Sunday, March 11, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I don’t believe I’ve ever preached on this passage from the Gospel of John before. Mostly because that one verse - you know the one - is so BIG it has felt overwhelming. John 3:16 is one of those verses from the Bible that has gone viral. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son. That whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
This single verse has been used by many Christians in recent decades as a summary of Christianity. “If you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, you can go to heaven.” The Gospel summed up in one sentence….at least for some Christians.
But for others of us, the idea of a God who would willingly sacrifice his only begotten son in some kind of cosmic bloody bartering process isn’t Good News. Some Christians have found different ways to understand Jesus’s death and resurrection and other ways of claiming Jesus as Ruler and Savior. Also, there’s that problematic bit about ONLY followers of Jesus finding salvation. Which, incidentally, I don’t believe to be true.
So the natural thing - for me at least - with this text is to dive deep into all of that. Which, quite honestly, is way too much for one sermon. Especially when there are so many other things in this passage that are worthy of our time and attention.
The context of this passage is Jesus’s meeting with Nicodemus - that Pharisee who came to him at night. Nicodemus expressed awe at the signs and wonders Jesus was performing. Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he really wants to get close - if he really wants to understand God’s Realm - he’s going to need to do more than pay compliments in private. He needs to be born again. Nicodemus is puzzled by this statement - not understanding that Jesus is speaking metaphorically - and Jesus launches into a lengthy monologue by way of explanation. That’s the part we heard this morning.
Now, what we heard today starts with a weird reference to an obscure passage in the book of Numbers - Numbers 21, to be precise. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “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.”
I’m going to get to the snakes in the wilderness in a second, but first I need to deal with this eternal life bit. The Greek there is aionios zoe, meaning life that is without beginning and without end. I think most of our heads typically go the afterlife when we hear “eternal life” - as in, after I die, I’m not really gone. But this word means without beginning and without end, as in always present from before the beginning of time until after the end of the Age. In other words, like God - the one who is without beginning and without end. Made in God’s image, just like Genesis says. To me, this speaks more of being a part of something bigger than myself - recognizing the ways I can be a part of God’s eternal Spirit. It’s about the quality of my life, not just the quantity of my days. Life beyond borders and boundaries. Full, overflowing life that exists outside the confines of my individual identity and human body.
So back to these snakes, though, cause that’s weird, right? The story in Numbers goes like this - the Israelites are wandering in the desert and they’re complaining. Then God sends poisonous serpents among them. The snakes bite them and people die. The people, believing that God is punishing them, say to Moses, “We are really sorry. Please tell God we’re sorry and have him take these snakes away.” So Moses talks to God and God says, “Put a serpent up on a pole and then anyone who is bitten can look at it and they will be healed.” So he does and they do.
I told you it was weird.
Jesus in the Gospel of John is comparing himself to the serpent on the pole. That symbol of both death (because snakes can kill you) and life (because snakes in the ancient world were also a symbol of fertility). I suppose the snake on the POLE was really a symbol of God’s love and care - the way God saved the people from what ailed them. But, on the other hand, wouldn’t you think that if you were looking up at that snake on a pole you’d also be remembering who sent the snakes in the first place? I would. So I guess Jesus is both a healer and a reminder of what ails us?
This is where I start to get very confused because I thought Jesus was the light. That’s what the author of John says, right? “I am the light of world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Well, it turns out that light is also kind of a strange thing. Just like the snakes in the wilderness. Because light can be comforting but it can also be revealing. If you are trying to find your way down a dark, unfamiliar path at night and there happens to be a full moon, the light is comforting and helpful. You can see where you’re headed. If you’re a ship on the sea and a storm is coming in and you need to get into the harbor fast and there is a lighthouse on the shoreline, then you are in luck. The light is comforting and you can use it to make your way to safety.
Jesus is like that. When we are scared, when we are lost, when we need to figure out where we’re headed, Jesus the Light is a comfort and a help. My colleague Gayle Engel says this when he ends his prayers, “....we pray in the name of Jesus, who is the still point of the turning world.” Jesus the Light is like that. Thank God.
But light can also be uncomfortable. If we have things we want to hide or things we’d just rather not see, light reveals. And a bright light reveals everything. Every bump and wrinkle. Every bit of dirt and dust. Light reveals it all.
And….well….Jesus is like that, too. Just like the plumb line the Prophet Amos spoke about, there is something about Jesus that makes us take stock. When we stand next to him, we can’t help but notice the things about our world that could use some work. We see Jesus bravely stand up against the powers of Empire and think, “I don’t know that I could do that.” We hear Jesus speak in parables about the world as it could be and we think, “Boy, we sure aren’t there.”
A plumb line is something you hold next to what you’re working on to see if you’ve got it going straight up and down. In this way, you’re comparing it to some kind of ideal standard and you’re seeing if it measures up. I’ve always found this visual helpful because it reminds me that God’s judgment isn’t necessarily the same kind of judgment we inflict upon ourselves….where we constantly compare ourselves to one another. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Instead, God’s judgment holds us up against God’s dreams for who we could be. When Jesus speaks of the Realm of God’s Justice and Peace, he’s not talking about something that’s going to happen in the by and by. He’s talking about a real vision that could exist here and now if only we would all get our acts together and live into it. He’s showing us this ideal that is better than anything we might ever imagine and inviting us to be a part of it.
In this way, Jesus’s all-too-revealing light and God’s judgment are….wait for it….sometimes Good News. Or at least they are the beginning of Good News. Because if we are unable to honestly take stock of who we are - both collectively and as individuals - then we are missing out on an invitation to live more fully into God’s dream for us and our lives.
Powerful and much-needed change only happens when we, like Nicodemus, are willing to consider this idea of being born again. When we are willing to take an honest look at the truth of our world and our lives and look at the mess without turning away.
That willingness to shine a bright light into the corners and look at the truth is what keeps us moving towards God’s Realm. When we, as a society, are able to sit down and have honest conversations about gun violence and the idolatry of individual freedom to own weapons of mass destruction, we are shining a light on the truth of our world. When we look at the way we’ve allowed corporations and the self-interest of the very wealthy run amok, we are shining a light on the truth of our world. When we say aloud that our nation has the highest maternal mortality rates among developed nations - and this is not okay, we are shrinking a light on the truth of the world. . When women who work for McDonald’s say that it’s fine and good to turn the M’s upside-down for one day but it actually doesn’t help much if McDonald’s won’t pay them a living wage, we are shining a light on the truth of our world. When we sit with the stories of children that ICE has separated from their parents - even when they break our hearts, we are shining a light on the truth of the world.
It feels really painful to do this at first...but I do believe it’s the first step in moving towards Better News.
The same can be said for our individual lives.
When we look closely at our lives and realize that what we feel called to do will require going back to school or making a big career change or taking a big pay cut, we are shining a light on our lives. When we sit down and take a deep breath and say hard words to our spouse like, “I’m worried. I don’t know if this is working anymore and I don’t know what to do about it,” we are shining a light on our lives. When we find the courage to say, “I’m addicted” or “I’m depressed” or “I’m a survivor or sexual abuse” or “I can’t manage my anger anymore,” we are shining a light on our lives.
This feels really, really, really awful at first. Like walking out of a dark cave into the bright noonday, there is a part of us that wants to run screaming back into the cozy darkness. Because having that bright light shine on us - seeing ourselves exposed like that - is some of the most difficult work a person or a society can ever do.
And this is where I think we need Jesus - or, I know I do at least. Jesus the Light who not only comes to expose and reveal….but Jesus the Light who shines in the darkness like a beacon of hope. Jesus the Light who promises the Living Water that can never run dry. Jesus the Light who lights the path, brings us safely to shore. Jesus the Light who calms the storm, makes streams of water in the desert. Jesus the Light who shines in the darkness and will not be overcome by the darkness.
Not then. Not now. Not ever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.