Sermon for September 17, 2023
When I was little, I was taught to identify one constellation in particular—the Big Dipper—and how to find the North Star by following the handle of the Big Dipper. There’s so much light pollution these days, it seems like the stars aren’t as visible as they used to be. You have to go way out in the country to really see them. So I wonder if kids (at least kids in cities and towns) still learn this basic little fact about the stars.
The North Star is important because it’s our pole star. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, it’s the one star that seems not to move. In fact, if you see a time-lapse photo of night sky, it looks like all the stars in the sky are revolving around the North Star while it just sits still.
Because the North Star is the only star that appears to remain constant in the night sky, it is important to navigators, because they can use it to guide a ship safely to its destination. Charles Spurgeon (the famous 19th-century preacher) once compared a favorite Bible verse to the pole star. The verse was John 3:16, and of it, he said,
Of all the stars in the sky, the North Star is the most useful to the mariner. This text is such a pole star, for it has guided more souls to salvation than any other Scripture. It is among promises what the Big Dipper is among constellations [alt].
Most of us are pretty familiar with John 3:16, and I bet we’d agree with Rev. Spurgeon that that verse might well be the North Star of the Bible. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that it might actually be a bit too well known. We might have a tendency to even take it for granted because we know it so well. And so today, we heard it from a different version than the one we’re used to.
I chose the New Living Translation because, not only is it true to the original, but it also highlights a little word that we usually overlook. And that word is usually translated as so. Here’s the verse:
For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
I think we hear the phrase God so loved the world, and we assume that it means God loved the world so much… The Greek word there is οὕτως, which means thus. And so the so in God so loved the world doesn’t really mean so much, but rather, like this—as in he did it just so. That’s why I like this modern translation: It’s not only correct, but it helps us understand what’s actually being said. Jesus is telling us not only that God loved the world, but also how God loved the world.
To understand this a little better, let’s go back to Spurgeon’s comparison of this verse to the pole star—and the constellation it’s in. Remember, as kids we were taught first to find the Big Dipper in the sky and follow its handle to the end to find the North Star. So are there Bible passages that help us identify this most important of stars—this star that helps the lost find their way home to God?
Well, I guess there must be, because Jesus points to one himself. The problem is, it’s one of the strangest stories in the Bible. I’d go so far as to say that if I had my choice, it’d be one of the stories I’d either remove from the Old Testament… or at least ignore. Except I can’t. Because Jesus considers it important enough to refer to it right here in John 3, between the place where he told us we had to be born from above—or born again (John 3:3) and the place where he told us that God so loved the world (John 3:16).
And so part of the handle of the Bible’s Big Dipper—one of the stars that points us to the guiding star—is a passage found in the Book of Numbers (21:5-9). Here, as a consequence of their sin, the Israelites are being bitten by venomous snakes. And so God tells Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole. Then, if anyone is bitten, they can look at the serpent on the pole and be healed.
It's a weird story, and not one that I am prone to turn to for any sort of reassurance. Except Jesus forces me to by literally comparing himself to the serpent on the pole:
As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
It’s clear here that Jesus is comparing this very old and mysterious symbol to his own death, when he would himself be lifted up on a pole—namely a cross.
So why did he do this? How can the crucifixion of the Son of God be like putting a snake on a pole? Wasn’t the serpent the real problem in the first place? Surely Jesus isn’t saying that he is like a deadly snake that attacked people!
And the answer is No, he was not saying that. What he was saying—and it’s something he would say again and again up until the moment of his crucifixion—is that there is evil in the world. And the evil is deep-rooted within all of us. None of us can claim to be pure. All of us have fallen short. And even when we do the right thing and make the right choices, we can still be brought down by someone else’s wrong choices. And somehow, all this evil, all this wrong, was allowed to fall on Jesus with full force. It’s what brought him down and then lifted him up on a cross. It’s what killed him. And so when we look to him, lifted up and hanging on the cross, what we are looking at is the ultimate consequence—the final result—of the evil that is so much a part of our lives.
And we are seeing that God has taken note of our predicament, and that God loves us. And this is how God loved us: God came to us in the flesh; God became one of us—one with us—and allowed God’s very self to be lifted up, so that we might look upon him in faith and be made whole.
When Israel was in the wilderness being bitten by venomous snakes, they were able to look upon the image of the thing that was taking their lives and be healed. In Jesus, we are able to look upon the full consequences of what is taking our lives—the evil that surrounds us in the world—and be made whole. It’s like looking at the worst case scenario, the worst that could happen, and see that even should the worst happen, God can overcome it.
That’s what the crucifixion and resurrection is all about: God experiences our humiliation, our pain, and even our death, and comes out on the other side: Alive and invincible. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.
This is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Trusting in the God that is present in Jesus does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen. What it means is that God will always be with us, lifted up above the problems we have to face. Trusting in Jesus doesn’t mean we will be delivered from the immediate effects of our wrongdoing or even the wrongdoing of others. What it means is that there is healing past the pain, there is resolution beyond confusion, there is reconciliation despite separation, and there is life after death.
Jesus is both the how and the how much of God’s love. Look to him and experience life.
—©2023 Sam Greening