From Judgment to Justification
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 3:14–3:21
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 10-11, 2018
“Return from Exile: From Judgment to Justification”
“Are we there yet?” The cry goes up loud and clear from the backseat of the car on long road trips as passengers in that car, small and not-so-small, get restless sitting back there. Behind that question are actually a number of other questions: “Why is it taking so long?” “How much longer will it be until we’re there?” “Can’t we get there faster?” In the midst of our life’s journey, at some point we’ve been in the backseat and know the frustration of being cooped up in the car for too long. But at some point, we’ve also been (or will be) in the front seat and doing the driving, trying to get from point A to point B as best you can. At this midway point in the Lenten season, we may find ourselves asking that very question: “Are we there yet?” “Why does it seem like it’s taking so long?” “How much longer on this Lenten road until we get to Easter?” This question sets us up for what we encounter in the Old Testament lesson for today (Numbers 21:4-9), and which then leads us into the Gospel lesson for this Fourth Sunday in Lent (John 3:14-21). Our Lenten theme for preaching, “Return from Exile,” continues this day as we look at “From Judgment to Justification.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
In that Old Testament lesson for today, God’s people were on the road and they were starting to get mighty irritated. They were, no doubt, thinking and asking and shouting, “Are we there yet?” Sure, the Lord God had delivered them out of slavery and out of the house of bondage, but now they were way outside their comfort zone. They were out in the middle of nowhere; out in the wilderness. They had been taken from what was familiar to what was very unfamiliar. Granted, they were no longer slaves, but now they could no longer count on the daily routine of work and the security of food that was readily available. Now, they had to depend on God and his provision for food, which they received in the form of manna (Exodus 16:12, 31-35), quail (Exodus 16:12-13), and water (Exodus 15:22-25). They preferred Egypt to the uncertainty of the wilderness. They wanted freedom, but not the responsibility or consequences of freedom. As Dr. Ray Vander Laan puts it in his video-based Bible study, “With All Your Heart” (https://www.zondervan.com/with-all-your-heart-discovery-guide-with-dvd-1), the wilderness wandering for God’s chosen people wasn’t so much about getting them out of Egypt as it was getting Egypt out of them! Time and again, they wanted to go back to Egypt; back to slavery. That’s exactly what we hear in today’s lesson: “And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food’” (Numbers 21:4b-5). They saw only what they did not have, and we are no better. We, too, often want to go back to Egypt in our own lives. We are all too prone to return to old familiar ways that are not life-giving and that may well enslave us all over again, but we tell ourselves, “At least they’re familiar.” The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, right? What is God to do with us?
What God did with his people who were grumbling and who wanted to go back to Egypt was to send fiery serpents among them, and many of them died. Sounds like judgment, right? Sounds like punishment, right? The people deserved it, right? God’s righteous judgment is tempered with his mercy and compassion. Thus, when the people cry out to him for relief, God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so that all who looked upon it might live. And what about us? Don’t we deserve judgement for all of our grumbling against God? Don’t we deserve God’s punishment when we see only what we do not have and rail against God? The answer is yes. Yes, we do indeed deserve God’s judgment and punishment. That is what we would expect, but that is not what we receive.
Here is the connection between the Old Testament and Gospel lessons: “And 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” (John 3:14-15). Jesus is that connection! All of our grumbling and complaining against God, all of our grousing and griping when we see only what we do not have, all of our sin and disobedience has been laid not on us, but on Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man. He bore for us the brunt of God’s fierce anger and righteous judgment. Jesus became our sacrificial offering to pay the price for our sin. That is what the cross is all about. The Gospel lesson goes on to include those familiar and beloved words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). John 3:16 does indeed mean the Gospel; the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus. It’s very familiar, but let’s not lose sight of verse 17. When we feel God’s judgment weighing heavily upon us, what are we to do? We look to Jesus because it is in Jesus that judgment leads to justification through his cleansing blood. We may be so familiar with John 3:16 that we may take for granted the enormity of what God in Christ has done. Hear what Luther writes about what it means that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world:”
These are astounding words. God has every reason to be angry and to wipe out the world as a frightful enemy, and yet there is no greater love than God and no more desperate scoundrel than the world. To love the world and wish it well is beyond me. If I were God, I would give it hell-fire. But instead of consuming the world in anger, God loves the world with such unspeakable and overflowing love that he gave his Son. My powers are not adequate to reach to the bottom of this tremendous affirmation. This love is greater than the fire seen by Moses [in the burning bush], greater even than the fire of hell. Who will despair if God so loves the world?
(Roland Bainton, The Martin Luther Easter Book. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983; p. 29)
From judgment to justification isn’t something which we accomplish or bring about by what we do or who we are or where we come from. It doesn’t happen through our own power. It comes from outside us. It comes through Christ alone, as Paul the apostle tells us in today’s Epistle lesson (Ephesians 2:1-10): “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” (Ephesians 2:8-9). That is how we are made right before God; that is how we are justified. In Jesus, whose blood cleanses us from all sin, God now sees me “just as if I’d” (justified) never sinned. That’s a gift for which we can spend the rest of our lives giving thanks to God, and we ought to do that, but Paul closes the Epistle lesson by reminding us that being justified for Jesus’ sake leads to loving others for our neighbor’s sake. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). And that is our calling in Christ at all times, but especially in this Lenten season. What do those good works look like? The service on Ash Wednesday ended with these sending words: “Go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor all people; love and serve God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Are we there yet? Step by step, day by day, we continue on this Lenten journey as we return from exile with our eyes fixed on Jesus. Hang in there: Easter is coming. Amen.