The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 4—Year B; Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Today begins one of my favorite seasons of the year. Any guesses? That’s right—March Madness! Which means that we will be treated to multiple basketball games in multiple arenas, which means that at some point over the next three weeks in some arena, we will see this sign (show sign)—“John 3:16.” What’s the verse? “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.” I have never fully understood why this shows up at sporting events, especially, it would seem, at football games, but actually it shows up at all sporting events—basketball, golf, baseball, hockey, NASCAR—look, and you will see that sign.
And there is something about this verse as it is bandied about that makes a lot of us a little nervous. Why? What is that nervousness about? Why does someone publically proclaiming John 3:16 at a sporting event, or on a street corner, make us anxious? (pause)
I think we get nervous because we fill in the blanks, so that we read it to say, “And everyone who does not believe in him perishes and is consigned to hell.” In fact, isn’t that what the text says just a few verses later when it says, “Indeed…those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God?” And since we can’t square the God of Love in whom we believe with this perishing-consigning-someone-to-hell bit, when we see the sign, we squirm.
But this passage is central to the gospel, central to the good news of Jesus, so we can’t just dismiss it. Let’s walk back through it slowly and really unpack it.
First, the set-up. Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and leader of the Jews, read a really religious guy who is sensing that there is more to see and know of God that what he currently sees and knows and feels—Nicodemus has come to Jesus by night, because it’s a little risky to admit by day that you are a religious leader who is having a bit of faith crisis—trust me, been there, got that t-shirt. So, Nicodemus and Jesus have that rather odd exchange about the need to be born from above, born anew, born of the Spirit, or in the King James Version, born again. Nicodemus wonders how these things can be, and Jesus wonders how it is that a teacher of Israel doesn’t get it.
It’s in the midst of this exchange that we hear the passage for today.
First, Jesus [says] to Nicodemus, “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.”
What a weird image! But this serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness was a serpent that God told Moses to make and affix to a pole and when someone got bitten by a poisonous serpent, all they had to do was gaze upon this bronze serpent on the pole, and they would be healed—that’s the passage we heard from Numbers 21 earlier this morning. Okay, we have to park off to the side the fact that in that original story, it was God who sent the poisonous serpents among the people to bite them in the first place because the people had become impatient and were speaking against God and Moses. Let that rest to the side, and stay with the image of the serpent on the pole. This is the image on medical symbols. It’s a symbol of healing power. So, Jesus getting lifted up and affixed to the pole, Jesus on the cross, becomes an image of healing power, and believing in him opens up eternal life, opens up life that spans time and space, opens up life bigger than we can possible imagine.
Let’s work a bit with that word “believe.” “Pisteuo” in the greek—it can be used in that sense of “something you think to be true,” which looks a lot like intellectual assent, but it also means “to trust,” or “to entrust something to someone,” or “to be entrusted with something.” Intellectual assent is easy; intellectual assent actually asks nothing of my heart, but trust, oh my, that is an entirely different matter. Trust, at its core, is about vulnerability. Trust is inherently risky because you can betray my trust. To trust is absolutely a matter of the heart. When I trust you, I open my heart to you with no guarantees. Even if I wait for you to prove yourself worthy of that trust, there are still no guarantees because you could, at any point, violate that trust. The hard work of believing in Jesus isn’t intellectually believing this miracle or that miracle, but the hard work of believing in Jesus is entrusting my heart to his care, and allowing him to entrust his heart to mine. But when you take that leap of trust, that leap of faith, the vastness and wholeness of life to which the word “eternal” gives voice, that larger life begins, not upon the moment of death, but that life begins the moment you entrust yourself to this Son of Humanity and all that he reveals of God.
John’s gospel continues: “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.” The world, the world, for God so loved the world, the “kosmos” in the greek! God loves every aspect of creation, all of it. And God loved that matter so much that God was willing to enter into full solidarity with it in the flesh. God dwelling in perfect communion with the cosmos; God dwelling in perfect communion with our humanity. And everyone who trusts in that solidarity, again, they aren’t lost, but they are immeasurably found and find themselves falling into this bigger life that is bigger than the small life afforded us when we try to go it on our own.
Our sign holders often stop with verse 16 without mentioning verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, but in order that the world, the cosmos might be saved, might be healed, might be made whole, through him. So often, these verses are used to divide the saved from the not saved, but Jesus’s coming was, and is, for the healing of the world, so it can’t be bad news for half of it—it’s got to be good news for all of it.
And condemned is an interesting word. The greek word is “kreno,” which also gets translated as “to pass judgment,” but it also means “to separate,” “to select,” “to choose.” This is also the word that gives us the word “crisis” in English. which brings to mind “a decision point, a fork in the road, a critical juncture.”
And maybe this starts to get clearer in the next part of the passage. “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…”
This word, “kreno,” which at its root means “crisis,” gets variously translated in this passage as condemned and judgment, but here is what I think is going on. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn it, to separate it, but to make it whole. Those who trust Jesus, those who entrust themselves to God’s unfathomable solidarity with our human condition, those who trust that commitment that God has made to us and to all of creation, those people know that they are not condemned, they know that are not separated from God, but are already in union with God and everything else. But those who can’t trust that communion, those who can’t allow themselves to experience that union because they can’t trust what Jesus has come to reveal, they are condemned already; they experience themselves and other people and everything as separate, cut-off from God and one another. And this is the judgment, this is the crisis, this is the moment of decision, this is the fork in the road, this is the crossroads, this is the critical juncture—are you going to throw your lot in with trusting you are one with God, OR are you going to live pretending that you are all on your own, lost in a great big universe.
And this crisis gets heightened because Jesus’ light is so bright, his communion with God is so palpable, his solidarity with humanity is so vivid and real, that when people are confronted with that possibility, many go right on loving darkness. Why? Why would we cling to our separate little selves living our separate little lives instead of entrusting ourself to this larger life? (pause) Well, when you entrust yourself to anything, you give up control, and our little selves, our individual egos, they will fight to the death, even do evil deeds, to protect that sense of control and power.
This passage from John 3—it brings us to a crisis point, to a fork in the road, to a place of decision—will we choose the God whose love is so vast that it takes in the whole cosmos, will we choose the God who throws his lot in with our human flesh, will we choose the God who has written communion into our DNA, OR will we hold out and hold back because we would rather have control than feel the vulnerability that trusting God inevitably entails? Contemplate truly giving over control and falling into the hands of the Living God and the word “crisis” is not too strong.
But oh, what is to be gained! A deep, deep knowing that God loves you and the whole world, the whole cosmos, and that revealing that love, living that love, making known that love is God’s beginning, God’s purpose, and God’s end, and that Jesus is the quintessential icon of that love. Well, when you know that, you want to proclaim it in the sports arena, and on the street corner, and anywhere else you stand to anyone who will listen.
John 3:16—it’s a love letter, and the Divine Lover is waiting for your reply. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 15, 2015