Pastor Sherry’s message for March 14, 2021
Scriptures: Num 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22; Eph 2:1-10; Jn 3:14-21
Stories are told—true stories—of both Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria pardoning someone who had incurred the death penalty. In Queen Elizabeth’s case, the queen was traveling by barge on July 17, 1579. Not realizing her majesty was cruising through the area, a young man named Thomas Appletree was firing off shots into the air to impress his friends. Unfortunately for him, one of his bullets came within 6 feet of the queen, seriously wounding one of her rowers. The queen offered encouragement to the wounded man while young Appletree was summarily arrested by her guards and later condemned to death. Just as Appletreewas being led to the gallows, however, a pardon arrived from the queengraciously sparing his life. We don’t know her motivations. Perhaps she realized it had been a careless accident, “no harm, no foul.” Or maybe she had an appreciation for the folly of youth. Whatever the case, she let the guy go free.
In Queen Victoria’s case (just 18 years old when she came to the throne in 1837), she was asked to sign some documents, one of which concerned the execution of a criminal. She was reluctant to do this and asked, “And must I be a party to his death?” The Prime Minister answered, “I fear it is so, unless Your Majesty desires to exercise her royal prerogative of mercy.” In a surprising move for someone so young and so new to power, she responded, “As an expression of the spirit in which I desire to rule, I will exercise my royal prerogative.” She wrote, “Pardoned” on the document, and the man was freed.
In both examples, neither fellow to be executed had any power to save himself. Instead, both were pardoned by the sovereign authority—really by the saving grace–of God and of his compassionate monarch.
Our scripture lessons today all attest to the saving power of our God:
Numbers 21:4-9 Recounts the 8th and final incidence of the Israelites grumbling against God during their desert wanderings.
No doubt they were tired of trudging across desert terrain, of the unchanging wilderness landscape, and of the food—marvelous though it was! Even a daily ration of steak or lobster would lose its appeal if that were all we had to eat. So, they declare (v.5)àWe detest this miserable food. Despite the fact that it tasted good (like honey and coriander); was so nutritious that they had no diseases, cancers, or flues for 40 years; and they didn’t have to produce it by digging or hunting. They simply had to gather the flakes from the ground each morning. Falsely asserting that they had it so good back in Egypt, they grumble one too many times.
Their behavior is what we might call “snarky,” or “snaky,” and certainly demonstrated a lack of gratitude to God. So, in an apt judgment for their lack of appreciation, the Lord sets loose poisonous snakes among them. No doubt these snakes bit the worst of the complainers first, and then struck fear into everyone else. (I mean, think of it! No chairs in the desert to jump up on to get away. No guns to shoot the things! YIKES!) But, when they beg Moses for help, God also graciously provides a curious snake-bite remedy: He has Moses fashion a snake out of bronze and affix it to a wooden pole, which he raises up so it can be seen. He then tells them that if they are bitten, they can look upon the snake on the pole and be healed.
This incident and God’s antidote are actually a foreshadowing, or a typology of Jesus: The snake represents the peoples’ sins, ingratitude and rebellion. The snake—sin–is nailed to tree, branch, or cross. (In the Hebrew, all three words are the same. Any portion of a tree, even a twig, was called a tree.) Jesus, on the Cross, exchanges our sins for His right-standing with God the Father.
Today’s Gospel, John 3:14-15, references and interprets this Old Testament event. Jesus says, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. In other words, as Jesus explains to the Pharisee Nicodemus–and to us–it will be/was necessary for Him to go to the Cross and to die for our sins. We are set free of the penalty for our sins (death) by looking on Jesus with eyes of faith.
John goes on to say, (3:16) For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Notice it says that God loves all, but only saves those who believe in Jesus. Under the Old Covenant, we paid the price for our own sins. We raised or purchased an animal for sacrifice. Our sins were transferred to that animal, which the priest then slaughtered in our presence and burned on the altar. We left sin-free until we sinned again and had to do the same thing over and over. But under the New Covenant, we are forever saved by the power of God through our faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Please don’t miss the symbolism: Sin (not Jesus) is the snake! But through Jesus, our sin is nailed to the Cross of Christ–nothing else has to die and we are pardoned.
In Ephesians 2:1-10 Paul wants us to be mindful of the fact that we have no power, within ourselves, to save ourselves. Just like the two Brits who were saved by the two young queens, we are guilty of being sinners.
Paul writes, (verses 1-3, Peterson’s The Message) It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose His temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Some scholars believe that, without Jesus, we are all failures, spiritual zombies, lacking any ability to bring ourselves back to life.
But the great Good News is that (v.5)àInstead [of doing away with or executing us], immense in mercy and with an incredible love, He [God] embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on His own, with no help from us! Or, as Paul goes on to explain in verses 8-9 (NIV) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast.
Another of my heroes of the Christian faith is Martin Luther, the German reformer in the 1500’s. He had an exacting, critical father who wanted him to be a lawyer. Luther aspired to be a Catholic priest instead.
To his father’s huge disappointment, he did get ordained, but suffered from depression—probably somewhat due to having never received his earthly father’s approval. Luther feared he could never be good enough to please God. It is recorded that he read verses 8-9 in Ephesians 2 one day and had a “Eureka moment!” He realized he didn’t have to work so hard to attain God’s favor. No daily confessions–apparently he had attended confession 2-3 times a day trying to overcome his sinfulness. No repeated praying of the rosary day after day and no need to beat himself with a hand-held whip to atone. Instead, he finally realized that God the Father is not like his continually disapproving earthly father. Because of his faith in Christ Jesus, he had God’s favor. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we have God’s favor.
Again, Peterson paraphrases Paul so beautifully here (vv.4-7) Now God has us where He wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all His idea, and all His work. All we do is trust Him enough to let Him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. God loves us, but His holiness and His perfect justice require that we confess our sins to and verbalize our need for Him. He has the power and the grace to then forgive us due to Jesus’ atoning death on the Cross, and to (pardon) save us.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 spells out for us our appropriate response: In verse 1 the psalmist says we want to give thanks to the Lord because He is good to us and loves us. In verses 17-23 he exhorts us not to be rebellious and ungrateful, like the Israelites in the desert. In essence, we are urged to recognize God’s saving power.
The stories of the pardons of the two British queens are very grace-filled, are they not? They were gracious and magnanimous enough to eliminate the men’s punishment. But let’s remember that our God has done them one better. He didn’t just pardon us. He pardoned us thentook our sentence, the death penalty, so that justice was fulfilled and we wouldn’t have to pay the price There’s a contemporary Christian song with the following, relevant lyrics:
Amazing love, oh what sacrifice,
The Son of God given for me.
My debt He paid and my death He died
That I might live.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
C 2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams