Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Several years ago, Jack Cullen, a reporter for the Quad City Times, called the church to ask my thoughts about all the trees cut down by the bridge. I asked, “What trees?” He said the ones downtown along the I-74 bridge.” I told him I didn’t know anything about the trees, but I would take a look and get back to him.
I drove to the downtown district and saw crews had cut down a broad swath of trees adjacent to the bridge. I was surprised to see the destruction. No one made any announcement about the trees, to the best of my knowledge. The trees lay there silent and motionless. The scene reminded me of a civil war battlefield with dead bodies strewn about.
Across the street from the trees, I noticed signs with a large picture of the proposed new bridge and words, saying, in effect, pardon the dust, and coming soon. The signs remind people the city has entered a transition period with the construction of a new bridge on the way. The loss of trees becomes the price of progress. The new bridge becomes a symbol of hope, rather than destruction. But still, driving by all those dead trees, lying on the ground, was a sad experience.
Through this event in our community, we are reminded people want to remain hopeful in the midst of the uncertainty and destructiveness of life. We need signs to show us present difficulties will be overcome and progress made. This need is as old as humanity. But the process will always be challenging and our frustrations and question numerous.
The Gospel for this Sunday raises up the issue of hope and transformation in a world bedeviled by pain and sin. Last week, you recall, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the Passover celebration and went to the temple where he drove out the money changers.
One evening, while staying in Jerusalem, a Pharisee, named Nicodemus, comes to Jesus late one evening. He was a Pharisee and religious leader of the Judean people. The fact he comes to Jesus at night indicates the suspicion and tension in the air. Nicodemus has questions he hopes Jesus will answer. He believes no one can accomplish the signs Jesus has done unless he has been empowered by God. The controversy surrounding Jesus perplexes him and he wonders about the claims Jesus makes.
Our Gospel for this Sunday reflects only part of their conversation. Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about God’s plan of redemption. He says no one can receive the kingdom without being born from above. This triggers a conversation centered on what it means to be born again. Still Nicodemus finds it difficult to understand the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus, therefore, takes a different tack, offering a different explanation of God’s plan of redemption. He reminds Nicodemus, therefore, of the trials the people of Israel faced wandering in the wilderness, following the Exodus from Egypt. In particular, he recalls the time people were bitten by snakes and dying. God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it up for those bitten by the snakes. Anyone who looks upon the snake will live.
Jesus applies the image of the bronze snake to himself. The Son of Man, that is the Messiah, will be lifted up, but, in this case, he will be lifted up on the cross. Those who trust in Christ crucified will be saved from their sin and receive salvation. Just as God acted to save the people of Israel through the bronze snake, he acts through Jesus to save all who believe.
Now comes a line we all know by heart. He says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Martin Luther called John 3:16 a summation of all scripture in a verse.
The Bible pivots on this one verse. Let me explain what I mean. Each Saturday morning for many years, a congregation offered a Men’s Bible study. The class read through, line by line, a book of the Bible from either the Old or New Testament. Most Christians hear just a snippet from one Bible book or the other each Sunday. Very few people have read and discussed the entire books of Isaiah or Ezekiel or Jeremiah, but our men’s group has. The Old Testament portrays an ongoing struggle between God and the people of Israel. The people of Israel and God smacks them down violently through the invading armies of Assyria or Babylon or Egypt. It is an endless story of apostasy and punishing retribution.
Therefore, when the Gospel of John describes how God loves this world so much he gives his only Son, the message comes across like a ray of sunshine in a turbulent and stormy sky. The portrayal of God’s nature shifts dramatically. No one word love over uses the word love in the Old Testament. The Old Testament portrays God as wrathful and his people as nefarious.
But now God approaches his people through Christ in an entirely different manner. God has no intention of beating his people into submission. Instead, he will lose the power of love upon them. Love is a transforming power.
Let me use this illustration. Several years ago, we heard more about racial conflict and violence in Ferguson, Missouri, Minneapolis and Portland. Charges of racism have been leveled against the Ferguson police in the aftermath of a police officer shooting to death an African American man, Michael Brown. We have seen violence begets violence again and again.
I came across this quote from Martin Luther King which is applicable to Ferguson. King once wrote: ““Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Love and justice must walk hand in hand for society to be transformed. The cross of Christ must be raised up.
May a light come into Ferguson, but not Ferguson alone. For racial hatred, bigotry and conflict may be found anywhere in the United States. We pray the light of God comes into our world through Jesus Christ. God’s love will be revealed in that light. We hold up Christ on the cross as the only power that can heal our divisions. In Bettendorf and Moline, the new bridge will serve as a sign of a new beginning for the Quad city. May the cross of Christ represent a new beginning for our society. The transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ must be held high that all who believe in him may not perish, but receive new life. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.