(Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10)
(watch here: http://youtu.be/jhYN0l0z-JM)
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Back in the 80s and 90s, there was a hugely successful addition to schools and offices across America—the motivational poster. These posters consist of beautiful nature pictures with inspiring quotes written underneath. One example is the poster of a climber standing on top of a mountain with the word “Achievement” and the quote from Theodore Roosevelt, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Invariably, we come across one of these posters either in the principal’s office or the boss’ office or the dentist’s office. They can provide just the right amount of motivation and inspiration we need to make it through the unwelcome situations we find ourselves in.
The most popular poster is the one with the kitten hanging on to a branch with the words, “Hang in there, baby!” There’s something about that poster that has brought a smile to a countless number of people of the years. Perhaps it’s because we know how completely helpless and yet curious kittens can be. They don’t mean to get in the situations they get into; they’re just having fun. Sometimes fun gets them into precarious situations. It’s not reaaally their fault! And they’re just so cute! We can’t help cheering them on in their struggle. More importantly, we can’t help relating to them in their situation. We, too, can find ourselves in the principal’s office or the boss’ office or the dentist’s office. We, too, need someone encouraging us to stay strong and hang on in our unfortunate situation. Sometimes there’s someone around to give us the words of encouragement we need. But most of the time we feel like we’re out on the limb all alone. We feel like we’re hanging on for dear life and no one cares whether we fall or not. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, there’s always someone watching us in whatever unfortunate situation we find ourselves in. There’s always someone cheering us on, encouraging us to stay strong in the midst of our struggles. There’s always someone who loves us and would eagerly reach out His hand to lift us safely onto the ground. God always loves us, encourages us, watches us, and eagerly lifts us. There is never a situation that God isn’t with us, watching and loving and encouraging and eagerly lifting.
Oh, how easily we can forget God’s presence in our times of struggle! Oh, how easily we can forget God is there all the time! Just look at the Israelites as they fled from their bondage in Egypt. In our first reading, we heard of how quickly they forgot it was God’s plan for them to flee and that God was still with them in the wilderness. They complained to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” The Israelites had lost sight of God’s sovereign power. They had lost faith that God would provide for them in the wilderness. To both reassure and punish them for their grumbling, God allowed poisonous snakes among His people. Many people died until God had Moses create a totem that demanded their faith. You see, God made His power felt through the poisonous snakes. But God also made His power felt through the healing of faith. God reminded the Israelites the importance of keeping their faith in His sovereign power. Just as He was able to afflict them with death, God was also able to give them life through faith. Their situation of wandering in the wilderness was not outside God’s purview. Remember, God is always watching, always loving, always encouraging, and always eager to lift us up. The wandering Israelites simply needed God’s gentle but firm reminder, “Hang in there, baby!”
From time to time, we all need this reminder. King David often sang this reminder: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” We are to continually give thanks for all the blessings we receive in this life. God IS good all the time, as we sang earlier in our service. God’s love for us is never-ending. God only wants the best for each of us. How do we know this? Because even when we are overwhelmed by our sinful ways, God saves and redeems us. As David sang, “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction…then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.” God doesn’t leave us to suffer. Yes, God allows for suffering in the world. But God wants us to keep our faith in Him. God wants us to cry out to Him! All we have to do is cry out, to let the world know our deep and abiding faith in Him, and He WILL save us. God didn’t leave the Israelites struggling in the wilderness. God eventually led them out of the wilderness into the Promised Land of Canaan. But God DOES demand and expect our steadfast faith. Faith leads us to new life. Without faith, we are left to struggle in the wilderness. God DOES demand and expect our steadfast faith…”Hang in there, baby!”
The apostle Paul also reminded the people of Ephesus the importance of faith. They, too, were dead in their sins. They were faithless, living “in the passions of [their] flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses.” Without faith in God’s sovereign power, they were drowning in the powers of sin and death. But God had mercy even on them. God was always watching, always loving, always encouraging, and always eager to lift them up too. Paul wrote, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…for by grace you have been saved THROUGH FAITH, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Like Moses and David before him, Paul again teaches us the ever-importance of faith. Faith is what keeps and sustains us. Faith is what keeps us holding on to the branch even when all we want to do is let go. The roaming Israelites wanted to let go of God. The people of Ephesus wanted to let go of God. We, at times, want to let of God. There is great temptation to live faithless lives. The powers of sin and death are indeed great in this world. But we must cling to our faith in God as the only key to our salvation. There is only one thing that saves us from ourselves and our sin and our death—a sure and steadfast faith in Christ…”Hang in there, baby!”
Our gospel reading also reminds us the importance of faith. John likens the totem that Moses created to encourage faith in the faithless Israelites to the sight of Christ’s crucifixion as a means of encouraging faith in all of our faithless humanity. At times, we ALL can be tempted into faithless living. The powers of sin and death are strong. But faith is stronger. Christ is stronger than sin and death! Nestled in our passage is perhaps the most recognizable verse in all of Scripture: “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.” At the heart of this famous verse is a calling into faith. Who may not perish but may have eternal life? Everyone who believes! Everyone who has faith! Moses spoke it, David spoke, Paul spoke it, and now John speaks it. Faith is the key to eternal life. Not works of righteousness, not good behavior, not loving our neighbor as ourselves. FAITH! Faith is the one and only way into eternal life. We can’t work our way into eternal life. We can’t buy our way into eternal life. We can’t love our way into eternal life. FAITH! Faith in what? Faith in a loving God who sent His only Son into the world to die for our sins. Faith in a loving Father who offered His only Son as a sacrifice to reestablish a broken relationship with His people. God suffered so that we might have faith! What a price to pay for our faith! God never loses faith in us. We are the ones who lose faith in God. It is because of us that God chose to suffer! God loves us so very much that He was willing to suffer so that we might regain lost faith in Him. God is always watching, always encouraging, always loving, and always eager to lift us up.
We can see that all four of our readings have a single thread running throughout—the importance of faith. There isn’t a better time of the year to remember the importance of faith than during our Lenten journey. Many of us have wandered in the wilderness at some point in our lives. Many of us need totems to remind us to keep faith in God’s loving and sovereign power. Some of us need a bronze serpent on a pole, others need a crucified Son on the cross to remind us that God is in control of our lives. Both the good and the bad times, the Promised Land and the wilderness, are watched by God. God both expects and demands our faith whether we like it or not. We can try faithless living but we quickly realize that it only leads to death. No, faithful living is the only way to fruitful and eternal life. What enables us to “hang in there, baby!” is faith. Let us continue on our Lenten journey…made strong through faith.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.