Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018
Jesus Was Lifted Up for Our Eternal Life
The words of Jesus in our Gospel reading are poignant: “Whoever does not believe is condemned already.” The condemnation of mankind is not something that will happen at the end of time. Things will be sorted out then. Hearts will be revealed. But the condemnation of man is something that already exists. It is something that happened at the beginning of time when Adam ate of that fruit which was forbidden.
It is a rather simple concept and actually straight forward as it is put in Scripture: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air [devil], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience [flesh].” We know that in sin did our mother’s conceive us (Ps 51:5) and that from our birth we have known evil.
The Scriptures are clear concerning original sin or inherited sin, that corrupted human nature that each of us possesses. It is present in all mankind and as such, we are by nature enemies of God, standing under His wrath and condemnation, lost and estranged from His presence and the true knowledge of Him. It puts us in a dire predicament for what hope do we have that we might escape from the prison of sin into which we have been born? We have the Gospel of course. We have Jesus, the Son of God who was lifted up and given into death for us, to redeem us from the world, Satan, and our own desires of the flesh. Yet even in the clarity of these things man still finds a way to distort and make a claim towards self-good or self-improvement towards being good; all of which robs God of the glory, Christ of the sufficiency in His death, and the Holy Spirit of the ministry that calls, gathers, and enlightens.
Today’s readings destroy at least two particular heresies of man that attempt to steal a part of salvation from God and attribute it to man. These “isms” have been around a long time and they keep popping up and don’t seem to be going away. The devil, no doubt keeps whispering them in man’s ear and because man likes what he hears, he wants to believe and does believe it, unfortunately. While the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church rejects both these false teachings of Arminianism and Pelagianism, we find such ungodly thoughts and beliefs even in our churches. To avoid such things, we put a premium on training our pastors and we emphasize the use of approved hymnals so that what we confess in the liturgy and hymnody speaks only the truth.
Billy Graham, as I’m sure most of you know, died a couple of weeks ago. He was honored and mourned by a large part of our nation. He had been called America’s pastor as he preached to millions, and was instrumental, through his preaching, in the conversion of countless numbers. He advised and befriended presidents. He used his notoriety to promote charities and mercy activities along with spreading the Gospel across the globe rather than promoting self. He was a humble and godly man by all respects. But he was also an enigma; for while he preached the sufficiency of Christ and Him crucified and did so with power, he practiced an Arminian theology teaching that while Christ did His part, the sinner still needs to do his part by giving his life to Jesus or by asking Jesus into his heart.
These words of Jesus that we read today are part of the conversation that He had with Nicodemus on a rooftop one night. They are set in a discussion concerning Holy Baptism whereby man’s decision for Christ is eliminated. Nicodemus’ question goes to the root, “How can a man be born when he is old? (v.4)” The answer is being born of water and Spirit, Jesus explains. It is God’s decision. It is God’s work from beginning to end. The will of man is only and always corrupt. He cannot choose but must be converted, chosen, claimed, selected and given a birth from above by God. This is done in Holy Baptism.
Our new lamp for the eternal flame is beautiful, is it not? It is fantastic. But as is the case will all things made by man, it has it weak point even if it doesn’t have any flaws. Probably the least expensive part in the entire lamp is the wick and we have been having some problems with it these last couple of weeks. It would burn down until it was just a dim glowing that could not be seen unless we looked behind the lens and directly at the wick. It was still lit, I guess, but it was such a faint glow that it no longer was doing what it was put there to do. But we didn’t change the wick immediately because it never actually went out. It still seemed to have potential. Maybe we just need to coax it a little, or adjust it a bit. Maybe we could train it to burn as it was designed to do. But, alas, for whatever the reason, it had to be discarded and replaced even though it looked fine and we thought it would be OK.
There are those in the Church that think like this about mankind; that the ember for true faith still kindles; that a spark still exists in man that burns in love for God. They follow the teachings of a 4th century monk named Pelagius who believed that man had within himself what was needed to believe and follow after Christ. He didn’t deny the fall and the corrupted nature of man but, like the less than efficient wick in our lamp, he believed there was enough good in man that he could choose God and live a life of good aided by God. There are variations of his teachings today but all such teachings short God of His due by claiming that man is not as bad as the Scriptures say, not as lost and condemned as Jesus declares, not as dead as Paul writes. Instead such heresies believe that within man is at least a glowing that is inclined towards God that just needs some coaching and some help that it might burn brighter and go in the right direction.
Again, such is the work of the devil that would have us believe that Holy Baptism is just an outward sign that can’t actually provide a heavenly birth. It can actually do what our Small Catechism explains that Scripture really says. Both Arminianism and Pelagianism attribute to man some ability or work that is completely denied as being possible by the Scriptures. They are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as put forward in the Bible. We have what has been called the Gospel in a nutshell in John 3:16 which we have read today. But we also have in our Epistle reading, what I have had catechumens memorize as a concise statement of the Gospel. Paul writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).Paul will go on to talk about what we do after such grace has been given but he excludes completely any contribution of man towards his salvation whether it be by decision, which is by will, or by inclination that requires something good within. No, our salvation is from beginning to end the work of God alone.
I don’t know what kind of serpents afflicted the Israelites in the wilderness, but we are told that there was only one outcome, they would die a painful death. If bitten by a cobra, none of us would think that we would be able to overcome its venom by sure will nor would we rely upon some kind of natural immunity. We would consider, and in all actuality know, that we are dead unless somebody treated us with the antivenom. The antivenom provided by Moses was ridiculous. It was foolish to think that looking at the image of their affliction that they could be healed, but it was not the image that healed them, it was faith in the promise that God attached to the image in His Word.
It is God that heals you from the venomous bite of the devil and gives you life where there was none before. He does it through the foolishness of the cross and its fruit of atonement, forgiveness, and life eternal in Jesus bestowed to you by means of His Word. In this way, He works faith where none formerly existed. By the means of Word and Sacrament, He sets before your eyes that which has afflicted you and all mankind since the fall – sin and death. And has given you a promise that as you look upon Jesus as the One that has suffered all in your place and believe in Him, then your condemnation has been lifted and life eternal has been given to you.
It is simple in concept but hard in practice because it is by grace that you have been saved through faith. Neither your works nor the works of any other man except Jesus contributes to your salvation. It is by Him alone and there is none other that contribute or take any credit. Look upon Him who bore your affliction and believe and you shall be saved.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.