Theme: Belief in the Son / Eternal life / Wholeness / Two Ways to Live
Sentence: So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3: 14-15).
May we through the Spirit's power and wisdom,
grasp the extent of your love for the world,
open our eyes to the richness of your mercy,
and offer from our hearts, thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of your Son,
which makes new life possible. Amen.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The Old Testament and Gospel readings this week are very tightly bound together because the Numbers reading provides the direct biblical background to the concept of the Son of Man being 'lifted up'.
From a scientific perspective this story is, well, nuts: if you have snakebite problems, looking at a bronze serpent held in the air will not (ordinarily) solve your problem. But the story is not about the science of snakebites but about the actions of God and of God's people. The people grumble (4-5) and the Lord responds with a mini-plague of 'poisonous serpents' (6). People die (as we might expect, scientifically speaking) and this provokes the people to repent of their grumbling (7). Moses prays and the Lord answers in an (unscientific) way (7-8).
What the passage invites us to consider is why God answers Moses' prayer in the way he does. Why does God who sent the snakes not send them away? Why does God command Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent, attach it to a pole and ask those subsequently bitten by snakes to look at the bronze image in order to live? (We can even make the question harder by asking why God requires of his people a remedy for snakebite which Egyptians also used).
One possibility is that God is demonstrating sovereign power over the situation, including the use of irony. God sends the snakes and God remedies their threat. The remedy involves God taking up an Egyptian custom (a custom from the land Israel wishes to return to) and transforming it into God's own remedy. It is as though God says to Israel, "You want to go back to Egypt? Let's go back metaphorically to Egypt for a remedy for your punishment. But that is as far as it goes. Geographically, there is no going back. I will get you to the Promised Land."
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This psalm recalls the story in Numbers, set in the larger story of God's calling Israel out of Egypt and guiding them to the promised land.
We could take this passage as a commentary on the gospel passage!
What kind and scope of love for the world does God have (cf. John 3:16 in our gospel reading)? Well, it is spelled out in extraordinary life giving detail here, especially from verse 4 onwards.
We can, of course, also read the passage on its own merits. In the context of Lent we do this looking for understanding for why Jesus died on the cross for our sakes.
Paul lays it out:
1-2: 'You were dead through the trespasses and sins ...'
3: '... we were by nature children of wrath ...'
4-5: 'But (which could be 'BUT') God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ...'
(Although the cross is not mentioned in this passage, we understand the death of Christ on the cross to be crucial to our being made alive by working backwards to 1:7; we also understand his death to be implied by the talk in Ephesians 1, and here, on the resurrection of Jesus and the power which raised him to be the power at work in us).
In other words God reaches out to humanity which is destined for death and enables us instead to be 'made alive'. All this is God's doing: 'by grace you have been saved' (5, 8).
6-7: it is not just that God 'saves us' (in the sense of making us new, making us at one with God), Paul says here that we are 'raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.' Much could be said here about (a) hope (b) heaven (c) the future becoming present reality but I would like to emphasise (d) that the great transformation through salvation is that we are identified with Christ and become 'in Christ', a union between ourselves and Christ and because of that, receive every blessing from God (see also 1:3).
8-9: Understanding everything so far we easily comprehend that nothing (repeat, nothing) we do can secure this transformation, can gain us favour from God, so it is 'by grace you have been saved through faith.'
And, Paul goes further, lest any misunderstanding should arise, even the faith by which we open ourselves to God's gracious action, this faith 'is not your own doing; it is the gift of God'.
10: What now? Do we sit around waiting to physically die to enjoy the fullness of life in Christ in the heavenly places? Not at all. There is work to be done, but it is God's work which is to be done.
A kind of preamble which could be skipped: Our gospel readings through these Lenten weeks are an interesting mix of forecast and interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection, centred on Jesus' own words. The epistles are clearly centred on interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection through hindsight rather than foresight. What we read in the gospels, in passages such as this one, are less clearly foresight rather than hindsight because the way they come to us involves a writing down which takes place as late as, if not later than the epistles. Inevitably the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection influences the way Jesus' own words are written down for the gospel writers' present and future audiences. In the particular case of John 3:14-21 there is a challenge - avoided here(!) - of working out where Jesus stops speaking and the Fourth Evangelist begins his interpretation of what Jesus has been saying: at the end of verse 15? 16? 21? Here we take the passage as words which, whether spoken by Jesus or the gospel writer or both, contribute to our understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection.
Main Comment: Verse 14-15 really needs (at least) verse 13 to make sense of why Moses and the serpent (from our Old Testament reading) appear after Jesus has been talking to Nicodemus about other matters. The conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-13) has been about where Jesus comes from and how Jesus can do and teach what he has been doing. Verse 13 is then a kind of summary: the one who does these things is the one who has experience of heaven, the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) and that Man has descended from heaven. So the language of descent (also ascent, first part of 13) opens the way for Jesus to talk about the destiny of the descended Son of Man: he will be 'lifted up' (14).
Thus in verse 14 Jesus uses the switch from language of 'ascent' to language of being 'lifted up' to talk about the event of the cross which will differentiate his talk of ascent to heaven from that of other mystics. The usual mystical talk (e.g. within Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time) was of a significant heavenly figure being a guide to the seeker of divine mysteries who leads the seeker towards the highest heaven. But Jesus is not that guide in that sense. What will lead people to God, that is, what will 'save' them (see verses 16- 17) is the lifting up of Jesus (i.e. his death high on a cross).
By invoking the story of Moses and the lifted up serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) - the story of Israelites becoming ill through snakebite and being healed by gazing at the lifted up serpent - Jesus is actually looking ahead to when he, like Moses' serpent, will be 'lifted up' in such a manner that people will be healed (saved) as a result. He is talking about his death on the cross.
(Additionally, we might also note the subtle implication of taking up this story from Numbers: the serpent or snake that people most need healing from is the one who tempted humanity into sin in the first place, Genesis 3. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, and then lifted up from the grave through resurrection, he will heal the great wound shared by all humanity).
In v 15 then (and v. 16, 18), 'eternal life' is possible for those who believe because Jesus becomes the Mosaic serpent to whom people may look in order to be healed. (From this perspective, 'eternal life' is 'wholeness of life' or 'life healed of brokenness.')
Verses 16-21 is therefore a speech (by Jesus) or a sermon (by John the Evangelist) on the significance of the choice facing the world because of the event of the cross (and resurrection). Choosing to 'believe in him' leads to eternal life and choosing not to believe leads to the opposite ('perish', 16; 'condemn', 17, 18; 'judgment', 19).
Verse 16 nails down the place of God as, well, God in relation to the world: God loves the world which by implication means 'loves the world enough to do something about the problems of the world - people preferring darkness to light, doing evil deeds (19-20).' In that love God 'gave his only Son', language that is redolent of Genesis 22 where Abraham is willing to give up his only son for sacrifice, but with the difference that there is no talk of sacrifice here, and 'the Son' in the context of this gospel is the One who is one with the Father. In effect God so loves the world that God (Father-and-Son) gave up himself so that the world might be saved.
Thus all talk about the decisive and eternally significant choice facing the world, light versus darkness, belief in the Son versus evil deeds, is framed by the phrase 'For God so loved the world.' As we reckon with the strong language of 'perish' and 'condemn' in succeeding verses, the starting point is God's love which reaches out through the gift of God's Son to draw all people to himself.
The reality is that the situation of the world is bleak: 'people loved darkness' (19); 'all who do evil hate the light' (20). The coming of Jesus, paradoxically, as a gift of love which brings light, makes no difference to most in the world who 'do not come to the light' (20).
A couple of tricky questions lurk in the passage!
One is that verses 18-21 raise but do not answer the question 'why' believers manage to escape from the usual preference of people to choose darkness over light.
Two is that there is a shift from 'belief in the Son' (15) being key to the door to eternal life to 'deeds' being seen in the light of God (21).