I realize it’s probably treasonous, but I don’t watch many sports on television. I don’t watch that much television anyway, but that’s beside the point. I do know that when I have seen sports events, somebody almost always is in the background, holding up a sign that says, “John 3:16.” It’s been called by some as their favorite verse in the Bible–”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.”
In “born again,” evangelical circles, it’s the last part of the verse that seems to be most important–”…everyone who believes in him may not perish…” If you “believe” in Jesus as God’s only Son, you get eternal life, or as they might say, you go to heaven when you die; but, if you don’t “believe,” you will perish, that is, you’ll go to hell. Can I say there’s so much in that statement that is troubling and that has caused endless debates in the Christian Church? Back when John wrote this, folks would have heard this claim about Jesus in contrast to what was said about Caesar–Rome said Caesar was the only begotten son of God. Then there’s the whole understanding of “begotten” – wars have been fought over whether God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are of one substance, and there was certainly no understanding back then of genetic material coming from father and mother. What is the substance of God anyway?
And I don’t even want to start today on what I think “heaven” and “hell” are about. Suffice it to say that I have seen plenty of instances of heaven and hell here on earth, right now, some of which I may have some influence over; but after death? I am willing to leave that up to God. But what I know and can affirm about God is in that first phrase–”God loved the world…”; and I believe God still loves the world.
What I’d like to see sometime is a sign that says, “John 3:17″–”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.” After all, we’re talking about God’s love here–God loved the world like this… God sent the Son, or became the Son, so that the world might be saved, not condemned, through him. Now that’s good news!
The great preaching professor, Fred Craddock, once advised preachers that we are to “preach like you know they almost didn’t come.” [Cited in Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher. org, 3/15/15] Now there are all sorts of reasons why maybe you almost didn’t come–it was a late night, sleep seemed more important, your kids put up a stink, you haven’t done laundry in a month, whatever–but one reason why some folks are reluctant to come to church is because they’re afraid they’ll be judged–judged by the people here, judged by God. Let’s be honest– The Christian church in popular culture comes across as “judge-y.” Do this, don’t do that, or else….if you’ve done this or that…shame. God loves you IF you do this, or don’t do that.
Isn’t that what the next verse is talking about–”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.” Lots of “judge-y” words there. But what if we read this simply as a description of what it’s like to trust in–which I almost always substitute for the word believe in–the God who became incarnate in Jesus as well those who choose to put their trust somewhere else. Those who trust in the God revealed in Jesus, who have experienced the love of God, already have a sense of what eternal, abundant life is like. Those who put their trust elsewhere–in other gods like money, success, power–have missed out on that profound love and life. The word “condemned” conveys how great a loss that is, even though they and we may have no idea what that really means. Money and power and success seem pretty good! That’s as good as it gets, right? But “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor human imagination envisioned what you have prepared for those who love you,” the apostle Paul writes.
“And this is the judgment,” John goes on. John’s whole gospel is about judgment or moments of crisis, moments when you have to decide. That’s what this conversation with Nicodemus is about, although Nicodemus seems to have been left behind verses ago. Jesus keeps using words that can be taken in a number of ways–born again, born from above, wind, spirit–which are meant to keep Nicodemus–and us–off balance, keep us from thinking we’ve got it “figured out.” Conversations like this create moments of crisis or decision. What is the source of your life? How were you born? Until Jesus – or John, really– says to this teacher in Israel, “God loved the world…God loves the world…” For all the law and the prophets, know this: God loves us. Sometimes that is harder to believe than God judges us.
Dan Clendenin is a self-described over-achiever. He’s tried all sorts of Lenten disciplines –giving up coffee and alcohol one year, another year eating only one meal a day to identify with the millions of people who, if they’re lucky, get one meal a day. He has found a certain value in all those experiences, in an effort, he confesses, to be good enough to earn God’s love. But this year, he said, he decided to try something different.
Trying to earn God’s love is a fool’s errand. [he writes] It isn’t necessary or even possible. So, for Lent this year I’m trying something different. I’m doing nothing at all. I’m trying to follow Edwina Gateley‘s wisdom to be quiet and still before God. To say nothing. Ask nothing. And do nothing. Nothing, that is, except [as Gateley writes] to ‘let your God/ Look upon you with his enormous love/ That is all.’ And that [Clendenin writes]is hard in a whole different way.” [journeywithjesus, 3/9/15]
The Israelites, in that bizarre story which Lorna read for us earlier, complained about everything and everyone, including God, on their sojourn through the wilderness out of Egypt. So, the story goes, God “gave them something to complain about” and sent poisonous snakes to surround them and bite them. When they relented and apologized and went to Moses for help, God told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and put it on a staff and whenever someone got bit by the snakes, they were to gaze upon the bronze serpent and so be healed. Who knows if this really happened or if it was just a really memorable story to teach a lesson–that God can use painful things to heal us? Sometimes it’s true–pain is often found on the path to healing and wholeness; but God sending biting snakes because he was angry? Not stopping the snakes from biting but offering the bronze serpent for after they’ve been bitten?
The serpent wrapped around the staff is still the symbol of healing, the Aesclypius, used by the medical profession. “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.” Later on in the Bible, we read that the young king Hezekiah, who “did what was right in God’s sight,” in rebuilding the temple after the exile, had to break in pieces the serpent Moses had made, because it seems the people had made of it an idol.
So, interesting that John should pick up on this image of healing–“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”– to talk about the Son of Man being lifted up. Jesus “lifted up” on the cross, “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Gaze upon him and be healed. How many of us, how many people in our community, our nation, our world, need to be healed of all sorts of things! God’s great outpouring of love and compassion, symbolized by the cross, was given not to condemn the world–not because God angry and punishing and could only be satisfied with Jesus having to suffer this much– but to save the world. I wonder–is it possible to turn even the cross into an idol? To make it a thing in itself instead of pointing to the love beyond it?
Let God love you. “That’s hard in a whole different way,” Dan Clendenin says. We do have a choice as to whether we will let the light into our lives and follow it. [Alyce McKenzie, patheos] Let God love you. Let God love you. “The love of God most High,” wrote Julian of Norwich back in the 14th c., “is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge. No created being can fully know the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness, of the love our Maker has for us. By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand in awe and gaze eternally, marvelling at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love that God, Who is all goodness, has for us.” [from Revelations of Divine Love] Let God love you–you who almost didn’t come this morning, you who may or may not have maintained any Lenten discipline you set out to maintain, you who may have been told or made to feel that you were unloveable. Let God love you.
For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it. That is really good news. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark