March 15, 2015 – Whoever?

Lent 4   March 15, 2015 Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21   Whoever?

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John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. This one verse has been called the summary of the whole gospel. It’s probably the most popular bible verse in America. We’ve gotten used to seeing football fans dressed in strange outfits, wearing rainbow wigs, lifting up signs at games saying nothing more than “John 3:16.”

And people actually seem to know what this means. Kind-of. At least people recognize this John 3:16 verse, thanks to prolonged popular exposure, and some high-profile believers, like quarterback Tim Tebow – who, in his college days, would write John 3:16 under his eyes in eye-blacking (till that was prohibited by the NCAA). Then three years ago as a pro, Tebow led his team, the Broncos, on a weird series of come-from-behind-late-in-the-game victories, famously throwing for exactly 316 yards in one game.

The next day John 3:16 was the most googled phrase in the world. (Tim Tebow was second.) Saturday Night Live did a skit the next week, in which Jesus himself walks into the Broncos locker room, saying Ok, I’ve been winning all these games for you guys, pulling it out for you late in the fourth quarter. Seems like some may be taking my help for granted. So I’m giving notice – you’re on your own with the Patriots next week – I’ll be busy elsewhere… It was the week before Christmas. And sometimes life imitates Saturday Night Live – and the Patriots beat the Broncos that next week. And if this seems like a strange way to begin reflecting on our gospel reading…(Well– ?)

Consider again our gospel story, which we’ve joined in progress. Just before we’ve tuned-in, Nicodemus, a leading teacher of Israel, has come to visit Jesus by night, looking to see who Jesus is. And Jesus tells him “you must be born-again (born-from-above)” – thoroughly mystifying Nicodemus.

Then, as we pick up in the story today, Jesus refers to a certifiably peculiar episode from the book of Numbers – saying ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up – (so) that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

Back in the book of Numbers, where we’ve read a few minutes ago, remember, Moses lifts up a bronze statue of the serpents that are biting Israel – and those who look to the serpent on a pole are saved from death. God sends these serpents as punishment for Israel, when they won’t quit whining and complaining. Numbers is a country and western kind of book – ‘Heartaches by the number, troubles by the score’ is the theme song for the whole book – it’s one long sad country song, with faithful God singing to unfaithful Israel, “each day you love me less, each day I love you more…”

Now Israel’s walking on the fighting side of God – saying they’ve got nothing to eat, while grumbling about what they actually do have to eat (thanks to God.) And now God, having delivered these guys out of one-too-many disasters of their own making, has had enough. God sends poisonous snakes, reminding us of the plagues God brought on Egypt – and the snakes do get Israel’s attention – now they’re confessing sins – begging Moses to ask God to take the snakes away.

Moses prays. God listens. But instead of removing the snakes, God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. Moses does as he’s told – and when the Israelites look up at the snake stuck on the stick, they live.

And now here’s Jesus, building on this strange episode, telling us he will be lifted up, just as Moses lifts up the serpent in the wilderness. Which sure seems like a funny choice of metaphors to me. Which is probably no accident.

Bible scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa has coined the phrase “metaphor-squared” to describe a metaphor that goes against our normal reasoning, then adds yet another metaphor to the mix, making the “metaphor-squared” stranger still – all to call attention to the radical changes in thought patterns required… for us to understand the point God’s word is making. (Which is what Jesus is doing here.)

There’s something really odd about the symbolism of the serpent lifted up by Moses. The snake that symbolizes death as the consequence of sin – lifted up – not to stop the plague of snakes – but to heal and give life.

Strange symbolism indeed. All-the-more-so because snakes come with a bad reputation from the get-go – remembering the infamous serpent who fooled Eve and Adam in the garden. But now here’s Jesus, relating himself to the snake lifted up on the pole – saying this is how I too must be lifted up – so those who look to me and believe in me will be saved and have eternal life. (A strange metaphor, multiplied….)

The fruits of sin, overcome by looking at the fruit of sin, lifted up. Jesus is talking about himself on the cross. And yes sin is crucified in the cross of the sinless One who takes away the sin of the world. A reality and a metaphor too deep for words…

And in John’s gospel words usually have multiple meanings (often subject to change without notice). And lifted up means yes, lifted up on the cross – also lifted up from the grave – also lifted up from the earth. In this one phrase, lifted up, Jesus is talking about his death, resurrection and ascension as one unified lifting up… All starting with the metaphor of a snake, lifted up on a pole. (And –)

Maybe this strange route Jesus takes us on to get to John 3:16 has something to do with Jesus knowing – we need strong medicine – and strong metaphors – to treat all the plagues of snake bite we’re still dying from.

In the book of Numbers real snakebite becomes also a strong metaphor for the fruits of sin. Notice – God won’t take away the snakebite, or the fruits of sin. But God does give the cure. (Sometimes we may even need snake bite to get us back to God…) And Jesus takes up this metaphor and bends it all around the world and back… to save the life of this world that God so loves.

Sin is still, of course, as in the beginning, still pandemic and deadly in this world. The varieties and particularities of sin are ever-changing – but sin’s always viral in this world.

Sin is something that we, like the Israelites of old, usually resist only selectively and sporadically. Scripture and history alike teach us that we humans lack power to adequately resist sin, prevent sin, and cure sin by our own efforts. We all need the Savior to be healed and saved.

And in John’s gospel, sin is always fundamentally about separation from God. Rifts and tears in our relationship with God. It matters less what our particular symptoms are – than whether we have a living relationship with God.

And sin is still only remedied by looking to Jesus – seeing Jesus for who he is – Son of God, Son of Man, Savior of the world, King of creation. Seeing Jesus for who he is – and believing – is still the remedy for sin. And believing in Jesus still means following him.

The New Testament Greek verb we translate as “believe” and “believing” appears 98 times in John’s gospel. And believing is always a verb – always an action word. Believing is all about being in right relationship with Jesus – doing his commandment of love, and letting our love for God be visible in our lives. To believe in Jesus is to let his light shine in our lives…

Most of us won’t ever have anything close to the public visibility of a Tim Tebow, or a Russell Wilson. (Yes, he plays for Seattle – but he’s a believer who talks openly about his faith and volunteers at the Seattle children’s hospital every Tuesday, including just two days after the super bowl.) And when Jesus says God has sent him to save whoever may believe – of course that includes Seattle Seahawks… Even people much harder to love than Seahawks… And Jesus doesn’t unpack it all for us all at once – but if we really believe John 3:16 is the summary of all the gospel (as I do) – here’s our in-the-face challenge to love, as Jesus loves, all this whole wide world full of people made-in-the-image-of-God – yet so many, so often, not-knowing, not-yet believing in the One whom God has sent….

And I’m not saying we should all have John 3:16 tattoos, or be out there Tebowing in public for every blessing received – but surely we should be asking God to help us let our faith be known in public, in the light of day. Which is most of what Jesus is saying in all the verses that come after John 3:16.

And there’s probably nothing wrong with holding up signs at football games or slapping bumper stickers on our cars saying “John 3:16″ or displaying all sorts of John 3:16 signs and imagery – as long as our lives back up the words of the verse.

Which brings us back to the strangest part of the story. Stranger even than the strangest football fans wearing the strangest of outfits. And the strangest part of the story is –

World in John’s gospel usually symbolizes opposition to God. The Greek word kosmos we translate as “world” means worldly ways of seeing, thinking, and doing, superficially and misleadingly– generally missing the point of God’s intentions and purposes. And usually the gospel of John uses the word world as a metaphor for human separation from God and spiritual opposition to God.

But now here’s Jesus, telling us God so loves the world – that God gives his only Son – so the world, the whole world, may be saved through him. Tuning us in to God’s deeper reality –

God’s hope for all to be saved. Saints and sinners. All who love God already… and all who don’t love God yet. All who’ve tried hard to do the right thing – and those who haven’t done much of anything right yet…Because–

God loves us one and all, no matter what. But – Like Israel in the wilderness, whining about the food while God feeds them every day – this world still needs strong interventions and even strange metaphors – to believe the love of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ…

So God still gifts us (even us) – Christ’s church – with the faith, the hope, the holy community, and all the love we need for the living out of God’s gracious gospel of love… So all may know and believe… (that)

God still so loves the world – and God still gives his only Son –

so we, God’s people, will love the world just as Jesus loves.

Revealing God’s love, alive and with us… So whoever –

(whoever – whoever –) will believe in him shall not perish…

But have fullness of life and love forever…

As we live the life of Jesus, together… by his grace, in his love…

Amen.

Bulletin -March 15, 2015