Again & Again, God Loves First

Sunday, March 10, 2024
Deacon Stephanie Anderson

John 3:14-21

If you were to ask someone on the street to quote a passage from scripture, some of them probably could (especially those who might have been asked to memorize scripture as a part of confirmation), but for many, they might rely on what they’ve seen sporting event or on signage outside a concert venue. They’ll likely have heard of John 3:16, arguably the most well-known of all verses, for the way that it seems to concisely and clearly articulate the whole Christian message: “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.”

But for as simple as John 3:16 seems, it’s anything but simplistic. Placed in the context of this chapter in John (and in scripture as a whole), it’s quite complex and it begs us to ask so many questions, like:

  • What does it mean to not perish, but have eternal life?
  • Or, why did God have to give his son for us?
  • How are we to understand the world – does that actually include all people?
  • What does it mean to believe?

We can’t possibly tackle all of those questions in one day, but today we’re reminded that so much of faith is a mystery and is found in our questions. That even with a lifelong, faithful pursuit of truth and understanding, the magnitude of God’s love is, ultimately, beyond our comprehension.

The text does give us some clues and some context, as to what Jesus may have been alluding to and the story he was trying to tell about himself. This passage is the smack dab middle of a conversation Jesus is having with a man named Nicodemus, who came to him under the cover of darkness to ask him more about who he is. Nicodemus was a religious leader and the fact that he came to Jesus in the night tells us that he was concerned he may be seen or caught asking these questions, but more so, this is a literary tool used by John (the author) to imply that Nicodemus is in the dark – as in, “left in the dark” – as in, he doesn’t know or understand or believe in who Jesus is yet.

Jesus says a lot of things to him in their conversation, but today’s passage begins with a rather odd line that I think helps us place this story in Lent and helps us understand the rest of their conversation.

Jesus refers (in verse 14-15) to Moses lifting us a serpent. This is a nod to Numbers 21:4-9, an interesting story from the Hebrew Bible. The Israelites are in the wilderness after having departed Egypt and they are miserable, finding it hard to survive and finding it hard to remember that God had been faithful in the past. So they complain about God and about Moses.

God is pretty impatient with their impatience. And so, God sends a bunch of poisonous snakes that come and bite many of the people, some of whom then die. The people then realized that they had been living in ways that weren’t aligned with God’s love for the world and one another; that they were living out of self-interest rather than recognizing all that God had given them; that maybe their words and actions were just as biting as these snake bites.

They come to Moses and apologize. And after talking with God, Moses takes a poisonous serpent and sets it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten by a snake could look at the snake-on-a-stick and would be healed. (This is the story where we get the symbol for medicine – the snake on the stick.) Instead of looking away or denying how they had been living, they needed to face it head on and see themselves for who they were. That was the way to heal.

This story is the part of today’s passage that helps us find ourselves in Lent. Today, Jesus says, “Just 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.”

He’s talking about his own eventual crucifixion; just as this serpent from the story in Numbers, Jesus will be lifted on a cross to die. Lent calls us to honesty; to looking at the brutality of Jesus on the cross and trusting that God loves us still.

There are numerous ways to understand how and why Jesus died on the cross and what that meant for the sin of the world. Some people interpret that all of our horribleness – our sins and guilt and shame – are sort of heaped onto Jesus on the cross and that we should be punished for those things, be Jesus sort of takes/bears the punishment for us. That God needed to punish someone and it was Jesus that took the brunt of it.

But I wonder if that interpretation is actually our own projection onto God, especially the projection of our very human, very violent nature. As humans, we’ve sort of innately and always functioned in systems of violence, or of punitive justice and retributive justice. That if you do wrong, you deserve punishment. From the beginning of time to this very day (this morning’s headlines), we see this played out. This is the sin of the world that Jesus died to save us from but all of this seems like it’s our own stuff and I don’t think we find in scripture a God who rules by fear and hatred.

Instead, when we look up at the cross, when today’s passage tells us that Jesus crucified is the promise that we need in order to heal, we remember that God is loving and forgiving. The God we know – the God revealed in Jesus – has the power to forgive us without needing to sacrifice his own son. The cross, then, is not an instrument of God’s violence, the cross is a projection of our violence – of humanity’s violence. On the cross, Jesus defied that violence. Jesus showed us who God really is – mercy and compassion – completely counter to the systems of justice or retribution of the world.

Jesus tells us today that the sight of him on the cross is our “snake on the stick”. And so, this Lent, for as hard as it is, we join God’s faithful people from all time and places to look at the cross and find healing. When we see the violence the world enacted upon him, we see our own violence and face the truth about ourselves, which is the way toward healing.

Because even while hanging on that cross; while dying at the hands of humanity, Jesus forgave the ones who put him there.

Nicodemus, in his nighttime conversation, left that evening still confused, was still in the shadows of disbelief at this promise Jesus was proclaiming and couldn’t have known what was to come. But later in the Gospel, he reappears in John 19:39; at the foot of the cross. Looking at the cross, seeing what the world had done, he sought healing as he came to help care for Jesus’ body as he died. Nicodemus had emerged into the light – into the day – taking his place alongside each of us in the healing and care for God’s kingdom.

No matter what we’ve done. No matter the night we’ve found ourselves in. No matter the shadows that feel oddly comforting in their familiarity or hiddenness, Jesus invites us into the light; into the day. Into our rightful place as a part of that world that God so loves (so loves beyond our comprehension!). All of this begins and ends with God’s love for the world. And for that and so much more this Lenten season, we can be grateful. Amen.

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