We have some interesting readings today. I’d like to spend some time on the Old Testament reading before we jump to the Gospel. I don’t like to judge, but this story from Numbers in our first reading today is a really weird story. The poor Israelites have been suffering in the wilderness for 40 years with no food or water and only dry ‘manna’ from heaven. They hate it, they are tired and complaining a lot. God doesn’t want to hear it so in his loving grace, he sends poisonous snakes to bite and kill the people. Thanks, God! The people are shocked into contrition, so they apologize to Moses and God. God tells Moses to put a serpent on a stick and when he elevates it, so the bitten people can gaze up at it, they will be healed. He sends them the snakes then the remedy to the snakes. Nice.
Now that we understand God and his poisonous snakes we can approach the Gospel, but we need to get a little context on it too. The third chapter of John starts as Nicodemus quietly approaches Jesus in the dark. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of religious Jews. He would have a great deal to lose if anyone caught him with Jesus because Jesus is going about flouting Jewish law. He has just made a huge scene in the temple, overturning tables and yelling at money changers. Friends of Nicodemus, other Pharisees, are so upset that they are beginning to plot to get rid of Jesus.
So, Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the darkest part of the night and whispers, “Jesus, Jesus.” He is welcomed in, given a cup of wine and a seat by the low fire. Nicodemus takes a long look at Jesus and says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do what you are doing apart from the presence of God." This sounds like a statement of belief to me.
The two men discuss a couple of theological points until Nicodemus is baffled and asks: “How can these things be?” Jesus kind of slaps him down; “You call yourself a teacher of Israel and you still don’t understand these simple things? Remember Moses lifting up that serpent? In the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up. Listen. Here’s my question: Do you have any idea how much God loves the world? He gave his only son so that those who believe in him might have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his son to condemn the world but to save the world.” Then, Jesus talks a lot about lightness and darkness, perhaps because they are sitting together on a dark night.
This gospel reading can be used to lay down a judgmental line between believers and unbelievers. “If you believe in the Son, you may not perish but may have eternal life.” By that reasoning; if you don’t believe in the Son, you will perish and no eternal life for you. That’s pretty harsh. It is vital to include the sentiment of the 17th verse: “God did not send his son to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God does not want people who love his son to condemn the world. We must never condemn others in the name of Christ, and yet that has happened all throughout history.
Bruce Epperly writes: “The passage from John’s Gospel is theologically and ethically ambiguous. On the one hand, it proclaims God’s love for the world. God’s love is overwhelming in its expansiveness. God’s love extends beyond humankind to embrace the whole world. Yet, beyond the good news, there is threat. God does not send the Divine One to condemn; yet those who don’t believe are already condemned. This passage begs a number of questions: Is God the source of condemnation or does condemnation occur in the natural course of events in response to our actions? Can our love of darkness thwart God’s grace? What is the nature of this condemnation – is it a matter of inability to experience the fullness of God’s love or is it eternal in impact? Is there a limit to divine love and, if so, does it come from our side or our ability to say “no” to God?”
God wants to save the world. In our first reading, he protects his people from poisonous serpents by having Moses raise up his staff so that the people be healed by gazing upon it. Perhaps Jesus is trying to make the point that God is continuing to save his people by raising up his own son. Jesus is approaching the cross where his body will be raised up. He will rise up again in resurrection then rise up again at Ascension. In this way, God allows us to look upon his risen son and be healed.
I have always had a negative reaction to much of John’s gospel and I’ve finally figured out why. Let’s look at this reading again: “Those who believe are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned.” Then there is lots of talk about darkness and light. This is a reading full of absolute, black and white statements. No grey. That’s true of much of John’s gospel. John divides things into two categories: darkness and light, life and death, truth and lies, spirit and world, believers and unbelievers.
So, what about the Hindu who lives a charitable, loving life? What about the Buddhist who following the precepts of the Buddha, living a life full of compassion and mercy? What about all the people in the world who do good works, living in love, who have never heard of Christ? Nothing can convince me that God would turn his loving grace away from all the rest of the non-Christian world.
It is important to remember that when the Bible was written, no one had any idea that the Americas existed. The Arctic and Antarctic were unknown. Australia and much of Asia was unknown. The Bible stories were shared amongst a very small group of people whose worldview was extremely limited. John was writing in the 90’s to a small, oppressed group of people who needed strength for their frightening journey. He paints his black and white world to give them firm assurances that they are on the right path, indeed, the only path.
We had a full bible study with this lectionary. It is such an important part of my faith life to wrestle with the lessons every week. In preaching, I long to present a crystal clear lesson, hopefully with a life affirming ending so that we can all feel cozy and happy. Sometimes, like today, it just isn’t there. One of my favorite bible stories is of Jacob physically wrestling with God until his hip is knocked out of its socket. That’s how I know that God is cool with conflict. God doesn’t expect blind obedience. Faith can be arrived at through study and questions and doubt and works and prayer. Faith is not usually black and white, there is a whole lot of grey – in faith and in the world. I think that’s OK with God, as long as we try to live out our lives on the path laid down for us by Jesus.
Well, since I’ve been talking about other faiths, I have a joke for you: The other day, I opened up a tub of margarine and what did I see but the face of Jesus! I rushed over to show it to my neighbor, Mr. Nakamura. I said, “Look, here’s the face of the savior in a tub of margarine!” He took one look and said, “I can’t believe it’s not Buddha!”