Fourth Sunday in Lent                   March 11, 2018

Scripture readings:  Numbers 21: 4-9 and John 3: 14-21

Sermon: “We Heard You the First Time”

[For most of our services during Lent, the sermons will be based on the book Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church.  The fifth mark that will be discussed today describes the need to creatively repeat and reinforce the vision and inspire those who follow to embrace it.  Some who “get it” early in the process will remark, “We heard you the first time.”  But others may take longer.  How could this look in our church?


One of the dangers of reading and studying Scripture is that it is so very, very tempting to apply whatever we read to ourselves and our time and our situation EXACTLY as it occurs in the Bible.  A perfect example of this is last week’s reading in which Jesus made a whip of cords and drove out the sacrificial animals that the money-changers were selling in the Temple courtyard.  Jesus became enraged when he saw what they were doing, how they were cheapening his Father’s House, and he simply could not stand it.  So, he became “angry Jesus” and knocked over tables, scattered money, drove out the animals, and greatly upset the status quo in Jerusalem that day. Remember?

Imagine if we did that today.  Imagine if we went to one of the really BIG churches here in Houston – I’ll let you choose the one you want – and then, following Jesus’ example, we went in there with a whip of cords and drove everyone out, knocked over tables, and scattered money.

First of all, you didn’t even check to see what they were doing before you imitated “angry Jesus.”  Were they cheating anyone?  Were they using the money for their own gain?  Were they turning God’s house into a “den of thieves?”

Or were they selling items to finance the youth group’s mission to Malawi where they would help local people dig water wells?

Or were they having an Alternative Christmas Market in which products were sold that benefited Heifer Project International?  (and if you don’t know anything about Heifer Project, you should check that out…)

Or were they taking donations to replace the church’s ancient air conditioner which gave out the previous week and there is no money in this year’s budget to replace it?

Be careful, Christians: not every single thing in Scripture applies directly to us in our day and time.  Some things just don’t apply.

I think perhaps that’s why we keep repeating some of the same things over and over…because there is so much information in the Bible that DOES apply to us…and we need to hear those things often.

Today’s reading from the Book of Numbers is one that we do not often hear.  That alone gets my attention.  But much of it may strike our ears and our brains as more of that old “we’ve heard this before” stuff, so the temptation may be to think, “We don’t need to listen to this…we already know it.”

It isn’t a long reading…just five verses that mostly deal with the Israelites complaining in the wilderness and “sharing their feelings” with Moses!  How many times do we have to hear stories from Scripture describing the Israelites complaining about how bad they have it?  Turns out, the answer is 14.

Wow…14 times…that’s how many different times the Israelites complained loudly about their so-called rotten situation.  And every time they did, they listed the same tired old complaints:

  • “Why did you and God bring us out here to die?”
  • “This is new. We don’t like it.”
  • “We were better off when we were slaves in Egypt…at least we got fed different things instead of just…manna.”

Up to this point, the only ones that seemed to get the message and stick to it were Moses, Aaron, and Joshua.  But this time those whiny Israelites went a little farther than they usually did; this time they also complained against God.  So, God sent “poisonous serpents” among them to bite them, and many of them died.  The people freaked out and begged Moses to ask God for help.  This time, they also confessed their sins and begged for forgiveness.  God told Moses to set up a bronze serpent on a pole for the Israelites to see; if they looked at it, they would not die.  Notice that God never said anything about getting rid of the serpents… just that anyone who was bitten and looked at the bronze serpent would not die.

What an unusual story!  What a unique ending!

But don’t forget that this made the 14th time that the Israelites needed to see for themselves that God was all-powerful and would take care of them.

But seriously…14 times before they finally got the message?

Because if you check your Bibles, you will find that the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses did not complain again.

Did you get the lesson?  Because perhaps…just perhaps…this lesson DOES apply to us Christians today.

No, we aren’t openly complaining against Moses and God in the wilderness.  But how often do we forget all the blessings that God has given us?  How often do we fuss and whine and complain when things go wrong…and fail to see the things that are going right?  How often do we need to see God’s work on our behalf – sometimes work that appears right in front of our eyes – before we have a little faith in our prayers?

How many of you cringed just a little when we all read the Prayer of Confession for today?  In fact, how many of us cringe at all when we read ANY of the Prayers of Confession during our services?

In short, Christians…sometimes we aren’t listening or learning or even hearing.

Yet, if I repeat a message often from the pulpit, I know the temptation would be to think, “We heard you the first time.”  I know that is what I sometimes felt whenever I heard a familiar message from the various pulpits I have witnessed throughout my own lifetime.  In fact, if I knew a preacher well enough, I often noticed that messages were often repeated.  When that happened, I sometimes wondered why…

Perhaps the reason is that we have short attention spans…we know things, we have heard things, but we have not make it a part of our daily lives.

Perhaps we are exactly like those Israelites of old; perhaps we also need to see and hear and experience our complaints being brushed aside and God’s will for us revealed clearly; perhaps we also need to experience this 14 times before we get it.

Or more.

This raises an unsettling point, especially as your church leaders begin to plan ways to move our church forward: how often does everyone need to hear the basic message about changes and new ideas before everyone gets it?

Assuming that:

  • everyone may need time to process new information,
  • everyone may need time to ask questions and to raise alternate points,
  • everyone needs to feel that he or she has been heard in whatever the new plan may contain….

just how long will it take before everyone gets it?

Should we plan on 14 times like the ancient Israelites?  I hope not…I began this sermon by stating the danger in reading the Bible and assuming the lessons it contains always apply directly to us.  So, I hope it won’t take 14 explanations per person before we can move forward.

But we DO understand that new ideas often require time and conversations and even conflict before they can be properly introduced and implemented.

So, let’s consider one more point in this discussion: how often do you hear something for the 14th time – or more – and it just makes you smile…because you LOVE IT!

Once again, I turn to Scripture for today and read something I hope all of you already know: “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.”

Now I know you’ve heard it before.  I know you’ve heard it at least 14 times, if not thousands of times more.  But there is something about that sentence that is wonderful to hear even though we all know it.  You can easily tell me, “We heard you the first time” when you hear it, but it’s just so wonderful that it bears repeating again and again and again.  Just like…the stories that are coming up later this month…those stories that you’ve also heard thousands of times over…the ones that tell the story of Jesus’ betrayal, torture, execution, and burial.  It’s a story of what happens to someone who takes on the powers of evil and darkness.

But it’s also a story with a happy ending…one that we will hear with relief and excitement and amazement and joy – even though we’ve heard it all before.

Because there’s something about those stories that touch our hearts, warm our souls, and even fill our eyes with tears.

“We heard you the first time” may be a common refrain.  But the passion of our Savior, his triumph over sin and death – and especially the empty tomb of Easter morning – is a story that needs telling again and again and again…until we all get it.


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