Today’s gospel reading contains perhaps the best-known verse in the bible, certainly the New Testament passage that is known best in modern North America.
It begins like this, “For God so Loved the World…
If we take that verse out of the rest of the lectionary passage, and that passage away from it’s context in the Gospel of John, and away from it’s connection to the Hebrew Bible, we end up with a slogan that fits tidily on a sign to hold up at a football game, but that can be pretty two dimensional
Whether this passage is the core of your faith, or whether for you it is just one of many hundreds of verses about what the love of God and the life of Jesus mean—it is a verse that as a Christian, at least in North America people will associate with you. You might want think about what it means for you.
Let’s start with some basics to help understand what is going on and put some concrete context on the abstract and universal.
Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to?
Today’s verses come from John 3, Nicodemus—a Pharisee and leader of the Jews has come to speak to Jesus.
At night. Under cover of darkness.
Nicodemus is part of the Jewish establishment, a man of some power and privilege, a leader whose resistance to the Roman occupation is rooted in careful attention and observance of Jewish law.
He engages Jesus in a conversation about the Kingdom of God. At first Nicodemus asks questions and then Jesus begins to speak in paragraphs. This part of the chapter is sometimes called “the sermon to Nicodemus.”
Much of the imagery is about dark and light—in the Gospel where Jesus is very clearly the Light: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” “I am the Light of the World.”
Nicodemus, has a lot to lose, someone who desires to be part of the kingdom movement but stays in the shadow, someone who despite his learning doesn’t quite get it. He wants concrete explanation and Jesus talks cosmology. A key question in John’s gospel is whether Nicodemus, who makes his first appearance at night will “come into the light or stay in shadow”
So that’s the context in John.
The famous John 3:16 is preceded by this verse, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Human One be lifted up.”
In the Numbers reading, after the Hebrews had been in the wilderness for nearly 40 years, they must detour around the land of the Edom rather than go directly into Canaan, the promised land, and from this perspective forced labour in Egypt isn’t looking so bad.
The Hebrews speak against God, who brought them out of Egypt,
Against Moses—who God chose to lead them
And in perhaps my favourite biblical complaint of all times, they complain about the food. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
In response God sends serpents –many people die, those surviving apologize to Moses and ask him to pray on their behalf.
Then God gives a very strange instruction: make a serpent, set it on a pole, and anyone who is bitten by a serpent and looks at it will live.
Now I am not going to pretend to you that I know exactly what this passage means, but I think it gives us plenty to think and pray about:
- Who, after 40 years of God failing to make good on God’s promise, thinks they might complain?
- Who thinks that God punishes complainers with death? Or sends disease or disaster because of unfaithfulness?
- Who would have trouble trusting a God like that?
Frankly that part doesn’t worry me too much—I don’t believe God is a capricious punisher, but I think it is important not to gloss over that part of the story.
I am more interested in the way the John Gospeller uses the Numbers story and the way many modern Christians use one verse of John’s Gospel.
In Numbers, the people who have experienced salvation from slavery lose faith, lose heart, turn away from GOD. And some dangerous thing is biting and killing them in large numbers.
The first time I really paid attention to this story my friend Joe said, “I wish it was that easy today—I wish when I was poisoned by doubt someone would just hold up a snake I could look at and be healed.”
But I don’t think it’s as simple as Joe would like—just like I don’t think John 3:16 is as simple as some people would like.
Presumably if God made snakes appear like magic, then God could also make them disappear like magic. But that is not what happens. What seems like a “magic fix” is not.
God does not make the snakes disappear. God does not even say, “Tada, the snakes can’t hurt you anymore!” The snakes are still there, biting people but the bitten people have something to look at for a cure.
And it is significant that those who have been bitten, those who are harmed and are doubting and don’t believe that GOD keeps promises, actually have to look at a snake, they have to look at the thing that hurt them in order to be healed—in order to live.
And I think if what was biting the Hebrews and what bites us is doubt, or thinking freedom is harder than comfortable slavery, then being healed doesn’t mean you’ll never be bitten again.
So in the dark, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent, the Son of Man—the Human One will be lifted up.”
Now in John, “lifted up” does not mean held up for admiration like a brass snake on a stick, nor does it mean resurrected—when John says lifted up it means crucifixion.
Human One—Son of Humanity is a title for Jesus. And a recurring theme in John is anything Moses can do, Jesus can do better.
So Jesus says to this cautious, maybe-disciple who knows exactly what fragile, tenuous position he and his people have to lose.
“Just like Moses gave life and healing to the doubting Hebrews in the desert by lifting up a brass snake—I will be crucified, executed by the state, and THAT will be a source of life and healing for whoever wants it.”
And then follows that famous verse “For God so loved the world” the verse that is so often lifted up, like the serpent was lifted up, like Jesus was lifted up…
In this Season of Lent as we try to prepare our selves for Good Friday and Easter
Our hearts for something you can’t possibly be ready for
and our minds for “what passes all understanding”
Let us lift up these verses and the words around them and together with the grumbling Hebrews and equivocating Nicodemus pray over and ponder:
Doubting and believing, salvation and condemnation, doing what is true, light and dark, freedom and slavery, certainty and wonder, love and the world.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.