|Sculpture depicting Numbers 21, on Mt Nebo in Jordan. Photo: Fran Hayes|
"God So Loves"
Numbers 21; John 3:11-21
John 3:16 is one of the most quoted and most memorized verses in the Bible. We may see it displayed for the cameras at sporting events, on banners or signs. In some parts of the country you might see it painted on big rocks by the roadside. It reads simply: “John 3:16.”
Depending on where you’re coming from, it’s a verse that can be used both to assure-- or to threaten. Some invoke it to emphasize the extravagance and universality of God’s love. Others invoke it to drive a wedge between believers and unbelievers… the “saved” from the “unsaved.”
“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 is one of the most iconic verses of the Christian faith. It expresses the wondrous love of God, who reaches out to the world in self-emptying reconciliation. And all we have to do is “believe.”Some of us memorized this verse, if we when we grew up in the church. It’s a beautiful and simple expression of our Christian faith, of a God who loves and a people who respond in belief.
And yet, it’s only when we read the verse in its context in the Gospel of John that we can understand it more fully and be transformed by it.
James Kay, who was my preaching professor at Princeton Seminary, says that when the Christian message is reduced to a sentence, instead of heard as a story, it’s a problem. When the sentence becomes a magic formula or a mantra or a slogan instead of a story, when the verse is so engraved in our memory and so familiar—the temptation is that we may think we already know what it means. The gospel of God’s love has become so familiar that we are no longer amazed by its majesty or its mercy.
And so, Professor Kay says, we need startling images, obscure, bizarre metaphors—like snakes—to wake us up. We need “strange stories” instead of “safe slogans,” to help us comprehend what’s happening in these verses.John 3:16 isn’t meant to stand alone. It opens with a word we translate as “for.” In the original Greek, it has a sense of “in this manner” or “in this way,” which means that God’s loving gift of the Christ for the salvation of the world needs to be understood in light of what comes before.
“And 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.”
The allusion is to one of the strangest stories in all of Scripture, from the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers.
The Israelites on the move from Egypt to the land of promise were their own worst enemies-- but then, who of us is not? Of all of the harm inflicted upon us in life, some of it self-inflicted. Of all the judgment we encounter in life, a lot of it is self-imposed. The people were complaining again. This is the sixth “murmuring” incident. The people are grumbling: why had Moses brought them out into the wilderness to die?
Isn’t it also just like us humans –-- then, as now? God brings us out of trouble… gets us safely through a time of danger. Yet we grumble because the place God led us to isn’t as nice as we’d hoped. What good is it to be God’s own people, if all it gets us is wandering on and on through the wilderness with nothing to eat except manna?
Then what happens next in the story? Poisonous serpents-- lots of them, biting the people, so that many of them were dying.
Now, I know the text says that the Lord sent the serpents. But I have to confess that I have a hard time with that. I don’t want to believe that the God of steadfast loving-kindness would kill people for whining.
Yes. God gets frustrated with us. But given the situation described, I wonder if at least some of the “serpents” could have arisen from within. I think we poison ourselves sometimes if we get locked into complaining… selective remembering…or useless longing for good old days that weren’t really all that great.
Without even trying very hard, we can poison ourselves or one another-- with anger… bitterness…blaming… or despair. So, I think there may be more than one way to understand the serpents.
Now, whether the serpents are literal or metaphorical doesn’t end up mattering very much, because the people come to their senses and come to see that they themselves are responsible for the serpents coming into their midst. They see that it was their own sinfulness that brought the serpents into their midst and caused their pain. They repent and pray to be rescued: “Lord, the serpents are biting us! We’re dying! Save us!”
God hears them and makes it possible for them to survive. Rather than making the serpents disappear, God provides an antidote to their venom. Rebellion and sin have their consequences. God told Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” God saved them by requiring them to gaze upon a symbolic representation of the very serpents that endangered them.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son... For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world-- but that the world might be saved through him."
But what does this mean? What does it mean to be saved? There are different ideas about what words like “savior,” “save,” and “salvation” are supposed to mean.
The Greek word that we often translate as “save” can mean to save, to keep safe, to rescue from danger or destruction, or it can be saving someone who is suffering from disease… to heal… to restore to health and wholeness.
In the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of state-sanctioned violence that was used to execute those who destabilized the imperial order. As Robert Williamson suggests, Christ lifted up on the cross serves as a symbolic representation of the very real violence of the Empire, threatening death for any who refused to submit to its authority.
In John, “lifting up” has a double meaning. In a literal sense, it’s about the physical lifting up of Jesus on the cross. But in a metaphorical sense, it’s about how Jesus is glorified on the cross, so that the whole world can see God’s great act of redemption and healing.
Did you notice? There’s no mention of punishment or payment for sin here. The cross is the sign that reveals God’s love for the world.
God loves this world. God chooses not to condemn this world. God desires salvation and life eternal and abundance for this world. And if we love the light more than the darkness, we are called to desire those very things for this world, too.
That's the call for all who have received the gift of God's Son: to love the world God so loves, to reflect the light of Christ, and be the light that both exposes evil and reveals truth.The Israelites in the wilderness were told to gaze upon the serpent in order to be saved. I think Robert Williamson is right when he says the way to salvation for us is to gaze upon the crucified Christ--to recognize the violence that has undergirded the prosperity of our own Empire. It is to remember the genocide of native peoples that accompanied the founding of our nation and to face the facts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the inhumane exploitation of life and labor that built the wealth of our nation.
To gaze upon the Christ is to see the Christ Child among those gunned down in Columbine and Newtown and Parkland. To gaze upon the Christ is to acknowledge how much pain has been inflicted on innocents like Jesus in the name of enriching the few and securing our own privilege.
If we believe that salvation comes through believing in the Christ who is lifted up on the cross to save us from a life that is complicit with the violence of the Empire of our time, the claim in John 3:16 takes on a much more radical meaning.
Gazing upon the crucified Christ means repenting of ways in which we are complicit in systemic injustice and violence and turning away from the politics of fear.
Believing in Christ means choosing to turn away from the violence of the Empire and to commit ourselves to the reconciling power of God’s love.
God loves the world so much, that God comes not to condemn or judge us, but to love and save us. God labors constantly to give us new birth-- to push us into abundant life-- if we are willing to trust God enough to know God in a new way...to live in a new way that reflects God’s love and justice.
And that, my friends, is good news!
Thanks be to God! Amen!
 James F. Kay, Seasons of Grace: Reflections from the Christian Year (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 50.
 Robert Williamson Jr, “Justice for Lent: Overcoming Violence (John 3:14-21), at https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/justice-lent-overcoming-violence-john-314-21/