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Fr. John Allison

Lent 4B

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

March 10, 2024

Christ Church, Hudson


“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.”

This verse from John’s Gospel today is for many of us perhaps one of the best known in all of Christian scripture and often serves as a kind of distillation of the Christian faith. Indeed, every time I drive to Ohio to visit family I see it often, scattered like seed on billboards and signs along the highways, usually with just the simple notation, “John 3:16.” I’ve seen it on hats and t-shirts. On signs held aloft at sporting events and even a few times on a banner trailing behind a blimp. For better or worse, John 3:16 has become a key thread in the fabric of Christianity in the American landscape. In fact, as I’ve reflected on it over the week, I’ve begun to wonder if it has become such a  part of the landscape of our culture that we can no longer receive it with fresh eyes and ears. If the sheer ubiquity of this much quoted verse has robbed it of the power to reflect the grandeur of the love story between God and humanity to which it points. For that is the story that all of scripture tells us, from the creation stories of Genesis to the eschaton of John’s Revelation. This is a love story that culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, to be sure, but begins long before and continues to this day and into the future. It’s a love to which we are witness and in which we are called to participate. And therein lies the irony, and sadness, of the ubiquity of John 3:16. Can this verse that has in some ways functioned as a slogan for a particular kind of Christian exclusivism still serve to proclaim the love called forth by an incarnate God?

Our lectionary has somewhat isolated our Gospel reading today from it’s context, but I think it is important to understand that these words from Jesus come near the beginning of his ministry as he responds to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who has come to him, at night we are told and presumably in secret, so that he might learn from Jesus. Nicodemus says he knows Jesus is from God because of the various signs and miracles he has performed and it’s in response to Nicodemus’ perplexity at his teaching that Jesus offers this first reference to his coming death and resurrection and places it in the larger context of God’s love for humanity. 

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.” This reference here, more fully captured in our Old Testament reading for the day, is to the story of Israel as its people wander in the wilderness in search of the promised land. They have become dissatisfied and the event captured in our reading and referenced by Jesus is the last in a long series of complaints against Moses and Aaron from the time they escaped slavery in Egypt. First, the Israelite did not like the bitter water of Mareh so God showed Moses how to sweeten it. Then they complained about the lack of food and God gave them manna. Later they complained about a lack of water and God directs Moses to strike a rock from which water gushes forth.  After God gives his Commandments in covenant with Israel, which we read about last week, Moses leads them from Sinai and the complaining begins again. They ask for meat and God sends a wind that brings them quails. These murmurings as they are called continue over various issues until we get to the point we hear today and what’s different is that the people speak against both Moses and God. In response God sends poisonous snakes among them. There is much debate about whether the snakes are sent as punishment but the key point is that in love God offers a provision for survival. When the people recognize, and this is an important detail, that they have sinned by speaking against God and ask forgiveness, God instructs Moses to make the bronze snake and put it on a pole. “Whenever a serpent bit someone that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” The instrument of death is transformed to an instrument of life. “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.”

Certainly, this seems an odd story but it illustrates two things that are central to the Gospel: first, God provides the means for salvation, for life. That’s at the heart of God’s love for us and it is unconditional. No matter the complaining, the dissension, the sin; God waits for us. Second, we say yes to God’s grace, God’s love, in the reorientation of our lives, in our acknowledgment of our dependence on God. Our reading uses the word sin but I prefer the more literal translation of the Greek: we miss the mark. We are called to trust. We are called to love as God loves us, and yet, as humans, as finite beings, we cannot love as perfectly as God loves us. We miss the mark. Always. And yet, God still loves us. 

In this season of Lent we pay special attention to our need to acknowledge that we miss the mark and of our need to repent, of our need to continually turn back to God and reorient ourselves to mirror God’s love. There is healing in that reorientation. Just as the people of Israel looked to the bronze serpent on the pole, we look to the Cross. Christ’s suffering is our own and his being raised to new life is our own. This is a choice we make; this is the judgment about which Jesus speaks. The Greek word used here in verse 17 for “judgement” is “krisis,” from which we get our word crisis, and one way to understand its meaning is as a need to choose. Jesus’ coming demands a decision, that’s his lesson to Nicodemus. Lent is the time to consider our response to the “krisis” (the need to choose) that Christ’s coming precipitates. Do we say, yes, in our actions? Do we seek to love one another as God loves us?

Jesus says whoever believes in him has eternal life. To believe is not merely cognitive assent but a response with our whole self. A lived response that says yes in word and deed. As creatures made in God’s image we are mirrors of God's love to the world. The acts of love we offer, the prayers, the care we provide are a means to polish the mirror of our souls so that we can more clearly reflect God’s image to all. In these choices we embrace the love that God has given us in Jesus and it’s in that choice that we claim not simply unending human existence, that’s how we often understand eternal life, but instead a life lived in the presence of God. That’s the kingdom of heaven that we can know right here, right now. 

God does so love the world that he gave his only Son and it’s that ongoing love that we offer in our lives as disciples. It’s the same love that sustained Israel during its wandering in the wilderness. It’s the same love that Jesus taught is not merely reserved for those who look and think and believe like us but also for our enemies and those who persecute us. It’s the love that opened the doors of communion not only to the Israelites but also to Gentiles.  It’s the love that continues to work against powers of discrimination and exclusion in our own day. May we all choose to turn, to repent, and participate in God’s healing power and go forth as vessels of that love that saves the world.  Amen.