Sunday, March 22, 2009

What Love Looks Like

Texts: Numbers 21:21:4-9; John 3:14-21

WHAT DOES SIN LOOK like? What does Love look like? More to the point, what does Love look like, the kind of Love with the power to overcome sin?

Our modern culture is sure it knows what love looks like. Love is always nice and caring and therapeutic. It never, ever, gives offense. It never tells anyone he’s wrong or implies that anyone is headed in the wrong direction. Love never says No. What really matters in love is that each person’s wants and desires and yearnings should be indulged and gratified. And if anything gets in the way of that gratification, including any law of God or man, it should be ignored or struck down.

That’s how our culture sees love. But can that love overcome sin?

I suppose that depends on our picture of "sin." In our world today, sin is usually seen as "brokenness" or "disease." It’s not anything we did or do or are, it’s something that’s been done to us. So that even if we end up hurting others or ourselves, that’s not really our fault. We’re gripped by an addiction! We’re suffering from an emotional disease! Something outside ourselves makes us do antisocial things and we just can’t help it.

Maybe the indulgent, therapeutic kind of love can deal with this kind of "sin." It "deals" with it by overlooking it and minimizing it and curing it. It says, "What you did isn’t so bad and you’re okay just the way you are!" It says, "You’re a victim and with our help you won’t have to face anything bad or difficult, ever again!"

These pictures of sin and love are widespread in our culture. So widespread, in fact, that you may be thinking, "Yes, love is the opposite of being judgmental! And sin really is nothing but brokenness, and we need therapy and healing, not condemnation!" And in our human relations, certainly there are times when judgment must be reserved. Certainly, there are occasions when the sinfulness of this world system gets hold of a person, and he or she absolutely needs to get psychological help in order to get free of that phobia or neurosis or whatever, before he or she can do what is right and good.

But for most of us most of the time, it’s convenient to see love as indulgent and sin as something we can’t help, because it vindicates us as good, okay people.

It works wonderfully-- until we look at the God-Man Jesus Christ, and gaze upon His understanding of sin, and see the kind of love it took to overcome sin. Then our blindness is stripped away and we see the enormity of our offenses, and how great and awesome is the love of God that defeated it for our sakes.

What does sin look like, according to our holy God? In John Chapter 3 the Jewish ruling council member Nicodemus has come to Jesus by night to learn more about this wonder-worker from Galilee. Jesus immediately comes to the point of His ministry on earth: To bring new, eternal life to dead, lost sinners, so they might enter the kingdom of God.

But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He misunderstands what Jesus means about being born again. And when Jesus uses the example of the wind to show how the Holy Spirit can do whatever He wants without human help, Nicodemus replies, "How can this be?" So in His mercy our Lord gives him a picture of human sin and divine love that he surely cannot misread, an example from Israel’s history that surely Nicodemus has known from his youth. Jesus says to him, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man [that is, Jesus Himself] must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."

So we look at our reading from Numbers, and we think, Hey, what the Israelites did doesn’t seem that bad. We’d complain, too, if we’d been tromping around a desert for forty years eating the same old manna and never knowing where our next drink of water was coming from! Wasn’t the Lord a little, well, cruel in putting His people to death for such a small offense?

But when we defend them and prosecute God we prove that we, too, are guilty of the same sin. Think who these people were! Think who this God was, that they were blaspheming against! They were the children of the Lord’s promise. He was and is the Lord of heaven and earth, who’d rescued them with power from the overwhelming might of Egypt. He’d fed them miraculously with the bread of angels, as it says in Psalm 78. He provided them with all the water they needed! He gave them victory over every army that marched out to block their way! Year after year after year they’d seen that the Lord God of Israel could be depended on totally. When they complained on the way around Edom, they weren’t just speaking against Moses and their living conditions, they were speaking against the Lord Himself! And we are exactly the same, when we exalt our desires and fears up against the faithfulness of God.

The Lord sent our spiritual ancestors a punishment that was a picture of sin itself. What does sin looks like? It looks like snakes that bite us so we die. Sin is hissing, insidious, and sneaky, and it fills us with the fire of death. The Hebrew word translated "venomous" actually means fiery, and I’m afraid that by using the familiar term our modern translation has lost us something.

Ancient writers spoke of a little red serpent called the "dipsas," whose name means "thirst." It could bite a man without being felt, but its venom would engender a raging, burning thirst that made the bitten one run mad and commit any crime or dishonor to slake it. All the time the victim would think it was thirst alone that was the problem, but drinking all the rivers of the world dry could not keep him from fiery death.

That’s a picture of sin. We think our problem is something outside ourselves, something we desire, and if we can get it we’ll be all right. But the venom of sin is in us, working through all our members and taking us down to death.

Whether the fiery serpents in question were the dipsas or some other kind of poisonous snake, they were a perfect image of the Israelites’ sin.

But Israel in the desert couldn’t pretend it was mere hunger and thirst that was killing them. They couldn’t even pretend it was the fiery serpents themselves, as if death would stop if God would be more "loving" and take the snakes away. They faced the fact that it was their own sin they were dying of. They repented and said to Moses, "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us."

So Moses prayed for the people. But it’s striking: Numbers does not tell us that the Lord took the snakes away, at least, not at that time. Something crucial had to happen first.

The Lord commanded Moses to make a model of one of the snakes and transfix it on a tall pole and set it up where the people could see it. Moses made it out of bronze, and if you’ve ever seen new bronze, you know it’s a bright fiery reddish-gold. The dying ones were to look away from themselves to an image of their death fixed to a pole, and by looking they would live.

Even today, superstitious people make charms and amulets that are supposed to ward off evil. But this wasn’t like that. The bronze serpent raised up by Moses didn’t prevent snakebite; it healed and saved those already dying of it. And the power was not in the image itself, it was in the Lord their God. The Israelites had refused to see that He was able to bring them safely to new life in the Promised Land. But now in this crisis they had to look to His remedy if they wanted to live, no matter how strange or repellant it appeared.

Our Lord Jesus said to Nicodemus and He says to us: God’s provision for our salvation is like His provision for His people Israel. It is only by looking to the Son of Man lifted up on the cross and believing in Him that we can enter the kingdom of God and have eternal life.

We all know John 3:16. It says, "For God so loved the world, that he gave only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." The love the world believes in says God gave His Son to be our Good Example, to show us that if we try hard enough we can overcome our sins. But the burning, relentless, pure love of God tell us that God gave us Son to be crucified to bring new birth to people who were perishing in sin.

Jesus tells us that He wasn’t sent into the world to condemn the world. Why? Because we humans and the systems we create aren’t really that bad? No. Jesus didn’t need to come to condemn the world, because the world and its inhabitants are condemned already.

We get the mistaken idea that we all start out neutral. If we’re ordinary worldly sinners we think we make ourselves worthy of eternal life or death depending on whether our good deeds outweigh our bad ones, or the other way around. If we’re a certain kind of religious sinner we think we start out neutral and God arbitrarily sorts us into the "saved" and the "damned."

But no. You and I and the littlest baby born a minute ago are all born damned. It’s the default position, as they say in the computer world. And until grace of God intervenes we like it that way. "This is the verdict," our Lord says, "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." Without Jesus Christ crucified we would all willfully go on in death and sin, hissing and murmuring and biting against the one true and holy God. But God sent His Son into the world to make it possible for us not to be damned. He caused His Son to be transfixed on that cross to make it possible for us to come out of darkness into His glorious light. It is all God’s love working in us and for us!

The bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness was a symbol of the people’s death; in the same way, the cross of Jesus Christ lifted up on Calvary is a true picture of our death that He died for us. In His cross we see all the vicious ugliness of our sin. On the cross we see the righteous, holy Lamb of God made sin for us. His cross was the cross we had earned and His death the death we deserved. Nevertheless, by looking to that terrible object in faith we come to enjoy all the beauty and peace of eternal life. In that cross we see the ultimate demonstration of the overflowing love of God!

This is marvellous good news! Look and see what good news it is for you! The light of God is showing you that sin is far more horrible than the world can ever picture, yes, but the love of God is far more glorious and powerful to defeat sin than we could ever imagine or hope!

What does our sin look like? It looks like the evil of the innocent Son of God dying in agony on a cross. What does God’s love look like? It looks like the grace and mercy of the innocent Son of God dying in agony on a cross! Dying, He destroyed our death; rising, He restored our life!

So rejoice in His victory, and live in the new birth you have received in Jesus Christ! When you are tempted to minimize the evil and effect of sin, see how your Saviour suffered to overcome it. When you feel the venom and thirst of sin in your life, look to Jesus lifted up to be your refreshment and cure. When you feel that you can never be good enough for God, see Christ’s arms stretched out on that fatal tree, and be assured that He has been good enough for God for you.

Look to Him, and live. For our crucified Lord is not merely a picture of the sin-overpowering Love of God-- Dying and rising, Jesus Christ is the Love of God Himself.