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/ Weekly Message / Weekly Message 09-09-07: Sunday Before The Cross

Weekly Message For 09-09-07: Sunday Before The Cross

On today’s calendar, there are several commemorations of note for us to celebrate.  On one hand, today is the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, but because yesterday we celebrated the Nativity of the Mother of God, one of the 12 great feasts of the church, today we rightfully commemorate SS Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Theotokos.  On the civil calendar, today is Grandparents Day; to all of the grandparents here this morning, I wish you a blessed day – its your day to rest, so don’t get rooked into babysitting.  Today on our calendar, we celebrate the Sunday before the Cross, a celebration that trumps the others with a special Epistle and Gospel reading.

If you happened to notice in the Gospel reading, you heard one of the most famous Gospel verses in contemporary society.  In fact, "John 3:16" may be the most well known of all Bible references. Not only has this verse been memorized by millions of Christians throughout the world, but also the reference has been seen by billions of people who watch sporting events. You know the drill. You're sitting there minding your own business watching the Super Bowl when all of a sudden somebody in the crowd holds up a sign that reads "John 3:16." 

It all started years ago when a man named Rollen Stewart came up with a novel idea to get his fifteen minutes of fame. He decided to attend major sporting events wearing an oversized, rainbow-colored wig. At just the right moment, Stewart would jump up in front of a TV camera to be seen by the world. But then, while listening to a television evangelist, he became a Christian. Rather than promoting his rainbow-toped visage, he began holding up signs that read "John 3:16." This became his life's calling. He went all around the world with his infamous wig and sign - even appearing in the crowd during the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di! When Stewart was arrested some years ago, his loyal followers continued his placard-raising ministry.

Not everyone gets the point, however. One man, after seeing all of these "John 3:16" signs at football games, once asked, "Am I missing out on something? What in the heck does John 3:16 mean? Is it a hex on the kicker? Is it a riddle?" Actually, it's the best news you'll ever hear in your life. But in order to understand it better, we need to know about the context in which it was originally spoken. 

Just before our Gospel reading for today begins, Jesus is conversing with Nicodemus, a leader among the Pharisees. When Jesus explains that one must be "born again" in order to see the kingdom of God, the conversation turns to Jesus' credentials as a revealer of divine truth. He claims to be a trustworthy witness to heavenly realities because, as Son of Man, Jesus has actually been in heaven. But then, having mentioned the Son of Man, Jesus continues with this theme when he tells the people, "And just 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".

The Son of Man is Jesus' preferred title for himself. It comes from the 7th Chapter of the book of Daniel, where one "like a son of man" comes before the throne of God to receive glory and an everlasting kingdom. This "son of man" is exalted above all peoples, who serve him as God's chosen ruler.

In order to explain the passage about the serpent in the wilderness, we must go to the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers, as Moses is leading the Israelites out of Egypt, they become impatient and complain against God. So God sends poisonous snakes among the people to teach them a lesson, and many who are bitten die. When the people repent, the Lord tells Moses to make an image of a serpent and to set it up on a pole. Then, if a real serpent bites someone, that person can look at Moses' upraised image in order to live (Num 21:4-9). There's obvious irony in this story, because that which saves people is, in fact, a symbol of death.

Jesus elaborates upon this irony when he says as Son of Man he will be lifted up, but, unlike in the vision of Daniel, Jesus' "exaltation" as Son of Man will be upon a Roman cross, one of the most terrifying images of death ever designed. Yet, like Moses' raising of the bronze serpent, Jesus' being lifted up on the cross will lead to life for all who look upon him in faith. Therefore his death will lead to eternal life.

In this context we come to that famed verse, John 3:16: "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."

Notice that Jesus is not only the Son of Man, but also the "only Son," the unique and beloved Son of God. God has given him to the world, not merely to reveal divine truth, but also to fulfill his calling to be "lifted up" on the cross so that the world might be saved through him.

So then, my brothers and sisters in Christ, after hearing this Gospel reading today, and after an explanation of why John 3:16 is so important, we must ask ourselves, why did Jesus die? Because that was his divine calling as Son of Man. Because his death led to eternal life for humanity. But, at an even deeper level, Jesus died as an expression of divine love. Jesus died because God loved the world.

So how should we respond to God's love for us, given in Jesus? The right response to God's love in Christ is to believe in him. Believing in him means trusting yourself and your very life to Jesus. It's putting our very lives in his hands.

Once you have put your faith in Christ, you'll want to tell others. That, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is called evangelism - sharing the good news of Christ.  We who have been transformed by the love of God in Christ will want to multiply that love by giving it away to the world.

Why did Jesus die? What's the point? The point is salvation from sin. The point is going from death to eternal, abundant life. The point is God's love for the world. Jesus, who was God in the flesh, died because God loves. Our mission, as Disciples of Christ, is to share that love with everyone we meet.  Let us go forward this day, with John 3:16 as our message to the world.  Amen.


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