"For God so loved the world that he gave us his only son…" John 3:16 is the most familiar, the widest known of all the Scriptures in the Bible. We see it on billboards and hillsides, on plaques and pins and t-shirts. Somehow this one verse speaks to multitudes of people in a deep and meaningful way about the love of God as shown in Christ Jesus.
But, as one radio journalist used to say, there is more to the story. There is always more to the story!
Just before the text we read in John this morning, Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee leader, went by night, alone, to see this preacher and teacher who had cleared the temple of marketers and converted many during the Passover celebration around the Temple. Nicodemus addressed Jesus as "teacher," and remarked about the signs Jesus had done. Jesus told him that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born anew. No matter what Jesus said, Nicodemus could not comprehend this concept of being born a second time. And so quickly the dialogue left Nicodemus behind and Jesus launched into the monologue from which we read.
Verse 14 refers to a rather obscure and strange story in the Book of Numbers. We read this story from the exodus experience of the Israelites. It is one of what biblical scholars call "the murmuring stories," where the Israelites, who have been rescued by God from the evils of Egypt and are being led towards the Promised Land, nevertheless find numerous things about which to complain, and they blame Moses and God for them. This is the final murmuring story in Numbers. And it is really strange. The people complain that they have no food or water (despite the fact that God has provided manna and water from the very rocks), and also complain that they do not like the food they do have. So they are ranting somewhat incoherently.
And we all do that from time to time when we are frustrated. As I started to write this sermon Friday morning, my computer told me it needed to update, so I reluctantly hit okay. It was 30 minutes later that the computer was ready to use again. Believe me, I was ranting like the Israelites!!
But it is God’s response to their ranting that is perhaps the oddest. This story, this legend perhaps, leads us to believe that God must have lost God’s cool, because all of a sudden there were poisonous snakes, and people were being bit and dying. That does not sound like the God we like to call on. But remember that these are ancient writings, written well before there was a hint of a scientific understanding of the world. Like the plagues, natural disasters could be explained as acts of God. Sometimes they still are. But the Israelites saw the snakes as punishment, and they repented of their complaining and lack of trust in God. Moses, as happens in all the murmuring stories, interceded, and God relented and gave them a saving grace, a pole with a serpent on it. When they gazed at the bronze serpent, they would be saved from the poisonous snakes. They were saved from the snakes by a snake.
There are many stories in the Bible that reinterpret ancient legends. There are many instances of the worship of snakes in the ancient Near East. In Egypt, a cobra head was often on the Pharaoh’s headdress, as a sign of protection and destruction of enemies. Isaiah talks of flying serpents. The serpent on a pole is an ancient Greek sign of healing, and one that the American Medical Association adopted and still displays.
And yet we see snakes as dangerous and deadly. We fear them. According to statistics (that someone gathers), in America, 49% of women are afraid of snakes, and 22% of men are. So for the snake to become a sign of healing and protection from itself is a stretch of the imagination. Yet it also shows the capacity to look in the face of what we fear, and to perhaps in this way overcome its ability to hurt us. The snake itself is not the healer, but in facing it with God as our center, we can overcome it. Barbara Brown Taylor says of this passage, "If the people believe that the bronze serpent was responsible for their cure, then that snake was an idol…But if looking at the serpent reminded the people to lift their hearts to God, then the snake was a sacrament. Looking up at it, they looked through it to their only Physician, who alone was their Health, their Salvation, and their Cure." (Feasting, p.15).
So back to our passage in John, "just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life" (3:14). Perhaps people feared Jesus as well, those Pharisees and Roman governors who wanted to trap him, to stop his preaching and teaching and healing. The disciples did not want to hear about him being crucified, about his needing to die in order to be raised. Perhaps we too at times fear, or are at least skeptical of a Jesus who can make miracles happen, who challenges our very way of living. And we certainly could do without the awful stories of people just like us who tormented and tortured and crucified Jesus. And yet it is this broken Jesus that God lifts up, who is, like the snake, a sign of pain and also the source of healing.
Our passage continues past this famous verse, to talk of darkness and light, of evil and of judgment. These are hard words to hear, that those who do not believe will be condemned, that those who love darkness will not see the light of God. It is good to remember that this is, in part, apocalyptic thought, which clearly separates the world into good and bad, virtuous and evil, those who are saved and those who are not. We today are not as quick to separate the good from the bad, the darkness from the light, as if the two can never intersect, because we know they can. But we also cannot ignore the presence of evil in our world as we watch the news, locally and globally. Indeed, the news of evil can overwhelm any news of goodness. And we can feel subsumed by it all, lost in the very darkness of which John warns us, if we are not careful.
The saving grace is that God, in Christ, understands the darkness. Jesus, sadly, experienced the dark side of life and humanity. And God in Jesus, gladly overcame that darkness in a miraculous way – not by defeating the agents of darkness in battle or in some other climactic, dramatic way, but by rising from death into newness of life and love. The good news of the Gospel is, as Romans 8 says, that there is absolutely nothing- "neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation," that can separate us from the love of God as we behold it in Jesus the Christ. And holding on to that good news, that grace, that miracle, really, we can make it through whatever life throws at us, because we know we are not alone, and we know we are loved. "For God so loved the world…"
There are many stories we could share of love overcoming the darkness that inspire us and help us to remember the ever-present love of God. The one I would like to share comes from the life of Henri Nouwen, my favorite spiritual writer. He was a priest and author and he taught at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame. But he chose to live the last part of his life with the L’Arche community in France, called Daybreak, which is a residential community for the mentally impaired. Nouwen learned soon after arriving that when he left the community for a few days, to lecture or to lead worship elsewhere, the mentally impaired men of L’Arche community did not understand that he was coming back, and would get very sad. They would rejoice when he came back. But he decided to prevent their grieving when he left, he would take one of them with him each time, and that seemed to work. They then knew he would come back. One time he took Bill Van Buren with him, and Bill went with him everywhere Nouwen went. He was well known, and there was great applause when he was introduced. When he went to the podium, Bill went with him, which surprised Nouwen. He spoke with the use of a manuscript, and when he finished a page, Bill would reach over and take the page and proudly place in on top of the preceding page. At the end of the lecture, there was great applause and cheering. Bill whispered to Nouwen that he would like to say something. Nouwen hesitated a moment, afraid Bill would embarrass himself, and admitting to himself that he was afraid he would embarrass him too. But kind man that he was, he moved aside to let Bill speak. Bill stood tall and said, "Hello, my name is Bill. The last time Henri left Daybreak, he took Steve with him. This time he asked me. I am very happy to be here. Thank you very much." That was it. The audience applauded loudly and gave Bill a standing ovation that lasted for 3 minutes. Bill just stood there smiling.
Father David MrBriar, in whose sermon I found this story, said, "If you were to ask anyone in that grand auditorium what Henri Nouwen said, they would not remember a word. But you can bet your last dollar they would all remember Bill. They would remember him proudly turning those pages. They would remember his simple words. They would remember the look on his face. They would remember the love he had for Henri. They would remember."
"For God so loved the world…." Perhaps like Bill, God’s love for us is deep, perhaps even beyond words.
Here and now, in the midst of Lent, we dwell a bit in the darkness, perhaps, aware of the evil of the world around us and of our own failings and weaknesses, our mistakes and even our sins. We wait to rise from the dust of Ash Wednesday, even as we are surrounded by the serpents of violence and war, of prejudice and hatred, of disease and deadly climate change. The promise that awaits us is that God cares enough to enter into this dangerous world with us. God takes on the pain that we also suffer. And God overcomes it all with a love that is willing to die in order to be raised. "For God so loved the world…." If we truly believe in and follow this loving God, how can we live in any other way than in love for God, for our fellow human beings, and for all creation? In any darkness, there is always Light. Let the love of God be our guide. "To God be the Glory!"