March 11, 2018

Lent 4  March 11, 2018  Psalm 107, Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10,

John 3:14-21       

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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. The most popular verse in the whole bible, according to several recent surveys.

I wonder if the verse would be quite as popular – if we spent more time looking at its back-story – of Jesus comparing himself with a bronze snake on a pole – the image Israelites were told to gaze upon in order to survive actual snake bite. Gazing at the image-of-the-snake-that-bit-you sounds suspiciously close to the old infamous hangover remedy of downing a bloody Mary on the morning after. Not exactly what I’d normally expect God to be telling us to do, when we’ve sinned grievously against God and God’s appointed leader, Moses. And this certainly wasn’t the cure for snakebite Israel asked for… But it worked.

So – if Jesus wants to compare himself lifted up with the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness, I won’t argue. I’ll keep looking to Jesus. I’ve read the whole story. I know he’s talking about himself lifted up on the cross. I’ll try to keep looking to Jesus there… Though it hurts even to imagine the suffering he went through. But if this is what Jesus says it takes to be saved – I’ll keep looking and listening to the back-story… and the whole story as it continues…

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Somewhere between eight and eleven rebellions against God are recorded (depending on how we count) in this book called Numbers – officially because of it’s two extended censuses of Israel. But for God it’s all about heartaches by the number, troubles by the score… (as the poet of old Ray Price sang of a one-sided love affair)… Israel whines and complains repeatedly, even as God provides water from a rock, quails to eat, and manna-bread fresh every morning, ample food for the journey. And God is perennially slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. But when Israel claims A) we have no food – and B) our food tastes awful – God’s patience wears thin. God sends a plague of snakes that recalls the plagues that God previously afflicted Egypt with…

And I’ve been remembering sitting in Steve’s Diner in Allston, one night when I was in seminary at BU. A man at the counter who appeared to be homeless and intoxicated was complaining about the food. Steve, behind the counter, cooking and serving said, “I’ve been feeding you all these years and… Not even charging you. And you’re complaining about my food.” Talk about ingratitude!

And when Jesus compares his own future lifting up on the cross with Israel’s snake-on-a-pole remedy – I hear this as Jesus strongly suggesting that all the world is in need of a remedy as strangely extreme as that prescribed by God for Israel of old. Ingratitude and disobedience in other words are embedded in the human condition. Like Israelites of old, we too are in need of extreme measures if we are to be healed and saved.

The symptoms of our sin vary widely. But as Ephesians tells us – we’re all  dead in sin until we’re made alive in Christ. Something we can’t do for ourselves. Something only God can do for us.

Jesus employs the metaphor of himself lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness to clarify our theology of salvation by faith and grace alone (as Ephesians puts it) with good works always consequently following. Jesus picks a mixed metaphor that cuts many ways. The serpent is an ancient symbol with different meanings for different people. Snakes are fertility symbols; their annual shedding of skin’s a metaphor for new life. Snakes also sometimes symbolize healing. (Think of the medical symbol of a serpent wrapped around a pole.) In the bible, too, serpents are a mixed metaphor. God enables Moses’ staff to turn into a snake then back into a staff – and Jesus says we should be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But by far the best-known biblical image of a serpent is the infamous snake who persuades Eve and Adam to fall for the bait of ingratitude – persuading us to believe the original snake-oil-salesman’s story – that we, too, can be like gods – doing life our way, operating under our own power by our own wisdom.

What we call Original Sin’s never actually been very original. It’s the oldest of con jobs. Yet every generation since Adam and Eve falls for it… Again and again and again… The forces of cosmic evil haven’t even had to work hard or be very creative… to fool us into thinking and acting as if God’s on vacation, and we’ve been left in charge. Our anthem is I Did it My Way… And of course we still keep good old Jesus around, down in the basement or up in the attic (with the Coleman stove and candles). Just in case we might need him some day… in an emergency.

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John 3:16 has rightly been called the summary of the whole gospel. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him… shall not perish but have eternal life. The gospel in a nutshell. Still a good choice for favorite verse of the whole bible.

But what about the not-as-wonderful sounding words that follow – about judgement and condemnation for those who do not believe in Jesus? These verses have troubled me over the years. Often I’ve just skipped over them or stopped reading after good old 3:16. (3:17’s good too, but never mind the next three verses.)

Judgement and condemnation themes of course don’t bother everyone. (A few actually seem to enjoy judgment themes… Assuming perhaps they themselves are not at risk.) Others consider God’s judgement to be just another side of God’s love. Which I agree with to a point. God gives us a chance to know Jesus and believe. Those who meet Jesus and reject him are already self-judged for choosing darkness over light, death over life. Which is true… But not the whole truth.

Truth in daily application is more complicated than truth in theory. People who claim to be Christian– yet abuse women, children and the vulnerable – take from the poor, favor the rich – plunder the earth for personal gain – lie, cheat, and steal while claiming to be with Jesus – are best-case scenario severely delusional, worst case scenario heading straight for hell. Unless of course they repent and change their lives. Those who do evil are functionally unbelievers.

And – if people of other faiths (and even of no faith they’re aware of) nonetheless live unselfishly for others, habitually doing good – they are functionally believers, whether they know it or not. (Author and lay theologian CS Lewis says this better than I can, in many of his  books.)

In other words, we need to hear John 3:16 in the context of all the other things Jesus says and does. We need to hear his words about judgement as words said in love. Said to provoke us into considering who we really are – and what it really takes to live a life worth living, forever… Which is what we’re talking about when we’re talking eternal life. Jesus is never talking about mere eternal physical or spiritual existence. He’s always talking about life – abundantly full of joy and peace, grace and love.

When I hear Jesus talking judgment I hear him speaking the truth in love, hoping to persuade us into taking him seriously… and avoiding the need for judgment… And keeping us thinking longer and harder about what he means by believing.

Of course even the most sincere devout believers in Jesus still struggle with un-Christlike thoughts and un-Jesus-like inclinations. As Emily Dickinson the Amherst poet of old once wrote – “we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.” She’s talking about me. (And…)

This strange metaphor of gazing at the snake that bit us has everything to do with Jesus knowing we need strong medicine (and strong metaphors) to treat all the spiritual illnesses we’re still afflicted with and dying from.

Snakebite is God’s metaphor for the fruits of sin. God won’t take away the snakebite, or the fruits of sin. But God will give the cure. God knows we humans are delusional. So often still thinking we can fix ourselves – heal ourselves – save ourselves….Still so often in denial of our need for God’s healing – God’s salvation – and God’s guidance. But God so loves the world…

So God will use any means necessary to save this world God so loves…(and)… Sometimes it takes snakebite to get us back to God.

Sin is still only remedied by looking to Jesus – seeing him for who he is – Son of God, Son of Man, Savior of the world and King of creation. Seeing Jesus for who he is – and believing in his love – is still the only remedy there is for sin. And believing in Jesus still means following Jesus. Believing, always, is a verb – an action word. Believing is all about being in right relationship with Jesus and doing his commandment of love and trusting in him – and letting our love for God be visible in all of our lives.

Remembering – “World” is a negative word almost every time it’s used in John’s gospel. Most of the time, world is a buzz-word for opposition to God. But now here’s Jesus – telling us God so loves the world – that God gives his only Son – so the world may be saved through him. Telling us God’s greatest hope is that all the world – saints and sinners – those who love God – those who don’t love God yet –  those who’ve tried to do the right thing – even those who haven’t tried – God’s hope is that all may yet be saved. Because God so loves the world

God so loves the world – so – God won’t stop provoking us with strong metaphors and difficult challenges and doing whatever it takes – to keep us looking to Jesus… So all the world may notice and believe – the God who so loved the world – still loves the world today.

The God who gave his only Son – still gives his only Son today –

The God who sent Jesus to save the world not condemn it – still sends Jesus to save and transform today.

Till we all love one another – all around the world – just as Jesus loves us…

And together have fullness of life and love forever… as we follow Jesus –

In his rising up on the cross. Rising up from the grave….

Rising into fullness of life… forever.

May this be our prayer. And may our prayers bear fruit for God’s glory.

We pray in Jesus’ name.  Thanks be to God. Amen.