Moses And The Snake
There is a curious story that comes from the desert time that the people of Israel had.
You know that when you escape slavery, you have to walk through the wilderness
And when you are in the wilderness, you actually prefer slavery.
If you are addicted to drugs you have to go through cold-turkey
If you are life is independent and what matters to you is only you, and then you end up in a relationship which causes you come out of yourself, then sometimes it seems better to being back thinking only about yourself.
Well the Israelites have escaped Egypt, but now they are in the wilderness, and that is hard work, and they say, “Wouldn’t it be better if we were slaves, any kind of life is better than this wilderness life. Let’s go back to Egypt”
What kind of dumb people choose slavery under cruel masters?
Answer, every single one of us. We love to be mastered by TV, by drink, by marketing, by another person, by money, by lust.
So they complain against God
And they complain against Moses
Oh we wish we were back in Egypt.
So God sends poisonous snakes amongst the people, and these snakes bit the people and many of them died.
I told you it’s a tough story.
But the people repent, and Moses prays for the people
And then Moses, on God’s advice, makes a bronze snake, puts it on pole.
And every time someone is bitten by a snake, they look up at the bronze snake
And they are able to live.
You may have seen pictures of this snake in medical logos.
It’s from this story when they were unwell, and there was something going wrong inside them, and they looked, and what they saw healed them.
Now we are going to come back to this snake story eventually. But I want us just to remember this thing about seeing and being changed.
Looking At Jesus
Looking at Jesus and being changed is a big thing in John’s gospel.
Light Of The World
Right at the start of the gospel we are told that Jesus is the true light that comes into the world.
Come and You Will See
Later on in chapter one, a couple of interested folk, one of the Andrew, and they say to Jesus “Teacher where do you live.” And Jesus says to them “Come, and you will see”
And as ever with John that has a couple of meanings: Come and you can see what my house looks like
Come and you will see, you will be someone who can see.
See the kingdom
When Jesus is talking with Nicodemus he says to him unless you are born for a second time, you cannot see the kingdom of heaven.
Woman At Well
In Chapter four of John, Jesus has this remarkable conversation with the woman who has 5 husbands, I don’t know if you remember but I reckon she is the closest the New Testament gets to Pat Butcher from Eastenders.
But at the end of the story, when Jesus has transformed this woman’s life, her view of herself, she runs to the village where she lives and says to the villagers “Come and see the man who told me all that I ever did.
A Man With Ill Servant
Later on a man who is wealthy begs Jesus to heal one of his servants, and Jesus says “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
In John chapter 6 Jesus wheels out two of his most celebrated spectaculars.
Firstly there is a big crowd of 5000 people and Jesus feeds them.
And when the people saw the sign, they believe in Jesus.
Then Jesus walks on water to get to the other side of the Lake
And the crowd comes and follows him.
They know that Jesus didn’t get in a boat to the other side, so they know there is something a bit fishy about Jesus being there.
They are having a conversation in which Jesus says “This is the work of God that you believe in him whom he sent you.”
And they all say “What sign do you do that we may see and believe in you.”
Which is a bit rich coming from a crowd that has just seen the feeding of the 5,000
And then has a hint of the walking on water.
Give us a sign and we will believe you.
The Blind Man
In John 9 Jesus heals a man who is blind.
And it is a very rich story about who is blind and who can see
Because all the Pharisees who hate Jesus refuse to believe that this man was ever blind, and they blame the man for being a sinner.
And all the time it is about how religious people are blind
And a man that everyone calls a sinner can actually see
And then a beautiful conversation at the end.
Jesus finds the man
And says “Do you believe in the Son of Man”
And the man says who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him.
Jesus says “You have seen him and it is he that is who is speaking to you.”
And the man says “Lord I believe.”
Later on in Jerusalem some Greeks come up to Philip one of the disciples and say “We wish to see Jesus”, because what you see can change you.
Seeing Is Not Enough
But all through the gospel there is a feeling that seeing is good, but seeing is not enough.
Time and again I have learnt my spiritual lessons from being in the outdoors.
The abseil tree, the zipwire and skiing all have this quality where seeing is not enough.
It is good to watch folk abseil, but it is nothing compared to actually doing the thing.
It is the same with the zip-wire, the skiing
You know that this is the case – perhaps you have watched someone do a job, and seen them do it and thought “I could do that job”, but is only when you were involved in doing the job that you realised what it involved.
It is true of so many things that just to a watch a thing
Is not nearly as gripping as doing it, being wrapped it, being involved
Having the thing become part of your life.
You get this same thing about seeing in John’s gospel.
You get it with the fickle crowd who have seen Jesus feed 5,000 people, but still they do not believe.
You get it with the man who is blind, and Jesus heals him and he can now see
But now this is not enough and there needs to be something more
And Jesus comes at the end of the story and says “Do you believe”
And the man who can see also says “I believe.”
The man with the servant who is unwell comes to Jesus provokes him and says “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
But such is the trust that the man has is that even though he does not see a sign yet, he still believes, and then the servant is healed
And we are told that the man believes a second time.
Is this more belief, or simply confirming what he earlier believed.
In John chapter 14 Jesus is talking with the disciples and says the most remarkable thing
If you have seen me, then you have seen God
But now he asks something more of them (v11)
“Believe me that I am in the Father and he is in me.”
And at the end of the gospel, you remember the story of Thomas the doubter
And Thomas has been out of the room when Jesus appeared to his disciples the first time, and he comes back and they have all seen Jesus and Thomas says “Unless I see I will not believe.”
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Have you ever done this – this is what I need to happen in my life for me to believe in this stuff.
What is remarkable is that Jesus has heard Thomas saying all this.
Next time you are having a rant, and I actually strongly encourage this, you are saying this is what I need to see in order to believe, remember that Jesus may well be listening.
Because a week later – why a week later Jesus.
Jesus is up to something with Thomas – why appear to the disciples when Thomas is out of the room, and why leave it a whole week before appearing to him.
Jesus is up to something with Thomas, just as he is up to something with us when we go through times that we find it hard to believe.
And then a week later Jesus comes back into the room and the first word he says is “Peace” – because when you are vexed by doubt the first thing you need is not proof but peace.
And then Jesus says “put your finger here and see my hands and put out hour hand place it in my side. Do not disbelieve but believe.”
And then Thomas says something that no-one else does in the whole of the New Testament, none of the other disciples said even though they saw
But Thomas who has had to sweat this whole thing out
Thomas who has waited a week for this
Says “My Lord and my God.” – next time you have the Jehovah’s Witnesses round at your door telling you that Jesus is not God, show them this verse – the Jehovah’s Witness Bible has edited out a lot of the Jesus-God verses in the New Testament, but for some reason they missed this one.
And Jesus says “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not send and yet have believed.”
Believing Without Having Seen
I find this such an encouraging verse.
Because I have never seen Jesus.
There are times when I wish that I might have actually just seen him.
You know, been back in Galilee, even been allowed in the garden just as that stone was being rolled away on Easter morning, or on the hills around Bethlehem when the angels appeared.
Or possibly in the boat when the water was being walked on
Or possibly when Lazarus came out of the tomb.
But just as God had it worked out that when he appeared to his disciples that Thomas would not be there
For some reason God had it worked out that when the water was being walked on, and when the tombstone was being rolled away – I would not be there. I would not see. Because somehow I would be blessed if I believed.
I think because when your faith is based on seeing it lacks a few things.
If all you ever do is see, you never have the courage to actually do the thing – you just sit at the side and criticise.
If all you ever do is see, you just want to keep seeing – keep wanting your fix of the spectacular
If your faith has never been sweated out through the valley of doubt – then it never ascends to the mountaintop where you say “My Lord and my God.”
Believing is not the same as blind certainty.
Believing is the moment where you give yourself to the man, saying
The arguments for you seem to add up – you know the four big arguments for Christian faith
- That Jesus could not have been invented – as someone once said “If Jesus had been made up, then I would have to bow down and invent the person who invented him.” – there is something compelling about this character Jesus.
- That the world cannot be an accident – that universes don’t make themselves – especially universes that work because the laws of gravity, and the sizes of electrons, and the force of the Big Bang – all that just works, and getting that to work is very tough indeed
- That you cannot fake resurrections – that for a bunch of illiterate terrified fishermen to appear on the streets of an ancient city saying that they had seen a dead man and from that to begin a Church could only really happen, it those men and women were telling the truth.
- The transformation of people in whose lives have become wrapped in trusting Jesus.
Belief is not the same as absolute certainty. Sometimes we say “Unless I can believe in Jesus the way I can believe in gravity, then I will never believe.”
Let me give you an illustration of this.
I used to work as an outdoor instructor and one of the activities I used to instruct was the abseil tree.
The abseil tree was one of the most moving experiences.
People would come in groups of about eight.
Firstly you would demonstrate an abseil yourself, show that it could be done.
And you would talk about the ropes and the harnesses and the weights that they can hold – often about three tonnes.
And they would take it in turns to climb up the tree to a platform about 35 feet up, and then abseil down.
Normally you would get someone who had done it before to go first.
And about the middle of the group you would take the folk who were feeling a bit more confident
And at the end the folk who were terrified.
When I worked on the abseil tree, you used to bring people up.
And these were very emotional moments,
Folk were in a place that they weren’t used to being in.
They were high up above the ground, and if it was a windy day you could hear the wind, and you could feel the trunks swaying.
And you would clip folk to the karabiner, and then invite them to swing out over the gap and let their rope and harness hold them.
At that moment, just as they are about to do that, would you say that that person has blind certainty that they are going to be alright. No.
They have seen three or four people do this before, but that it is not helping them a whole lot.
And to be honest it is a bit dull if they have blind certainty. What’s the point in them being there. They might as well be back at the shops.
No they don’t have blind certainty.
But when they swing out over the gap, for the first time in their lives letting the rope take the strain, and despite the fact that there is nothing underneath them, they trust the voice that says “I’ve got you”.
Would you say at that moment that they believed?
And there is something interesting.
The folks that went over confidently and the folks who were terrified – which ones believed the most? Well kind of an irrelevant question – because all of them believed enough (and the ones who sweated it out, they were the ones who enjoyed the memory most of all). And the ones who just saw, who didn’t do the thing, how much did they enjoy abseiling? Are they going to have their lives changed by it?
That is belief.
Christian belief would be the dullest thing, the least transformational thing if it was blind certainty.
Christian belief would be the stupidest thing if it had not arguments at all to lend it it’s truth.
Christian belief changes you because it demands of important people and ordinary people alike – geniuses and people with the most profound learning needs
It demands that they – cowards and heroes
Inspiring saints and desperate sinners
It demands of them all not just that they see
But give of themselves to this remarkable man Jesus – it demands that they believe.
Seeing Is Not Enough
Nicodemus is a bit of a hero of mine.
Because he is a bright guy, but he just doesn’t get it.
And he is probably scared.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, probably because he is scared of being seen in Jesus company.
The night also has a double meaning, because it is suggestive that even though Nicodemus knows lots of things, he is still in the dark.
And he just doesn’t get Jesus.
Jesus says to him – you must be born again, which is about an experience of God which is so transformative, that it is like being born again
And Nicodemus says “how can a man be born when is old? How can he get back into his mother’s womb.”
He is in the dark.
But he keeps questioning Jesus.
And Jesus tells him the story of the serpent being lifted up, and people looking at it and being healed.
And he says so must the son of Man be lifted up
But this time it’s not just about seeing, because seeing is not enough
“That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The English makes that sound like you will have life, a time after you have believed
You know you believe, and then you live your life for the next fifty years, or however long it is until you die, and then you go to eternal life.
But the Greek suggests that you have the eternal life in the now.
That the minute you believe, like dangling over the abseil gap
The minute you believe, you have life.
Hugh Halter says what you believe about Jesus will be the single most determining factor in your life.
If you believe he is a good teacher – you will find him interesting
If you believe he is a Church leader – you will go to Church
If you believe he is death defeater – then you will try and get a hold of him before you die
If you believe he is a nice big grandpa – you will ask him for things, even though he is senile and doesn’t understand your life.
If you believe he is a policeman – you will act nice in front of him, and hope that he is not around you too often.
But if you believe he is the man hoisted up from the earth, to give us life
You will not just look at him
You will believe.
The story of Nicodemus.
People are not sure if Jesus stops talking to Nicodemus at 15 or verse 21.
But if he carries on to say in verse 16 probably the most famous verse in the whole Bible.
For God so loved the world – I love that the start of this is that God loves. If you want a reason for anything, way back at the start of those reason is that God loves.
That he gave his only Son – what love is that to give up that which you love the most
That whoever sees him – no whoever believes in should not perish but have eternal life.
Nicodemus the fearful, question laden doubter
The man tied up in the system, who doesn’t have faith like these other disciples
He is the one who hears that for the first time.
We see Nicodemus twice more in the gospel.
In John chapter 7 the Pharisees have tried to arrest Jesus but the officers they sent to arrest him were so stunned by the way he spoke “no one every spoke like this man” they say that they come back to the Pharisees without him.
The Pharisees are furious, but Nicodemus (who is referred to as “one of them” – meaning he’s a Pharisee, not a disciple at this point) says “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”
The Pharisees turn on him “Are you from Galilee too?” But Nicodemus says nothing.
He is still cowering, he is still watching, he does not yet believe.
And then at the end of the story, Jesus is died, and he is on the cross.
And one man called Jospeh who is a secret disciples because he is afraid very courageously goes to the Roman governor, Pilate and asks for Jesus body.
And he we know that this is still the day – because the Sabbath will arrive at night-fall.
He goes, and who goes with him?
Nicodemus who before was scared, who before stayed silent
Now when it is most dangerous steps out
And he takes the body of Jesus.
Just as Jesus said he must be lifted up, Nicodemus sees this
And takes the body down and he has seventy five pounds worth of spices
And because they have to get Jesus to a tomb before evening, they find a close by tomb and take Jesus there.
And Nicodemus has at last stepped out
We are not told, but either this moment
Or the moment when he hears that the Jesus whom he laid in the tomb has gone
That is the moment he believes.
That is the most transforming moment in his life.
The Call To Believe
Where are you in your faith at your moment.
Are you full of questions likes Nicodemus with Jesus at night?
Are you half-sure, but not yet fully committed like Nicodemus?
Or are you prepared to do the risky, dangerous step of faith like Nicodemus at the cross?
Are you filled with assurance
Or are you terrified but still wanting to step out?
None of us have ever seen Jesus
And this side of eternity none of us will
But through the Spirit of God we can believe
And believing in Jesus is like looking at the serpent
It’s what heals us, it’s what lets us live.
Believe in Jesus and you will have life
Now, and the moments after now, forever.