Our Gospel reading immediately follows on the story of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus by night, and serves as John’s commentary on that encounter.
The First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
There is no getting around the strangeness of this story. Life in the wilderness for the Israelites is hard and they frequently complain. Egypt doesn’t look so bad out in the desert. Their complaining angers God, who responds with poisonous serpents. Throughout the ancient world the serpent held an ambiguous status as symbol of both death and healing. The caduceus, two serpents entwined on a winged staff remains today as a symbol of medicine. But why God would order Moses to construct what amounts to an idol is a mystery.
21:4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3 He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
17 Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.
18 They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death’s door.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
20 He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.
21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.
22 Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.
The Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
Our passage (particularly the last two sentences) is a succinct summary of Paul’s teaching. Grace saves through faith which produces a life of good works. This is despite the fact that we live in the time of the Fall—when we are “children of wrath,” dead in our trespasses. But the good news is “we are what he has made us!”
2:1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
The Holy Gospel: John 3:14-21
Our Gospel reading immediately follows on the story of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus by night, and serves as John’s commentary on that encounter. It begins with the symbolism of our first reading. Jesus must be lifted up (a clear reference to the crucifixion) just as the serpent was. The result will be eternal life, which God desires for all. The passage then ends with the necessity of belief and the image of light and darkness so prevalent in John’s Gospel. In Greek, the word translated “lifted up” can also mean “exalted,” or even “glorified.” ohn’s Gospel always refers to the crucifixion in this way, as an exaltation. The phrase “lifted up” will be used in this way again at 8:28 and 12:32-34.
3:14 Just 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, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
The Scripture quotations (except for the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved. The Collect of the Day and the Psalm translation are from The Book of Common Prayer. Commentaries are copyright © 2018, Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843, www.epiphanyesources.com. All rights reserved. Permission is given to copy for group use.