This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 11th March 2018, the fourth Sunday in Lent.
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; John 6:28-40
Today’s reading from the Jewish tradition is one of those texts that causes me bafflement. I do not claim to have the full picture on this, and I challenge any of you who think you do to explain it to me later. So, in this story the Hebrews are in the desert with Moses, somewhere between Egypt and Canaan, and they are sooking again about hunger, thirst, and poor leadership from God and from Moses. So, God sends snakes, and those snakes bite some people, and some of the bitten people die. The not dead people catch on that God is upset about their sooking, so they wisely repent of their sookiness, and God responds to their repentance by mandating a means of healing. In a tick we shall hear how the bronze snake lifted in the desert for healing is an image used by Jesus in John to speak of his own being lifted on the cross as a means of healing: it’s a great image. But for now, for the Hebrews their specific sin, the lesson that we are supposed to take away is that thing that needs healing even more than the venomous attack is the people’s speaking against God and against God’s appointed leader. Death by reptilian poison is merely a symptom of the Hebrews’ shoddy attitude toward God their deliverer: once they understand that they repent and ask their embattled leader to intercede for them. And Moses prays, and the snakes leave, and the people rejoice.
But did God really have to send actual deadly snakes for all that to happen? Other times when the people complained of hunger God sent manna and quail and water from a rock. So, what’s with all the bitey vipers? That’s not very Jesusy of God, even taking consideration for it being 1200 BC at this stage.
Today’s psalm declares that all of God’s healing for the sick and stupid comes by God’s word, literally a diagnosis of “all clear” from the specialist. The God of steadfast love delivers God’s people, so let them rejoice with sacrifices of praise says this psalm. The Christian writer Selwyn Hughes once described the sacrifice of praise as “thanksgiving with blood on its hands”, a phrase I like. This suggests that sometimes praise is hard fought, hard won, and worth hanging on to. These are the songs of an overcomer sung toward the God who has delivered victory to him or her at long last. Perhaps this sort of sacrifice of praise is the one sung by the Hebrews who received a harsh lesson in discipleship and who heeded that lesson to now stand and sing with awe of God’s power and deliverance. Confronted by the one who can destroy, but who chooses instead to deliver, the people understand that God desires praise as a response to grace, but it is not a prerequisite.
Paul picks up the theme of Torah in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus writing in Ephesians 2:4-5 that debt has left them dead, but God has made them alive with Christ by grace. All who belong to God are saved by grace through faith, not by faith itself he writes in Ephesians 2:8. In other words you are not saved by what you accept as true about the universe, neither are you saved by what you accept as true about the Bible. You are not saved by signing your name beneath or reciting every week the Creed of Nicaea; as if by saying “this document details what I agree to be the facts of Christianity” is what will get you into Heaven. It won’t. None of those things will. It doesn’t matter what you accept as true says Paul, it matters only what God has done by grace, and by grace alone.
Salvation in the Christian tradition is by trust in Jesus and that what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross is sufficient. The Christian tradition teaches that if you don’t trust the sufficiency of Jesus then you are un-saving yourself because you are taking yourself out of the hands of God who only ever saves by grace. Jesus says this in John 3:17-18. Every other means of salvation falls short, and salvation that falls short is salvation that doesn’t succeed in saving. When a method of salvation doesn’t save then the thing is lost, or to use Jesus’ words the thing is left in the dark.
The message of Jesus who brought light to the world is choose not to walk out of the light; stay in the light and be saved. To think and act as if you must earn your salvation is to walk away from God’s initiative which is the free gift of salvation by grace. To receive salvation by grace through faith is not about praying a certain way or saying a certain formula, or even by being baptised, or by any other liturgical or traditional thing. Salvation by grace is a trust exercise, it’s the heart’s acceptance that “Jesus did it” evident in the attitude that “I am safe because Jesus”. Everything else we do as Christians can be only be because of one of two things: assured discipleship which is living freely within the reign of God, worshipping and serving out of gratitude and loving delight; or anxious despair wherein the cross is insufficient, and one must earn salvation through spiritual disciplines and altar-specific formulas.
In a Jewish devotional work written around the time of Jesus The Wisdom of Solomon 16:5b-7 says that it is not the symbol of the snake or even faith in the symbol that saved the Hebrews back in the day, rather it was God’s activity. Today we might go on to add that God acted by grace to preserve the people. When we look at images Jesus crucified, be that a crucifix or a painting, or a mental image since none of us were eyewitnesses, we see the evidence of our salvation. God has saved us, and by grace alone are we saved. Look at the cross and see how much you are loved: look at God hanging dying, and don’t doubt that you are overtly and utterly beloved. But don’t think that hanging a cross on your wall or around your neck will do anything other than remind you of how much you are loved: possessing a renaissance sculpture or a piece of cruciform jewellery won’t save you any more than those formulaic prayers.
Flip over your Bible, if you’ve got one there, and have a look at a conversation Jesus had with the crowds. In John 6:28 a Jewish crowd is listening to Jesus speak about salvation and they ask Jesus “what must we do?” Judaism is a religion centred on practice and belonging rather than doctrine and belief: what makes a person a Jew is that he or she behaves like one and is accepted into the group who is behaving like Jews. In other words, you are a Jew if you do Jewish stuff and other Jews invite you to join in. You can’t earn salvation as a Jew, you don’t need to: you are saved because you are chosen, saved by grace just by being a descendent of Abraham. As a saved one, a chosen one, you live that out by doing Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic things. So, in that framework the crowd asks Jesus “what’s your kosher? your circumcision? your ritual? your psalms?” to which Jesus says in John 6:29 “trust me”. Nothing else, no instruction for action, just “trust me”. He doesn’t even say “accept these facts to be true, agree to the following doctrinal statements”, he just says…what does he say? Trust me. So, the crowd says in John 6:30-31 “okay, you want us to trust you? Why should we trust you unless you prove it? Abraham made us reshape our sex organs, Moses gave us laws, David wrote us songs with theology in them. Give us something tangible so that we know you are telling us the truth: do something” they say, “or at least ask us to do something for you” they might have added. And Jesus says in John 6:32-33, 38 “no. It’s all about God’s generous grace and not about performance, indeed it isn’t even about my (messianic) performance,” and in John 6:40 Jesus says again “trust me and live abundantly and confidently, and I will look after you.”
What if Jesus said that to us?
What if our reasons for believing ourselves to be saved weren’t the reasons Jesus offers? “But Jesus, I was converted at 27 when I repeated the special prayer line-by-line with Billy Graham-slash-Brian Houston.” Or “but Jesus, I was baptised because of my Christian parents at 3 months of age, confirmed in my local congregation at 12 years of age, hit with the Holy Spirit at a Charismatic Renewal convention at 13 years of age, and I’ve prayed in tongues since I was 35 after specifically asking my Pentecostal megachurch cell group leader to pray for me one night.” What do you think Jesus would say to that? My reading of John 3, John 6, and Ephesians 2, is that Jesus would say “doing those things didn’t get you saved, being saved lead you to do those things.”
Huh? So, how then were we saved if not by a prayer of invitation and confession, or the waters of baptism following vows of obedience and faithfulness? How were we saved? How were we saved? By grace. Grace alone. We know we were saved because God has told us, and also because we are actually safe. If we weren’t saved then we’d be unsafe, wouldn’t we? But we’re not unsafe, so we know we are saved.
So, here’s a big statement for you. Don’t let your faith get in the way of your salvation. By this I mean as soon as you try to work out what it is you did which actually got you saved, which specific belief, which specific action, you’ve missed the point. It is grace that saved you, God did it all and you did nothing. That you received the message that you are loved, and that you responded with joy or relief or whatever, and that you accepted the story of grace to be true, made your salvation effective and it put you on the path of growing in discipleship. But the actual deliverance was all God’s work.
So, remember that. And make sure that when you share your faith, and you should, that what you share is the free gift of grace given by God because of love. And nothing less than love.