Today we mark the mid-point in Lent, a Sunday of relaxation from our Lenten observances, also referred to as Refreshment Sunday and Mothering Sunday, a day to visit one's mother or to visit one's cathedral or mother church. The appropriate color is rose/pink, hence, the "pinkish" candles that you see on the altar. So we are halfway to Easter. Spring arrives in only five days and you see evidence of that all over town, daffodils, flowering trees, magnolias, wild current and I was startled to hear a humming bird buzz by my kitchen window. So let's lighten up and especially pay attention to the beauty of our world.
And now we turn to the scriptures for this 4th Sunday of Lent. The Israelites do not seem to be enjoying springtime in the desert, not at all. Again we hear them impatiently complaining of the conditions on this very long Exodus journey. Does God extend a sympathetic reply? No! It's shocking to hear that God sent poisonous snakes which bit the Israelites and many of them died. Is this our loving God? No, this is an angry God, impatient with all this grumbling and complaining from his people. He's just sick of it! Right then and there the people recognize this as judgment on their behavior. "We have sinned", they say. And the Lord instructs Moses as to how the people would be healed. Moses made a serpent of bronze and set it upon a pole so when the people looked at it they were healed. The image of the snake was an ancient and widespread symbol of healing still used by the medical profession today.
The words of the Psalm remind us of the goodness of the Lord. His word heals and saves us, his mercy is extravagant, we are to speak of his acts with shouts of joy and thanks.
As we move through the season of Lent and Easter followed by the Sunday of Pentecost and Trinity, most of the Gospel passages are from the book of John. The Gospel of John has been described as a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim, that is, both shallow and simple, also very deep and profound.
Each of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke are given a year in the lectionary cycles. There is no year for John. John is different from the other Gospels, in his Gospel Jesus speaks of forgiveness and judgment, healing and salvation, mercy and grace, love and joy. The word love is found fifty-seven times in John's book. In this Gospel Jesus delivers no Sermons on the Mount, tells no parables, heals no lepers. John, poet and mystic, raises Lazarus from the dead. The purpose of John's record (chp.20, vs.31) "is so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that through this faith you may have life by his name."
I would guess that in our Gospel passage the words most powerful to you were, "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." What is your response to that one sentence? Do you hear it as a positive, inclusive message or as a negative exclusive one?
Sometime ago I presided at a graveside service for an elderly woman who had been especially kind to my mother. It was a prayer book service with our lovely prayers and scripture which I thought most appropriate for this family, most of them Catholic. Shortly after the service concluded a young man, not familiar to me, approached and said to me, "Are you a born again Christian? I guess a clerical collar meant nothing to him. His question took me completely by surprise. Had he not heard the words of prayer and scripture, the homily, the commendation, the blessing? I replied, "Yes of course I am Christian, yes I love God, neighbor and self, yes my faith grows deeper and deeper as I try to serve and respect others as did Jesus." I don't recall much else of the conversation but I never quite understood where he was coming from. Had he expected an altar call or a reminder of our sinful nature?
John 3:16 is one of the best known verses in the New Testament. You see it on road signs, on banners in sports stadiums. It is so often quoted and overused perhaps people don't give much thought or really hear it anymore. It is considered by some to be the absolute baseline of Christian theology, the very plan of salvation, or it can be used to promote fear based, fire and brimstone preaching, challenging a person's lack of sufficient belief to earn one's gift of eternal life.
Remember, Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus who came to him in the night with questions of the teaching and work of Jesus. Remember, too, that John 3:16 is one of the most theologically rich verses in the New Testament, but at the same time one of the most theologically complex. Too often it has been reduced to a creed-like statement that tends to be judgmental and primarily concerned for personal salvation.
What is clear in Jesus' words is that God's love is intended for the whole world with everyone a part of God's good creation. Doesn't it make perfect sense that God would want to save and heal the world God created? This is God's gift to all not to be gained through accomplishments or even working at it. It is simply God's gift to be received and embraced with thanksgiving. "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. And that's our Good News for today. AMEN