I remember watching golf tournaments and seeing Christians who wanted to make a statement. They would wear some colorful outfit, maybe a rainbow colored wig on a man. They would stand in a place where the camera would find them in the background. They would have a sign or a shirt that had the verse John 3:16 on it. Others have that verse on a license plate or even a sign. Today we read that verse as part of the gospel. It may be the most famous verse in the entire New Testament. “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.”
Today, I hope that you feel all warm inside. Because this single verse is clearly a statement about God’s love for us, God’s gift to us and the willingness of Jesus to save us regardless of what we have done. It is comforting. This single verse gives us reassurance in our faith.
This verse comes with warning signs to the preacher saying beware, be careful. You see, the verse is so famous that it has come to have a particular meaning to all who know it and the preacher must tread cautiously around this verse in preaching the gospel. I think the good news we receive today can cause us to become complacent, to lose our focus or even to become lazy. For the work of a Christian is still hard even though God gives us so much.
There is a very consistent theme that runs throughout all of today’s scripture lessons. In each reading, people have sinned against God and yet God reaches out, forgives them and heals them.
So in Numbers, we heard that the Israelites complained to Moses about God. God gave instructions about placing a bronze serpent on a pole and when the people looked at the pole, they were healed from the bites of serpents.
The Psalm has two verses that say something similar, First, we say, “Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; they were afflicted because of their sins.” Then we hear that “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
The letter to the Ephesians tells about the people in that city who were sinners and followed Satan rather than God. But God’s mercy came and saved them. God’s mercy comes to save us. This letter is full of theology and good news. We realize in this reading that God’s love is unchanging. Despite the fact that we have sinned, God’s love has never left us. God offers us renewal of life through Jesus Christ. Jesus brings us back into God’s fold. Jesus gives us new life whether we are Jewish, pagan, Gentile, whether we are man or woman. It is clearly a measure of God’s great mercy.
We hear of God’s saving grace twice in this short reading. We seek to accept the grace that God has given us. It is a gift that we have not earned. Because nothing we do earns the grace and mercy of God, we have nothing to boast about. Our good works are the result of God working in us. We do not do these good works to obtain any benefit. Rather, we offer our good works out of thanks for the goodness and mercy we receive from God.
Even the gospel speaks of the fact that some lived in the darkness of sin rather than the light of the world. But those who follow the light of Christ will be saved. God’s mercy is always present. God’s love for us lifts us up and brings us into the light of Christ. We have a consistent theme of God’s love, a cornerstone of our faith.
I would also ask you to remember that reading this verse all by itself may cause us to miss a portion of what John is trying to tell us. I think there is also an indication of how difficult it is to follow Jesus, a message about how hard it can be to understand God’s mysterious ways and also a message about our actions in this world.
John’s gospel connected us to the reading from Numbers. The people complained about God’s work. Then God sent serpents to kill them. The people repented and then God had Moses create a bronze serpent on a pole to heal them. Why would God have Moses create what seems to be an idol, a serpent on a stick? Our modern day minds cannot imagine that simply looking on a bronze serpent would heal the bite of a snake. Yet somehow, John decided that this story would provide additional meaning to his declaration that God sent his son to save us. The serpent on the pole brings us right to the tragedy of the crucifixion. John calls on us to lift up our hearts to the cross of Cavalry. In so doing, we are healed from our sins.
The Greek word we translate as lift up can also be translated as exalt. So, comparing the lifting up of Jesus can be a way for us to remember not only his terrible agony and death on the cross but also a way to glorify the name of Jesus, the Son of God. We see the death of Jesus as a sign of his love for us. We know his resurrection as a way to eternal life.
Theologian Lance Pape wrote about the serpent and the cross this way, “But in John’s theological imagination, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are collapsed into a single movement of divine agency: Jesus exalted by God. Just as the Israelites were paradoxically required to look upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life, so we are asked to look upon Jesus’ “lifting up” in humiliating crucifixion and receive it as part of God’s plan to glorify Jesus and save the world.”
The passages in our gospel are part of a commentary given by Jesus at the end of a discussion he held with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to see Jesus at night so no one else would know what he was doing. He asked Jesus several questions. Nicodemus appeared confused by the answers he received especially after Jesus told him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be born in the spirit. For Episcopalians being born is the spirit happens when we are baptized. Perhaps that is why Jesus later refers to those who will be saved as those who choose the light of Christ, a light that we receive in our baptism.
It may be easy for us to understand all this now but Jesus’ words were not so easy to understand then. There are mysteries of God that we find difficult to understand now. We live by faith accepting that God will take care of us. When John told us to lift up the Son of Man it is more than just an act of worship, it is also a call to action. We are called to turn away from sin and to follow the way of Jesus. That call means living in unity with others and sharing God’s love with everyone in this world. It is not always easy. It can be hard to do in a world that often does not return God’s love to us.
Despite the challenge, it is a wonderful place to be. We are blessed by God’s love for us. Nothing we say or do can change that love of God. It comes with forgiveness when we have sinned and confessed those sins, seeking never to sin again. It is because of that gift of grace that we now are free to offer that gift to others. As we find in the Book of Common Prayer we are now perfectly free to go and love one another.
I am not sure what you have thought or felt during this Lenten season. Perhaps you have reflected on something in your past or current life that you wish was different, some way that you have sinned or missed the mark and now you want God to help you overcome your failures. Today’s message is that God is always there, loves you and wants you to receive God’s grace and mercy. May you feel the power of God’s unchanging love as you continue on your Lenten journey. Come and receive the bread of Christ that that he may live in us, and we in him. Amen.