. He’s been plagued with guilt, and he can’t shake it! Ebeling, like these Israelites, has been snake-bitten, and it’s killing him.
So here’s what I would tell Bob Ebeling if I had a chance to counsel him: I would say, Look to the cross. Look to the cross! Some of the last words that Jesus spoke on the cross were, “It is finished,” meaning, all your sin and all your guilt—all was taken care of through Christ’s suffering and death.
In fact, I would tell him that God gives us the most amazing promise in his Word: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Or as Isaiah tells God: “you have cast all my sins behind your back.” And as God tells him, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Or as the prophet Micah says, “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
Whereas Bob Ebeling can’t stop thinking about his sins, God won’t even start thinking about them. Because Christ made himself guilty, so that Ebeling can go free!
It’s as if God forgets. Once we confess our sins, we should let go and move on. Why? Because God has let go! One theologian rightly refers to this divine amnesia. No, this doesn’t necessarily, or even usually, mean that God shields us from all the consequences of our sin—suffering consequences can be a necessary kind of discipline for us—but it does mean there’s no longer any guilt.
Because in God’s eyes we are now perfect. God looks at us an no longer sees our unrighteousness, but his Son’s righteousness.
And it all happens when we look to the cross. Anyone can do that, right? You don’t need to be born into the right family to look to the cross. You don’t need to have gone to the right schools. You don’t need an advanced degree. You don’t need to have money. You don’t need to be good-looking. You don’t need to be physically fit. You don’t need to be healthy. You don’t need to have a job. You don’t need to be popular. You don’t need to be a good parent or a good child or a good spouse. You don’t need to get 200 likes on all your Instagram posts; you don’t need to be retweeted a hundred times. You don’t need to get all your problems straightened out first… A child can look to the cross. A middle-aged person can look to the cross. An older person can look to the cross. We all can look to the cross—and understand what Christ has done for us—and believe in what Christ has done for us on the cross—and let that truth penetrate our hearts; let that truth melt our hearts.
That’s how it happens—that’s how we experience this new birth. Realize that you’re snake-bitten with sin; realize that your sin is killing you; realize that without the divine medicine that God offers you through the cross, you will die, you will face judgment, you will go to hell. But you don’t have to because you can look to the cross and be saved!
There are probably some of you within the sound of my voice this morning who need to be born again, and who need to look to the cross, believe in Jesus, believe that he died and was resurrected for you, and have your sins forgiven. Please look to the cross while you still have life and breath. Jesus is calling you. Don’t you hear him? Don’t wait!
Here’s a question: Do you think churches can be born again? Even small-town churches that have been around for, oh… 108 years or so? If our church is ever going to experience a new birth, and new life, and a refreshing wind of the Spirit blowing in our midst, I believe it’s going to happen in the same way: by looking to the cross. Reminding ourselves that it’s for the sake of that cross that we exist as the church. We look to the cross and remind ourselves, “Oh, yeah… I’m a sinner for whom Christ died every bit as much as that sinner sitting next to me, sitting at the end of the pew, sitting on the other side of the aisle. I’m no better than they are!”
Let’s face it: It takes a lot of mercy, a lot of pity, a lot of grace, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of patience just to put up with all of us sinners here at Hampton United Methodist Church. And we often run out of those virtues pretty quickly. And we get hurt—we get badly hurt—sometimes, just by trying to do the right thing and being misunderstood. It is hard to get along with each other—because we’re all sinners. But then we look to the cross and think, “As much as I have to put up with in order to be a part of this church family at HUMC, it is only the tiniest fraction of what God has had to put up with in order to have me in his family!”
And most importantly, based on what Jesus tells Nicodemus, if a new birth and a new life and a fresh wind of the Spirit are going to happen here, they’re not going to happen mostly because of what I do or what you do; they’re going to happen mostly because of what God does. It’s going to take divine intervention. It’s going to take a miracle. So we pray for a miracle.
But don’t worry: God is in the miracle business. If he weren’t, how is it that sinners like you and I—enemies of God, deserving of judgment, death, wrath, and hell—how is that sinners like you and I could become God’s beloved children?
 Numbers 21:6-9 ESV
 2 Corinthians 5:21