Learning the Hard Way

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

March 14, 2021
4th Sunday in Lent
Scripture readings – Numbers 21: 4-9 and John 3: 14-21

“A Chinese boy who wanted to learn about jade went to study with a talented old teacher. This gentleman put a piece of the stone into the youth’s hand and told him to hold it tightly. Then he began to talk of philosophy, men, women, the sun, and almost everything under it. After an hour he took back the stone and sent the boy home. The procedure was repeated for weeks. The boy became frustrated – When would he be told about jade? – but he was too polite to interrupt his venerable teacher. Then one day when the old man put a stone into his hands, the boy cried out instantly, “That’s not jade!” [H. Robinson, Biblical Preaching, p. 102.]

If only that young boy had the opportunity to learn this lesson the easy way…that would be the talented old teacher showing the boy a piece of jade, explaining all the aspects and characteristics about jade, and the boy would absorb that information the first time…and retain it for all time.  But no… that’s not how this story goes.  And it’s not the way that most of us learn either.

I’m not going to ask if anyone here has ever learned anything the hard way.  I don’t want to embarrass anyone, nor do I want to raise my own hand high to show I’m in that group too.  I will just proceed with the assumption that all of us have learned this at some point in our lives.

I’m also not going to ask if anyone here has ever learned anything the hard way – more than once.  Again, I don’t want to embarrass anyone, nor do I want to raise my own hand to show I’m in that group too.  I will just proceed…

Yet, when we read today’s story in the Old Testament book of Numbers, it is hard not to cringe when we consider the attitude, actions, and biblical sass that those Israelites exhibited in the desert as they finally neared the end of their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.  By this point, the Israelites had raised a ruckus on ten different occasions, but they had always raised it with Moses – not directly with the Lord.  Even though we can clearly see their complaints were actually with the Lord, they were careful not to ever directly complain to or about the Lord…

…until now.

Before we get to the specific complaint that we heard about today, let me very briefly review those ten other complaints:

  • They complained about a lack of food, or that they were tired of the food the Lord provided them 4 different times.
  • They cried about their enemies or what danger they were in 2 different times.
  • They complained about a lack of water 2 different times.
  • They complained about Moses being gone on the mountain so long that they made a golden calf to worship.
  • They complained to Moses about something that is not recorded – but it is listed.
  • And finally, they complained about having to go around Edom instead of a shorter path through Edom.  This one is truly bizarre because the Edomites would not permit them to pass through their land, and I guess the Israelites expected the Lord to lead them to defeat the Edomites.  But they had to go the long way instead to avoid a battle.  This made them complain not only against Moses, but also – for the first time – complain directly against the Lord too.

That’s a lot of complaining!  Ten different times before the Lord had enough…this time was different.  This time those stiff-necked Israelites would learn a different lesson.

So poisonous snakes were sent among the people, and many people were bitten and died.  So, they followed their earlier pattern of behavior (at least they had learned that!); they went to Moses and asked him to beg the Lord for forgiveness.

Then the new lesson begins: the Lord tells Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and lift it up high so the people can see it.  Then, if anyone was bitten but looked upon the bronze snake, they would live.

Notice that the Lord did NOT remove the snakes; he put something there to remind the people of their behavior.

The big lesson here is not because of the Israelites’ behavior; it is because of their lack of faith; a lack of faith which clearly made no sense at all.  How many times did the Israelites need to see the Lord in action on their behalf before they asked instead of complained?

Apparently, more than ten times…

Then we have the New Testament reading from John’s Gospel which contains a story about a Pharisee named Nicodemus who came to see Jesus at night.  This story – at first glance – doesn’t seem to follow the theme of today’s message “Learning the Hard Way.”  But I think it does.

Nicodemus began the conversation with an acknowledgement of Jesus’ skill as a teacher from God.  But Jesus responded with the statement that no one could see the Kingdom of God without being born again.  And the discussion began in earnest.  The problem was clear almost immediately: not only did Nicodemus not understand what Jesus was talking about, he could barely keep up with the discussion or what he was hearing.  His questions seemed weak and barely broke the stream of Jesus’ words.  Jesus tried to talk to Nicodemus of earthly things Nicodemus could not believe; so Jesus remarked that to speak to him of heavenly things would do no good.  Then Jesus referred to when the Israelites had to learn the hard way about having faith and trusting the Lord by lifting up that bronze snake; then he compared it to the Son of Man being lifted up so that everyone who saw it could also be saved.

I suspect that this is when Nicodemus may have left the scene; you will notice if you read the whole passage carefully, Nicodemus is not mentioned again. 

For that highly trained and learned man to come away from that conversation completely confused is not that surprising.  What should surprise all of us is that despite all the training and learning that Nicodemus had done for his entire life, it did him no good at all when he faced the Lord Jesus Christ.  He had to learn what he truly needed to know the hard way – he had to be around when Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, sent to Pilate, condemned, crucified, and buried.  Don’t think for a minute that just because the Gospels did not mention Nicodemus in the four passion narratives that he wasn’t there.  All the Pharisees were there, although perhaps Nicodemus was not out front and center.  Alone, he could not have prevented what happened to Jesus.  Yet, when Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus, Nicodemus helped Joseph to hurriedly place the body in the nearby tomb.  Nicodemus would not have done that if he was the same person who visited Jesus that night to ask some questions.

I truly believe that somewhere along the way, Nicodemus became a believer in Jesus.  Perhaps he was not on the same level as the Apostles became later, but I don’t think he returned to his regular duties in the Sanhedrin at the Temple.  I don’t think he could.

You see…just like those ancient Israelites in the desert who doubted the Lord, Nicodemus also doubted his Lord too.  

Both learned what they needed the hard way.  They may have been ashamed, they may have been humbled, they may have truly changed their hearts.

But both learned what they needed the hard way.

Because sometimes that’s the only way the Lord can teach us.