St. John's, Centreville
March 11, 2018
4 Lent B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
John 3:16. One of the most well-known verses in scripture. We see references to this passage on bumper stickers and signs held up by fans at football games where the camera is sure to see it. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life." This verse is often referred to as the perfect summation of the Christian faith.
What is unfortunate about dealing with a scripture verse that is so well known is that it is TOO familiar. It's like the story of the feeding of the 5000 or the Good Samaritan. Oh, I know that story, we say, so that we really don't listen to it, we don't see it with fresh eyes, we don't struggle with what new thoughts or ideas that story might be saying to us today.
So let's dig a little deeper. Jesus is in Jerusalem and he has thrown the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals out of the temple. He has upset the established order of things and has upset the authorities. Many people are feeling threatened by him and they are not happy. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus at night, probably so he will not be seen by other Pharisees, to speak with Jesus about his teachings, about being born of water and the Spirit, of the Son of Man coming down from heaven.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." A Pharisee, of course, would know the Old Testament stories, and this is the story that we read in the Book of Numbers this morning. The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness and they are complaining that there is nothing to eat or drink. They speak out against God and Moses, thinking that perhaps they have led them out into the wilderness to die. The reading from Numbers says that God then sent poisonous snakes who bit some of the Israelites and they died. Although I have never wandered in a desert, I would think that most deserts would have a population of poisonous creatures that might kill you if you were bitten. The Israelites repent of their sins and their railing against God. God does not take away the poisonous snakes but tells them to look upon the bronze serpent that Moses has made and put high on a pole. Look on that and you will be saved from the poisonous snakes.
Jesus uses this image to predict his own death as he talks with Nicodemus. As the bronze serpent is lifted up, so will the Son of Man be lifted up, that is, lifted up on the cross to die. This is the first prediction of his death in John's gospel.
Then Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." So here is God, ruler of the world, giving us his most precious Son, his ONLY Son, to live and to die for us, so we can learn how to live and have eternal life.
Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up, so that all who looked at it would be saved, so the Son of Man would be lifted high upon a cross so all who looked upon him and his sacrifice for us would be saved.
Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus that he did not come to condemn the world but to save the world. Jesus did not come to divide us into groups of those who are "in" and those who are "out" of God's favor. God loves the entire world, all of us, each and every one of us, those of us right here and those on the other side of the world. God's love is for all people. We are the ones who want to divide - who is "in" and who is "out". We are the ones who want to judge and condemn others, often times so we can feel better about ourselves.
It is not Jesus who condemns us. We condemn ourselves by the choices we make - choices that draw us away from God and God's love for us; choices that hurt other people; choices that draw us to condemn ourselves. Sometimes we choose to live in the darkness where evil lurks. We don't want to come out into the light for fear that we will be exposed for who we really are. So we choose to stay in the darkness, in the shadows of life.
But Jesus is the light of the world. It is Jesus who came to show us God's love for us and to die for us, to bring all of us out of the darkness and into the light; to free us from whatever it is that keeps us in the dark.
So how can we come out of the darkness and into the light? By facing the sin that we are trying to hide; admitting to ourselves and perhaps to others, that we have sinned and have fallen short; to admit to God that we have sinned and that we repent of our sins. When we confess that we are sinners and we make any restitution that is possible, and we put our faith and trust in God, then we are free of the sin that has bound us up in the darkness. We are free to walk into the light, relying only on the grace and love of God. Our burdens are lifted and we are renewed, free to be the people that God has called us to be; free to live life fully.
Jesus did not come to condemn us but to love us - fully and unconditionally - and to show us God's love for us. Jesus came to draw us all out of the darkness and into the light, that we may be free of the burden of our sins and live a new life, following the commandments of God. Unfortunately, not all will choose the light. Some will continue to choose the darkness. But that does not stop God's love for them. God will continue to love them and call to them, but some will continue to hold themselves outside of the loving arms of God. And that is their choice. God will not force any of us to choose God. It is our free will to choose to love God or not.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." God loved and God gave - all for us. May we respond to God's love in ways that reflect God's love for all people. Amen.