March 14, 2021 “So Must the Son of Man Be Lifted Up”

“So Must the Son of Man Be Lifted Up” 

John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9


Let me tell you about Peggy. Now back in the 1990’s, Peggy was like most everybody else in Missoula, MT. She was active in her church community, and along with her husband was busy raising kids, paying a mortgage, and trying her best to get ahead in this life. But in one respect, Peggy was extraordinary. Now, in Missoula the main street going through downtown is called Higgins Ave. It runs north and south and crosses the Clark Fork River just south of downtown. On any given night, a large portion of the Missoula homeless population would gather under this overpass called the Higgins St Bridge. They were tucked out of sight for the most part, but everyone in town knew that this was going on. Everybody knew that this was a good place to avoid once the sun went down; everyone, that is, except Peggy. What Peggy saw was a people who were in need. So without giving it a second thought, Peggy decided that the least she could do is to feed these people. With the help of her husband and sometimes by herself, Peggy started gathering food and cooking and preparing, and then loaded up the family station wagon to feed a group of people the rest of the town chose to ignore. Fast forward a few years when a space opened up near the Scott St Market, the Rescue Mission of John 3:16 was born.

I got to meet Peggy after a speech she gave to the local Walk to Emmaus community. In particular, I remember her story about Bob. Now Bob was a rough one. He had a mean streak a mile long. I you wished Bob a “Good morning” he would probably answer, “What’s so good about it.” Anyway, Peggy had a thing about hats. For those eating at the tables of the rescue mission, Peggy had few rules: no fighting, no swearing, and please remove your hat. The first two weren’t much of a problem, but the third caused some serious grumbling. But after she explained that removing your hat at a meal was a show of respect and honor to the Lord, the folks in the dining hall gladly took them off. But not Bob. No, Bob stayed by himself with his coat zipped up and his hat pulled tight around his ears until the day Peggy decided she’s had enough. “I couldn’t get through to this man,” she said. “He had so much anger and hatred in him. He was a hard man to love.” And so it was that when she walked up behind him and yanked his hat off his head, she did it with the best love that she could muster. There was a test of wills at first, you can be sure of that, but somehow God’s love was victorious in that moment some 20 years ago. When I asked Bob about it some years later, he started to laugh. “When I felt that  hat coming off I was ready to kill somebody. I just seen red. Nobody does that to me. But when I looked up and there was Peggy telling me to quit feeling sorry for myself, something clicked. Nobody has ever cared for me the way that woman was doing right then. And you know what?” he said, “It dawned on me that’s the kind of love that Jesus has. Even for people like me.”

By the time that I got to know Bob, he had become a cook, a counselor, and one of the main helpers for the John 3:16 mission in Missoula and was doing great. “To passionately pursue changed lives by offering hope to the homeless and needy by demonstrating the Gospel of Jesus Christ:” this is the mission statement of the Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission. I might rephrase that to say, “To love the unlovable the same way that our God loves us,” because that’s what was going on back then and, hopefully, still is today.

Our scripture from John’s gospel has been called a lot of things over the centuries. It is the Hope Diamond of the gospel, the shining star. It’s one of the few verses that many of us know by heart, not because we were forced to memorize it, but because we wanted to. It is that precious; it is that important. “For God so loved the world…” I tell you, if we ever run out of things to be thankful for in this life, we will always have this.

Now, at the risk of totally breaking my train of thought, we do need to back up just a bit. It’s important to remember that Jesus isn’t speaking to the disciples here, nor is he preaching to the crowds. Jesus is sharing this instead with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council which tells me that he was kind of a big deal. That might explain why he sneaked out in the dead of night to talk with this man from Nazareth they called Jesus. People would surely get the wrong idea if he was seen speaking with this troublemaker in the light of day. But Nicodemus didn’t come looking for trouble. Instead, he came because he had tasted a love like he could never have imagined. Nicodemus came with questions and the answers have molded the shape of our faith ever since. But in the course of this conversation, there is one thing that stood out. It is the very first verse in our reading today, verse 14, which reads, 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. This is an obvious reference to our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Numbers. But is that it? Is this just a throw-away line that we simply gloss over on our way to verse 16? The nation of Israel had lost their patience. They had lost their trust, they had lost their faith in the promises of God. But it took a raft of poisonous snakes to bring them to repentance. The story of Moses and the bronze snake on a pole is a weird one; I’ll grant you that. But consider what it was that God sent to heal them. He didn’t just snap his fingers and make it all better. He didn’t make them promise to do better and to be better. No, instead he lifted up their sin before them. They begged Moses to get rid of these vipers. God gave them a way to heal, but only if they gazed upon the end result of their sin could they be healed.

As we come near the end of the Lenten season our thoughts turn to the resurrected Christ of Easter. But in the meantime, the image of the cross is still before us. Once again, the words of Jesus (vs 14) when he said 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. How do you view the cross? Is it a symbol of pain and suffering or one of hope and renewal? A means of grace? A path to the divine? I’d have to say it is all these and more, but that is the mystery of the cross. We don’t need to understand it, but we do need to see it. So must the Son of Man be lifted up. We need to see the Christ lifted up not so much as an atonement for our sin, but as a result of our sin. So look up. To believe in the power of the cross is to rely on Jesus for everything. It is to trust that the lifting up of the Son of Man is our only hope, our only “anti-venom,” our only means of rescue.

I always regretted that I didn’t get the chance to know Peggy better in those days. I think now that one question I might have asked is “Why the name John 3:16? I mean, wouldn’t Isaiah 58 or something similar be better for a food bank?” I can only guess her answer, but I imagine it would have to do with God’s love for us all: a love so deep and so powerful and so pure that we can only hope to imitate this kind of love. “For God so loved the world…” So yea, 3:16 – it’s the perfect name.

Amen & Shalom

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