“Saved From, Saved For”

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

March 10, 2024

Rev. David Germer

Well our sermons in Lent have been focusing on the Old Testament or Hebrew Scripture passages… but this week, we agreed that that Numbers passage that Alice read is a truly bizarre text, on its own. There could be a sermon in that text, but this week I’m centering on the gospel text – John, chapter 3, beginning with verse 14.

This is Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to him in the night with some questions. After some back and forth dialogue, Jesus is beginning to turn it into a monologue.

Listen for God’s word:

“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. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.’

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

If you were listening carefully… you may have just experienced a bit of theological whiplash.

Almost every one of these verses, taken alone, could form the foundation for a distinct view of Christian salvation. Who is “saved?” And how? And why?

In fact if you’d never read any of the gospels, and I gave some in the room verses 14 through 16, and some in the room verses 17 and 18, and some 19-21, and asked you to tell the others about salvation, eternal life, and what matters most… there be a very large fight. Each has a distinct flavor.

Of course, one of those verses wears the blue ribbon for verses taken alone – out context – not just in this particular passage but in the entire Bible. Which one?

John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that anyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

I imagine that most of us love that verse, or at least find something to love in that verse… while also recognizing that it’s been weaponized, used against some people. And, my guess and hope, is that you feel at the very least, a little conflicted, about that. What does this imply or teach about those who don’t believe? About those who never hear about Jesus or have a chance to know “the Son?”

And you probably feel similarly about other pieces of the surrounding verses.

It would be understandable, then, to read this passage, and say: “well, here’s the piece in this that I like, that fits with the theology I hold, so that’s the part I want to focus on (and can we please just ignore the rest?).” But I want to invite us to read it with more integrity than that, to see if it can expand our understanding of 1) salvation, and 2) eternal life.


First, Jesus’ reference to the Numbers passage, in the context of the conversation with Nicodemus leading up to it, seems like a non-sequitur. Even if you’d heard me read the verses leading up to v. 14, it comes out of the blue. Nicodemus was asking about the signs that Jesus was doing, and about being born from above, and then Jesus starts talking about eternal life, by making a brief reference to a bizarre and obscure story about God sending snakes to bite people in the desert.

But he doesn’t just retell the story, he transforms it into something else, or at least, he injects it with new meaning.

In the snakes in the wilderness story, the issue is sin. (We’re going for a Presbyterian record of using that word two weeks in a row). The people have turned from God, they’ve missed the mark. And now they find themselves in need of saving. Saved from sin. Saved from the snakes – the result of their sin.

God does save them. The source, or object of their salvation becomes what? A bronze snake. Lifted up.

And all the people have to do, is look at it.

Jesus says: just like the snake was lifted up, so will the Son of Man be lifted up, referring, most think, to the cross, where HE can be seen as the object of OUR salvation. Saved from all that seeks to separate us from the confidence of God’s love. Saved from the shackles that bind us in fear.

All WE have to do… is believe.

I once heard a memorable, deeply evangelical sermon on this idea, that sought to enact this idea with an embodied image, within the sermon… and it was so effective that I once stole the embodied image and enacted it myself in a sermon… and I feel embarrassed enough about it that I’m NOT going to do it here with you… but not so embarrassed that I won’t tell you about it.

It goes like this: the preacher explains that the good news of Jesus’ love for the world is a gift, freely given to all – “you don’t have to earn it, in any way. In fact, it’s just like this 20 dollar bill” (and here, the preacher pulls out his prop – a real $20 bill)… “freely offered” (and he approaches perhaps a youth or child, and holds out, while all in the room are in quiet anticipation)… “all you have to do….” (eventually, the child, after looking around realizing that they are truly expected to take the bill… does it! Reaches out and grabs it!)… “is take it.”

Memorable… but a little problematic, for a number of reasons.

Let me try another image, though, getting at the same idea. I’m stealing this one, too, from my brother. I find it helpful and think about it often.

Imagine you’re hiking at the Grand Canyon, and naturally, to get the full effect of the grandeur of the canyon, you get right up to the edge so you can see down to the bottom, but as you approach the edge, you trip, and fall – over the edge!

And this is one of those few places at the canyon where it is a sheer cliff, from top to bottom, so it’s a LONG way down – long enough that you have time to think, as you’re falling: “this is it.”

Now imagine out of the corner of your eye, you see a single branch, sticking out from the side of the cliff just below you. (This all, of course, is happening in milli-seconds.)

Here’s the question: How sure do you need to be that that branch can support your weight, for you to reach out and grab it?

Not certain at all! You can be 99% sure the branch is going to break, you’d still reach out for it, right? What would save you… is the strength of the branch, not the strength of your faith; the object of your faith, not the quality… that saves you. (Remember, elsewhere, Jesus says you don’t have to believe the most or the best – mustard-seed sized faith will do).

If you don’t grab the branch… it wouldn’t matter how certain you were that it would or wouldn’t hold your weight – you’d fall right past.

But if you do grab – if you put even a smidge of faith in that branch – it’s strength would hold and save you.

Is that what Jesus is saying?

In the wilderness, the people didn’t have to re-earn their way into God’s good graces, to be saved – they just had to look at the bronze snake. They didn’t even need to understand why or how that worked – they just had to trust: “God can do it this way.” The Numbers passage, after our reading, does not continue with the people trying to figure out the physics or theology of HOW the snake lifted up “worked.” When they were bitten, they looked.

You don’t need to have a perfect understanding of the various interesting (and less interesting) ‘atonement theories’ of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection for Jesus to save you – you just need to reach out – to believe that he can.

Now maybe you like that. Maybe that is refreshing to you, because it reminds you, reminds us that salvation’s not about our effort or understanding or penance or our good deeds.

But maybe you feel like that still it puts too much on us.

We have to take the $20. We have to grab ahold of the branch. We have to believe. Isn’t that just a different version of earning God’s love, and our salvation, through something we do?

I understand, and can’t say I object to that feeling.

So let me offer more images.

Maybe the image you prefer, is what’s known in literature and film as a deus ex machina (which literally means “god from the machine”). It’s a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly or abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence.

You may think of the end of Toy Story 3 (which I hope you’ve seen), when Woody and Buzz and the whole gang end up in the trash and have gone down into an incinerator, and have done all in their power to escape. In a moving scene that I can’t watch without crying, they realize there is nothing more they can do, so one by one they accept their fate, and hold hands, and face it… when suddenly from above, the hand of a literal machine, god-like in this case – “the claw” reaches in and grabs them and pulls them out.

You might think of the Eagles flying in for Frodo and Sam, at Mt Doom in Mordor, at the end of the Return of the King. Or Fawkes the Phoenix flying in to save Harry Potter at the end of Chamber of Secrets.

I’d like to think that in our Grand Canyon analogy, all who need saving… will simply be saved, whether they reach out for the branch or not! Maybe God can send an Eagle, or a Phoenix, or a claw?

Why do we need to grab on? Take the money? Look at the snake? Believe in the good news of Jesus?

Well. Presbyterians are not uniformly united on this, but when it comes to ultimate salvation, I have to say, I think Scripture gives us reason to hope that all will be saved. That God will make all things right, with every single person made in God’s image.

But I think Jesus is speaking about more than where our minds race off to, when we hear the phrase “ultimate salvation.” Jesus wants us to enter into eternal life, now.

Here’s what I mean. The phrase translated as eternal life, or life everlasting, is taken from a Hebrew term: life unto the age. Our closest translation might be the word “era.” People use that word, largely, to fit their purposes… and that actually kinda works, for how it’s used in the Bible, too.

An era could be something that took place a really long time ago, and its duration is a really long period of time. Maybe in world history: the classical era, or medieval era. The Great Depression, could be seen as an era. Geologically speaking, you of course know that we’re in the Cenozoic era. (I looked that up, yesterday). Or it could be much shorter – less likely to show up in a text book. Duke fans may have fond memories of the Coach K era; fans of the San Antonio Spurs might speak of the Tim Duncan era… or they might talk about the age to come: the Victor Wembanyama era. (The Spurs rookie sensation.) (It doesn’t have to be past – could be present, or future.)

Some of you may have seen a certain musical mega-star perform in concert last summer… that’s right the Eras tour, when Swifties could relieve all of Taytay’s distinct musical eras.

An era is any period of time with some common, unique attribute that remains the same.

Life unto the age – eternal life – refers to a period of time with a distinct set of characteristics. Throughout the Bible, two different ages are described, in contrast to one another. In the garden, humans are given life unto the age – life connected to God’s divine life. But they choose to reject it. They seize life on its own terms, apart from God’s wisdom, and enter another era: the age of death.

That’s the age or era we’re living in. We are mortal.

But when Jesus shows up, and he IS connected to God’s divine life, and he starts talking about how people can have eternal life… or they can perish… we know he’s not saying: in the future, some people will die, and some will fly off with wings into “the life era.” Everyone dies.

No. That’s not it. Jesus is giving us a choice, for how to live, now. The tense he uses for entering… having eternal life… is present. You can enter the life era – today. And every day. You can choose to step from darkness into light, from the age of death into the age of life… 1000 times a day.

The gift of John 3, is certainly assurance that God is about saving, not condemning the world, because God is love.

But its other gift, is the invitation of the life of Jesus, through which we see: THIS is what it looks like, to enter the life era. Now. Live in the light.

When we see that, we can hear the choice given to us: all you have to do, is take it, grab on, believe… not as some high stakes game with one-time-only eternal consequences. In John, Jesus isn’t trying to get us into some post-death realm of good vibes and nice stuff, freeing us from “hell” (a word that never even shows up in John’s gospel).

In fact, in this part of John’s gospel, Jesus is not even that concerned by what we are being saved from – he’s far more concerned with what we are being saved FOR.

Knowing Jesus, is a perpetual, continuous reminder, that we don’t have to live as people who are dead – stuck in our old ways, resigned to despair or apathy or unimaginative systems and structures, caught in meaningless routine.

God so loved the world, that he gave his son, that whoever believes in him has eternal life – now! Take it. Grab ahold. Believe the gospel. Amen.



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