3.11.17 John 3:14-21
On Thursday nights, I try to remember to ask the children to thank our cooks as we stand in a circle for our prayer before the meal. Even the youngest ones seem to understand that when someone has spent time in the kitchen preparing food for you, she deserves a “thank you”. Sometimes we ask the chefs to tell us what to expect when we come to the serving table. It is an ongoing practice to remind children that when you hear a food item mentioned that you are not particularly fond of, you don’t say, “YUCK!” out loud in the hearing of the person who has prepared that dish for you. When confronted about it, most children can understand that any cook would feel bad about that kind of response, and they even can identify it as a rude comment, but it is definitely a work in progress! Complaining about the food is a very common human activity, no matter how old we are.
Complaints about food have been going on for a long time. Our gospel reading this morning provides an echo of an ancient time when a group of people complained about the food. It was the people of Israel, on their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, who were fed manna by God. They ate and were nourished, but they complained about it. And God, the provider of the food, got a little hot under the collar. We all would! Listen to what happened from Numbers 21: 4-9:
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. 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.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 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. 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.’ 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.
That snake on a pole became and remains the sign of healing understood around the world. I know you have seen it. The snakes were a punishment for the people’s ingratitude, their rudeness toward God, their complaining about the miserable food. The only way to be saved, or rescued, from the power of the venom was to recognize their sin of rejecting God’s provision. They had to look at a snake in order to be saved. The only way to salvation from the power of the venom was provided by God.
Jesus will be raised up on a pole in a way that brings death, then life. The desert experience with salvation from venomous snakes is connected to the salvation provided by God in Jesus, God’s Son. Metaphorically speaking, looking upon a crucified savior will bring life to all who believe in him. And then comes the one liner that has been memorized and repeated and reproduced in all kinds of places as the gospel in a nutshell: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. I found it fascinating that some translations have separated this one verse from the rest of the story and given its own paragraph or else used it to begin a new paragraph. The original language gives us no indication that this verse should be set apart from its context, but for years we have done that, using John 3:16 as the definitive way to describe the individual, personal act of choosing belief and then receiving the reward of life eternal. I want to encourage us to not abandon the rest of the story. That is always the danger when we whittle theological proclamations too simply. Even in the gospel of John, the access to salvation looks different for different people. We forget that Jesus encounters people in their own unique situations, and salvation, or rescue, means something different for the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, the woman at the well in Samaria, the man lying by the pool, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet, and so on.
For God so loved the world—the cosmos, not just the people who believed, but the world as a whole…. I wonder why we have not committed the next verse to memory like we have v. 16: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Some translations use the word “condemn” where “judge” is used. Either are appropriate English translations for the Greek verb. But we know that “condemn” always has a negative connotation for us. Thinking we are condemned or, even worse, thinking that someone else is condemned, creates a mindset that fosters separation, fear and anxiety. To translate the word as “judge” allows for an understanding of being the opposite of being saved, but perhaps leaves more room for hope for change. I think it is more than semantics. The word that gets used is indicative of the translator’s view of God. I see God as judging, but not condemning. Indeed, God’s desire is clearly for the world to be saved, to be rescued from itself, to be healed, to be at peace, to live in love with one another. God’s desire is that we humans be in relationship with God, in communion or fellowship with God. Being judged is the opposite of being rescued or saved. It is not being in communion with God. Being judged is to live separated, isolated, away from God. That is not God’s desire for anyone, but it has been a choice of many.
Jesus himself is the judgement, the Greek word used here is the root of our English word crisis, meaning the need to decide. Jesus’ arrival creates a crisis, a need to decide—am I a follower or am I not? Will I obey his teachings or will I not? Staying neutral does not work. The contrast of light and dark weaves its way through this gospel again and again. Back in the prologue, the Word is light, in stark contrast to the darkness. And here, deciding for him is to decide to walk in the light of God, to do the truth. Deciding against him is to decide to remain in the dark, to do wicked things best kept away from the light. And not to decide is to decide.
The message is ultimately about the love God provides whether we accept it or not. Listen to the story told by another preacher, David Lose: One night, Benjamin, who was 6 years old, was not happy about having to go to bed. When his dad came into his room, he said, “I hate you, dad!” His dad said, “I am sorry you feel that way, Benjamin, but I love you.” The boy did not want to hear it. “Don’t say that, dad!” I can imagine he might have put his hands over his ears for emphasis. And the dad repeated the same message of love. They went back and forth, and finally the dad said, “Benjamin, I love you… like it or not!”
The preacher surmises that Benjamin was looking for some angle to shift his dad’s bed time standard in his favor, looking for a way to exercise even a tiny bit of power. Maybe he hoped that his dad would offer to let him stay up later if….. if he ate all his vegetables, if he cleaned up his room, if he went to bed earlier tomorrow…. When there are no ifs, there is no power on the part of the recipient of the great love. This is an image for me of the kind of love God has for us. It is unconditional. No ifs. Unchanging, and we can’t manipulate, influence or control it. Basically, we are powerless in the face of the unconditional love of God. God loves the world whether the world likes it or not, whether the world accepts it or not. God’s message to the world is love.
Like the healing power of the snake, John’s image is of Jesus as the one with the healing love for all who would look his way, for all who would see that he is lifted up, first on a cross, then from a tomb, and finally from the top of a hill at the ascension. It is clear that he is sent by God to bring love. To be love. To bring healing. To be healing. To bring grace. To be grace.
Later this morning, we will welcome new members into our church family. They met with our session this morning, and each of them shared their answers to the new questions we have begun asking those desiring to join our church. Who is Jesus Christ to you? How are you a part of God’s work in the world? What draws you to HRPC? By thinking through these questions, an individual not only proclaims what they believe about this Jesus—they are asked to make a decision. But they also describe how they are following him in this world that God loves so much. And they are affirming their desire to do this following as a part of a community, not only as an isolated individual.
God so loved the world. There is no escaping that. There is no changing that. We are loved whether we like it or not. Thanks be to God!