Sermon Lesson: John 3:14-21 (NRSV)
Alternate New Testament Lesson: Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV)
Old Testament Lesson: Numbers 21:4-9 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (NRSV)
Referenced Bible Verses: Exodus 7:10 (NRSV)
Today, although we’re in the Gospels, we’re beginning with a rather confusing image that is taken from the Pentateuch, specifically from the Book of Numbers.
The confusion from the opening of John 3:14-21 stems from multiple points, and I’d like to look into them one by one. Now, if a particular point doesn’t confuse you, then you’re ahead of the game. Collect $200 and pass go, as they say in Monopoly™. I’ve never been too good at that board game, but perhaps you’ve had better luck in the past than me.
Confusion Point #1: When did Moses Hold Up a Serpent in the Desert?
When John 3 begins this albeit short passage, he references Moses holding up a serpent. Now, to most of us, we remember Moses in conjunction with serpents in the halls of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:10), but that’s usually it.
In Numbers 21:4-9, there was a passage when God struck the Israelites with plague of horrible, deadly, fiery serpents while they were wandering the desert. Obviously, God wasn’t too happy with the Israelites at that particular moment in time, hence the plague of serpents. The cure—oddly enough—was when Moses picked one up, held it above his head, and those who dared to look upon it found themselves inexplicably cured.
Confusion Point #2: How did looking upon the Serpent Cure them?
That is the question, isn’t it? First off, you can look at a serpent. It’s a physical thing with a body, and if it holds still for long enough, you can actually look at it.
A virus, such as Covid-19, is too small to look at outside of a laboratory, so if you’re thinking of applying this Biblical rule to a modern-day problem, I wouldn’t really recommend it. How different our last 12 months would have been if just looking could have cured our sick!
But the idea wasn’t quite so straightforward. It wasn’t just the looking that did it. If looking at a pineapple cured me of my pineapple allergy (this allergy is sadly not made up for the purposes of this sermon, but is true), then I would have looked at every single pineapple at the local Stop & Shop with a focus never before encountered in my life.
When the serpent was lifted up—people looked upon it—as people looked upon it, the people’s thoughts were turned to God—and as their thoughts were turned to God, they trusted in God.—As they trusted, so then were they healed.
Confusion Point #3: How does this relate to Jesus?
Well, if you think about it, much that came before was a prefiguration of Jesus … but it goes a little something like this.
As Jesus is lifted up on the cross and people look upon it—their thoughts are turned to the Lord—and as their thoughts are turned upon the Lord, they trust in the Lord, and as they trust in the Lord, so then are they saved.—When they are saved, they have eternal life.
It’s All Neatly Wrapped up In a Nice Package
If you think about it, it’s all very nicely planned. God knew it would work. It had to work. He saw it work before with Moses, in the desert, with the snake. He had all the pieces once before without the key ingredient and he almost made the perfect soufflé.
He tried to get his message out there, he got so close with the Ten Commandments that then took on a life of their own and became strictures more than gentle teachings on how to manage your life.
The 613 laws seemed like a safe bet, perhaps, but those went down the wrong path as well, and by the time he sent Jesus, Israel was such a mess that God was perhaps despairing that anything but a truly momentous act of love and sacrifice could bring his people back from the brink of misunderstanding.
God could have given up.
He could have allowed this planet we call home to keep on spinning on the wrong path, but the problem was he loved us all too much to let that happen.
So, what did he do?
Well, the answer is in black and white. John 3:16: “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.”
It doesn’t get any clearer than that.
I don’t think any of us can truly imagine that depth of the love God feels for each and every one of us that he sacrificed his only son, Jesus Christ. I am not a mother, myself, but I am an aunt. I certainly feel anguish when I think of anything happening to either of my two nephews or to my unborn niece. I cannot fathom the sacrifice God the Father made when he allowed his only son to be sacrificed here on earth. I cannot imagine the pain and the humiliation. I cannot imagine the depths of a love that would allow me to sacrifice a single hair on either of my nephews’ heads.
But that’s the thing. I’m only human. I am not the Lord God. I do not feel the depth of his emotion, the breadth of his love for humanity as the Lord God does.
My capacity for the eternal and the everlasting is but the fraction of a fraction of what God must feel in just the second of a single day. My capacity for love, great though I must feel it is, must be nothing to God’s capacity to his love all of humankind, from its conception with Adam and Eve until our last breaths at the End of Days.
I am not meant to comprehend because I am simply a human woman. You are not meant to comprehend because you, likewise, are human.
God’s Gift to Humankind—a Platonic Look at Salvation
Here we have a look at light and darkness, which is taken (originally) from the Greek philosopher Plato. If we come to Jesus loving light, then we will be accepted, and there will be no judgment. If we come to Jesus loving darkness, then we will be condemned. It’s an interesting paradox and an interesting philosophical worldview the Gospel of John offers us.
It was a worldview written for a Greek audience, but one that can certainly be adapted to 21st century America.
If you come to Christ with openness in your soul, then you will be accepted. If you come to Christ with animosity (and isn’t that a certain type of darkness?), then you will receive nothing but the same.
I think this is a nearly identical philosophy, but one in terms and words that we can understand, and one that makes sense to us. After all, the Gospel of John wasn’t specifically written with 21st Century Florence, Mass. In mind. John had no idea that America even existed! How could he? He was a simple man, after all, great writer of a gospel though he may have been!
A Caveat, Not Explicitly in the Text
Still, even if we feel animosity now—know that Jesus wishes that it were not so. We know that Jesus wishes for our hand in friendship, wishes that we believe in him, wishes that we offer him our hearts openly and freely. He is knocking at the doors in our hearts, to mix metaphors.
Have you answered?