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The Gospel in Four Words

April 2, 2000, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21;

God so loved the world ...."  It is probably the most commonly known verse of scripture in all of the Bible, or certainly the most quoted.  Martin Luther called it "the gospel in miniature."   But "God so loved the world" is five rather than four words.  If I asked you to tell me the basics of the faith, or, to borrow Feuerbach's nineteenth century title, The Essence of Christianity, what would you say?  If I tell you that the essence of Christianity can be described in four words, which four would you choose?  The answer lies in the three lessons we have heard this morning.

The first word is grace.  God's grace is written in bold type across the face of scripture beginning with the creation and coming to ultimate fulfillment in the Book of Revelation.  God, out of divine love, acts to save us from ourselves, to save us from life turned in upon our selves, to save us from the behaviors which alienate us from God and life.  That love is unmerited.  That means it is not justified.  God's love is for a reasons that has nothing to do with us -- God's nature.  "God is love," says the Epistle of John.1  Paul calls God's love God's saving grace, God's mercy in action.2  Now that is not a change of heart on God's part as we enter the New Testament.  We see that very same unmerited, merciful love in action in our Old Testament lesson today. 

The people of God are doing what they do best - grousing!  From the very moment the Children of Israel leave Egypt they begin to murmer.  Impatient and all but irrational, they are alive but say they are dying.  Having cried to be freed from slavery, now that God has liberated them, they blame both God and Moses for bringing them out into the wilderness.  Are you trying to kill us?   "There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."3  As a consequence, the LORD sends fiery serpents to bite the people, and many of them begin to die.  Bye the way, these are not ordinary snakes, like vipers.  In fact  poisonous snakes do not live in the wilderness of the Sinai.  The text uses a strange compound of two words which literally means "seraph serpents," heavenly serpents who will later  hover about the ark of God, surrounding and guarding God's presence.  In other words, this punishment is heaven sent!  As people begin to die, they repent--whether they saw the light or simply felt the heat is of no consequence--they said to Moses "we have sinned against you and the LORD.  Pray to the LORD that he will take away the serpents."  So Moses prays.  But notice, the LORD does not take away the serpents.  In fact, their sting of death will continue to follow the Children of Israel  throughout their wilderness wanderings.  Instead of removing the source of judgment from among them, God provides an antidote.  He tells Moses to fashion a seraph serpent from bronze, attach it to a pole and hold it up among the dying people.  Those who look at it will live.  And that is precisely what happened.  Whenever a serpent bit someone, if they looked at the bronze snake attached to the pole they lived.  To this day, a representation of that bronze snake stands at Mt.  Nebo, a much earlier symbol of God's healing power than the caduceus of Greek mythology, a reminder that God's grace was at work among a people who had no right to claim it.  God's grace.

That introduces the second word of the gospel.  Whether we describe it as looking or responding in obedience, the people had to appropriate God's grace to be saved.  The mere existence of the bronze snake was not enough.  It took more than its presence among the people for healing to occur.   When bit, the people had to look at the bronze serpent to be healed.   The existence of God's grace is not enough.   We must "look" to it.  It is not enough that God so loved the world that he gave the only begotten Son.  Whatever was accomplished by the incarnation -- and I do believe the incarnation is as much an act of atonement as the cross -- none the less, it is not enough for God to act on our behalf.  Just as it was not enough for the bronze serpent to simply be hoisted perpetually in the Israelites' camp, it is not enough that the Son of God took on flesh and was, by our own scheming and rejection, hoisted on a cross.  One thing more is needed.  We must look if we are to live.  Remember the old T.V. program "Look Up and Live"?  That is what this is about.  Jesus says  "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 act of looking, the act of believing, simply entrusting oneself to the one lifted up, is called faith.  It is the second word of the gospel.

But it is not faith that saves us.  That is a Protestant heresy.  The text says it is God's grace that does the saving.  It is our embracing that grace in faith that makes it saving for you and me.  No Israelite in that wilderness camp would have for a moment thought they were saved by their act of looking at the bronze snake.  It was not their looking nor the bronze snake, but the power of God released through it that engaged them in their looking, and saved them.  Paul says it this way: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the results of works, so that no one can boast."4  God's grace followed by our response, faith, are the first and second words.  That is the  sequence, and it leads to ....  Well what does it lead to?

One of the things it leads to, at least according to Jesus, is eternal life.5  Paul affirms this when he says that already, at least from God's perspective, we are raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places so that in the age to come God might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Jesus Christ.6  Now let that stretch your mind a bit.  Already, at least from God's perspective, you and I are seated with Christ in the heavenly places.  You and I are clothed in him in heaven just as certainly as you and I are clothed in him here.  You hear me talk about our bearing Christ in our daily lives.  Reciprocally, Christ bears us in his daily life in the Father's presence.  Christ bears you and me in the God-head as a pledge that in the age to come, you and I shall be there with him.  But, eternal life, at least in John's Gospel, is more than life after death.  So what else comes from this faith in God's grace?

The result of being clothed in Christ -- good works -- the last two word.  You and I have been created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.7  You see, even here God has taken the initiative.  The old faith-works division which has vexed Christianity, almost from the beginning, is a false distinction--a distinction without a difference.  Faith in Jesus Christ produces in us lives that naturally do good works.  Faith is not a way of thinking about reality, it is a way of living it.  Faith is not a matter of thinking this or that about God, it is a way of living with and in God.  Eternal life, is not a reward for thinking some way about Jesus, it is what emerges in your life when you live your life with him, when you say "yes" to life in him.   Clothed in him, Christ begins to produce the kind of life around you he produces around all his saints.   He weeds out the bad and in its place leaves good.  All good in the world emerges from him.  As the Gospel of John says, "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."8  Good works.

Grace, faith, good works, the gospel in four words; grace, received in faith, produces good works and experiences life as eternal. 

Let us come to the table.  Let us embrace God's grace in faith that it might nurture us for those good works God has planned for us to do.

  1. 1 John 4:16b
  2. Ephesians 2:4-6
  3. Numbers 20:5
  4. Ephesians 2:8-9
  5. John 3:16
  6. Ephesians 2:6-7
  7. Ephesians 2:10
  8. John 3:21

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