Numbers 21:4-9 Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Ephesians 2:1-10
Because Lent provides an opportunity for us to come to terms with our stubborn wills, the account of Israel’s resistance to God seems so appropriate for our Old Testament reading for today. The reading points to how God can both punish and cure disobedience. In the psalm, we hear a prayer of thanksgiving offered to the God who redeems and makes well. The epistle reading speaks of the transition from death to life that happens in conversion. The gospel reading contains John’s view of everlasting life made possible in the Son, Jesus.
It is one of the best-known and best-loved verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” If you grew up going to Sunday School, you can’t remember a time when you didn’t know this particular verse. It is and has been the centerpiece of countless Vacation Bible Schools. We still see it everywhere, from the end zone, signs painted on bare- chested men in sports’ crowds, and in every place the TV camera goes – John 3:16 was seen.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” What better time to think about it. Lent is a time in the church year for dwelling on repentance and decision. But the real saving verse follows in John 3:17- 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. It is wonderful news to hear that Jesus doesn’t condemn us – doesn’t judge us for our sin. He is with us to help us – to transform us – to make us new creations.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” How do we live into that love? How do we accept God’s unconditional love? In Lent, we have talked about those things we may need to get rid of so there is more room for God. What is in your life, in your heart that may be getting in the way of your relationship with God. What is it that needs to be removed so there is more room for God within your heart, your life, your relationships?
The Son of Man does not just offer life, but eternal life. But it is not enough to look at the Son of Man; we must believe in him. In John’s Gospel, “believe” is always an action verb. It is something we do, and it can’t be reduced to merely giving affirmation. While our affirmations do involve believing, for John, believing is much more than this. The nature of “belief” becomes clear in this passage – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” For John, the opposite of belief is not unbelief but disobedience. To believe is to obey.
Those who believe may have “eternal life”, John’s metaphor to describe the change in human existence that is made possible by believing in Jesus. It is not the quantity, but the quality of life, not just an unending human experience, but life lived in the presence of God. This life is available to the believer now because the Son of Man has been “lifted up.” “Lifting up” can also mean “exalting,” and for John the “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross is Jesus’ “exaltation.” The humiliation of crucifixion is the glory of the exaltation for Jesus. The mystery of the cross is front and center here. In the face of the unexplainable, Jesus reaches for an analogy for the life-giving mystery of the cross.
John 3:16 announces the “why” of Jesus’ life and death: “God so loved the world” that God “gave” his only Son. Now “everyone who believes in him…may have eternal life.” “Everyone” makes the offer inclusive, but John 3:16 announces that the alternative to believing is perishing. There is no middle ground. To believe is to have eternal life now. To disobey is to perish. The coming of the Son into the world sets in motion a crisis. One must make a choice. Once again the fact that God sent his Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it, is emphasized. But the coming of the Son has brought judgment from the future into the present. To believe is to be saved. To refuse to believe is to stand condemned “already.” By the decision we make, we pronounce our own judgment.
In these verses we also hear the echo of light and darkness, heard in John’s prologue. Judgment is based on our response to the light that reveals a person’s true identity. From the beginning of John, we know that “Jesus is the true light, who enlightens everyone.” Those who believe do what is true; that is, their deeds are “done in God,” and, therefore, they come to the light. To love darkness rather than light is disobedience, which results in the evil deeds that the light exposes.
A couple of years ago, Tiffany’s nieces, Tiffany, Zebi and I camped out at Laura Walker. Mimi and Hannah had never camped and I wanted to introduce them to camping – who knew it would be the coldest night of the year. When we finally settled into the tent, after hobo stew, hot chocolate and s’mores, it was really dark. You forget how dark it is in the country away from the city lights. We had blankets, sleeping bags, hats, gloves and extra clothing on and Zebi to keep us warm. But when we turned the lantern off, it was black dark. We talked some to quiet the girls down and all went to sleep.
One of my requirements for a camp site was to be near a bathroom. But the park was full and we didn’t get very close. Memory fails me, but one of us Tiffany or I had to go to the bathroom and failed to zip the tent all the way back. Zebi saw her opportunity to explore and bolted out the door. We grabbed our shoes and flashlight and bolted after her. Yes, we left the girls in the tent, thinking they were still asleep. We are walking around in the darkness looking for Zebi. Not calling her too loudly to not wake everybody up. My heart was pounding. This was uncharted territory. It was so disorienting, being in a strange place in the dark and feeling desperate to find Zebi. The beam of light from the flashlight was like a beam of hope in that darkness. We finally found her and walked her back to the tent, by this time the girls were awake and we all had to go to the bathroom. We are all called to be a light in the darkness for folks.
Lent is the perfect time to consider our response to Jesus. A perfect time to consider the nature of obedience in light of the images of Jesus’ obedience. During his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus rejected Satan’s temptations to be another kind of a Messiah. After the feeding of the multitude, he rejected the peoples’ efforts to “make him king.” In the Garden, he turned back his own desire to have it another way. Even on the cross, he rejected the temptation to “save himself.” Jesus “became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” If believing is more than giving verbal agreement to certain statements – then during Lent, as we remember the obedience of Jesus, we must ask: “Do we really believe?”
How can people in our lives know that we believe? Do our words and actions reflect our belief? Is our response obvious? Do people see the light of Christ is us, or the frustrations of a busy day? Do people hear the goodness of God from us, or the mutterings of human nature? What is getting in our way? Is it indifference, fear, pain, anger, grief, unforgiveness? What is it you need to let go of to better grab hold of God?
In a little book by the Women of Magdalene, which is a residential community for women who have survived lives of prostitution, violence and abuse, their journeys of recovery are shared. “I have forgiven the man who abused me when I was a child. I can pray for him and hope for wholeness. That didn’t come until after crossing a desert of hurt and then fording a river of confusion and confrontation and finally climbing the hill of acceptance; but I am so grateful that I know the sweet taste of forgiveness. I love that I can see that even in that pain there were gifts that I have used in my life. I marvel that part of who I am was born from that experience, and it makes me love the world more.” (from Find your way Home by Becca Stevens)
For God so loved the world… It is possible to read the whole of Scripture as God’s love story for the world. It was love that stirred God’s heart for the pleading slaves in Egypt, and love that offered them both the guidance of the law and the security of the promised land. So whenever inequality or injustice threatened the welfare of the poor and the powerless, God’s love raised up prophets who declared God’s desire for compassion – shown not just to insiders, but to everyone, to strangers, sojourners and foreigners.
It was divine love that carried Israel during the time of exile, and the love of God that was celebrated with the psalms of adoration in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. It was God’s love that sent Jesus to be incarnate in the world, where he taught that love is not merely for those who look and think and believe like us, but even for our enemies and those who give us a hard time. It was love that stirred the first century church to open the doors of communion not only to Jews but also to Gentiles, not only to those deemed worthy but also those whose existence was troubling – the poor, the lame, the blind. It is that love that inspires us to welcome all who wish to know Jesus.
What if our response to God was to join in the creation of a community in which God’s love was not in short supply, but rather poured out into all the world. What if we showed what God’s love for the world could do here in Waycross? What if God showed us what we could do? When we surrender, answers will come. Amen.