Todays readings for the 4th Sunday in Lent Numbers 21:4-9 Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-21
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is probably the best known verse from the bible. It is the one that people see as a touch stone for their faith, but in fact it is a verse that has been open to much misrepresentation and misuse, in my opinion. And part of that is the lack of context so let’s just think about it in its context for a moment. The passage that we read today is the second half of the story of Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night. It comes early in John’s gospel soon after the pericope that we read last week with the cleansing of the temple. One might imagine that Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, must have been secretly impressed or perhaps convicted by Jesus’ action. And the good news about Nicodemus is that, as he is named, he probably became important in the early church. The other bit of context that is important is the Prologue to the Gospel which, among many other significant things, describes Jesus as the light that has come into the world. This metaphor of light and dark is a profound one in the world pre-electricity, but as it has also been misused in the cause of racism let me just point out that when God created the world, there was light and dark and they were both good. If light is life giving, the dark can often be the place of conception and nurture. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,’ to quote John 1:5. If you don’t have dark, neither do you have light. It is the deeds done in darkness that John is describing as evil, as things that need to be exposed. And we have current experience of the deeds done in darkness that have been exposed, don’t we? And yet Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark. This is in contrast to the Samaritan woman at the well in the next chapter with whom Jesus has a conversation, which exposes things in the bright noonday light. The gospel of John, like all the others but perhaps more so, is a complex construction with layers of meaning.
So Nicodemus comes to Jesus and tells him that he thinks that Jesus has come from God. Jesus replies that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again, or born from above or being born anew (the Greek means all three things). Nicodemus doesn’t understand and the passage that we are considering today is part of the explanation that Jesus gives.
Now Jesus makes an allusion to a passage that would have been very familiar to Nicodemus, and the listeners to whom John writes, who knew TORAH very well. To our ears the parallel between Moses lifting up a snake in the wilderness and Jesus is a strange one. The Israelite people are on their journey of forty years in the wilderness, they have escaped from Egypt and have complained ever since because life has been hard. They were hungry and God has fed them with manna, but now they are sick of it. God sends snakes to bite them and they ask God to take away the serpents of discontent and misery that have beset them. But rather than taking away their complaints or removing the cause of them, God instead gives them a different focus. Moses lifts up a symbolic snake, and they are encouraged to look at it directly and they are healed.
I think we are very often like the Israelites that we ask God to take away the source of our problems and instead the answer is to confront them, to look at the thing that is troubling us and live.
So why in John’s narrative does Jesus use this passage to illustrate to Nicodemus the source of eternal life? Well, surely because Jesus is about to be crucified, and so lifted up, and again the Greek is ambiguous, the same word for lifted up is also the word for exalted and John writing after the event gives Jesus a speech, as he often does, which has meanings on many levels at once. Jesus appears to be saying that we need to look to him and we will be able to overcome our difficulties. Not that Jesus will take them away but that our belief, or faith in him, will bring us into an eternal relationship with God. And Jesus makes a most wonderful and inclusive statement. That God loves the cosmos, you, me, and everyone else as well as everything, the whole created order, and that we might have a relationship with God, which is expressed as eternal life. Jesus then says that ‘God did not send his son into the world to condemn, (or judge,) the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Now, of course, the question is, what does it mean to be saved? Again, the Greek is laden with meanings- Sozo means healed, and saved and made whole. We have tended to read this verse to have a very narrow range of meaning, exclusive as to who is covered, and limited as to what is promised. “If you believe in Jesus, and him only, you will go to heaven when you die,” seems to sum up the way I was taught. Rather, I am sure that it is a much more comprehensive thing- that because of Jesus’ presence in the world we all have the potential to be healed and made well, in relationship with God. This isn’t about judgement, Jesus says. So surely when Jesus says this we should hear him telling us that we cannot judge who is in and who is out? It is about the light coming into the world. The light here in this passage is the sphere of goodness, or the place where the deeds done in darkness are revealed. As I was preparing this sermon I reread one I had written way back in my first parish. In it I told the story of going to a party and commenting around the table that I had a cleaner to help with my enormous vicarage. One of the guests said, ‘I hope you have your little toys well hidden or it will be all around the parish!’ I remember the feeling of shock when I understood what she was referring to was sex toys. Now that prospect didn’t worry me, then or now, as I haven’t got anything in my drawers or cupboards that can’t be seen. But it led me to think about the things we keep hidden. My family is one where there are many noisy skeletons that bump around in our closets, and I wonder if the same is true for you? That is about our inherited sin, there are things that we don’t want exposed because we will be ashamed. There are also many of us whose deeds may not stand the scrutiny of daylight. That is our day to day sin. I saw on Facebook this week a post which asked, ’if the things we said were written on our skin would we still be beautiful?’ The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians tells us that we were dead through our trespasses and sins following the course of this world, but now we are alive together with Christ. Let me read it to you,
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Our salvation, or healing and wholeness isn’t a result of our good deeds, the writer says, but rather our good deeds are the result of the saving power of Jesus. We are what he has made us! That is a profound and glorious statement. God created us, and we are good. But always there are choices. We choose to be in the light with Jesus, or we choose to do our own thing in the dark. We choose to fix our eyes on him exalted or to be poisoned by the things that surround us. ‘And this is the judgement,’ Jesus says, ‘that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.’ We who have chosen light, who have chosen to “belove” Jesus as Marcus Borg describes it, must keep choosing to be people of the light and to shine in our world by virtue of what we do and how we love others. For God loves the world so much that God has given, not just his one son, Jesus, but each of us as well, we who are the body of Christ, to be light for others. Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.