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To Help Or To Harm

John 3:1-17

The Rev. Jon Roberts

20 March


Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Venice, FL

3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode′mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode′mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode′mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.


Moses raises the serpent on the Cross, Stained glass at St. Marks Gillingham, Kent 1864

To help or to harm, O Lord,
Who is to say?
Having power to cure and to kill,
Teach us your Law wisely,
So that we may not go astray.[1]

A minister parked his car in a no-parking zone in a large city because he was short of time and couldn’t find a space with a meter. So he put a note under the windshield wiper that read: “I have circled the block 10 times. If I don’t park here, I’ll miss my appointment.

When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note. “I’ve circled this block for 10 years. If I don’t give you a ticket, I’ll lose my job.

Last week was the first Sunday in Lent and we recited the Decalogue, those ten lawful commandments, brought down by Moses so long ago. Together, they are considered to be the "Law." All of them relate to trespasses and temptations. So long ago, Moses brought the Law down. Today we see a picture of him raising it up. By looking at it, one might wonder if the Law is portrayed as something intended to cure or to kill.

On the southeastern shoreline of England, there is a church in Gillingham, Kent and there you will see this picture. The church is St. Marks; It is the evangelical church in Gillingham. After circling the block a few times, you park your car. You look up and marvel at the brick exterior buttresses, slated roof and stained glass windows. You anticipate going inside where you hear the music, but of the kind quite different than what you'd expect. Inside, you hear drums and electric guitars. There are rhythmic vocalists and people swaying back and forth. Many have their hands raised and some speak out in random. Casually dressed hosts warmly greet you. Walking a third of the way down the aisle you can see video projections of the music on two of the walls ahead. Magnificent archways are lined to the left and right all the way up to the beautiful altar rail. Behind the rail, and up two steps, is a magnificent altar with an engraving of the Bethlehem scene. After your senses have taken it all in, after the opening hymns and readings; after the lengthy sermon, you catch a glimpse of the picture in the stained glass window on the far wall behind the altar. It is the picture of Moses holding up a staff, with a large serpent affixed onto a wooden cross. One person with lesions is portrayed lying on the ground, reaching up with his hand towards the serpent. Another person is turned away and holds a live snake in his hand, about to strike. There is a mother holding her child and reaching out as well. A snake is on the ground threatening them. This is the scene of the Israelites who were led out of Egypt. What is the significance of those snakes? Why does it seem one is there to help yet another is there to hurt?

​Anyone who makes a Holy Lent is all too familiar with their sinfulness. We feel the pain like the man with the lesions. We feel fear like the man in danger. We feel helpless like the mother and child in harm's way. We are tempted to give in to our pain, fear and helplessness, but these are like the snakes, striking at our heels. Some, whose venom, penetrates and poisons; All consuming. Moses had the image of the thing, which consumed the people, raised up so that they would not lose hope. He raised it up as if to say God's law has conquered the very thing that causes their death. With the ark of the commandments in front of the procession, followed by the serpent staff, the visual was the Law would lead them out of death. Hundreds of thousands would physically be led through the wilderness by these two images.

​Picture if you will, that you were like one who followed Abram or one who followed Moses or even yet, one who followed Jesus. Called to leave your comfort zone, to leave your home country, all that you really have packed is your faith, as you set your eyes on God. Everything is new terrain and a little scary. How will you survive? How will you tarry? What can we lift up when in the low country of our life? Where is our hope? Is it in a graven image? Is it in the Ten Commandments? This is where Nicodemus may help. He is our contemporary example of one who taught all hope was in the image and commands of the Torah. He had written too many tickets to those who failed to keep God's commands and feared of losing his job. He knew there was a disconnect. That is why he went to find Jesus in the cloak of night. "I don't understand, how can the law be broken and yet someone still be saved? How can a person be born again?" Perhaps we are one like Nicodemus, well- stocked with knowing the letter of the Law, yet forgetting to live by the Spirit of the Law, which is of greater consequence. We may circle the block many times, hoping to be forgiven for our weaknesses, but we trespass when consumed by our sin, and fail to live by faith.

By faith in God, Abram built and raised the image of an altar; It was intended to teach us about making sacrifice. By faith in God, Moses fashioned and raised the image of a snake; It was intended to teach us life can be painful. By faith in God, Jesus lived and died, and was raised up on a Cross. This was intended that we might be born again; That we will not perish but have everlasting life.

God's Law is always raised up in Jesus Christ. Set forth to help and not to harm. so that we do not go astray.

[1] The Rev. Jon Roberts

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