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Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:1-17 (Common English Bible Translations)
These are weird stories. I mean, let’s be honest. They’re just weird. And complicated. My goodness, there’s a reason that St. Augustine chose an eagle to symbolize John and his gospel – it’s language and imagery soars high above our heads, swooping in and out of our sight, and maybe poops on us every once in awhile. John’s gospel is incredibly dense and full of symbolic and metaphorical language, not to mention a complex theology that sometimes contradicts itself, as theologies often do. But, this is Lent – not a time to shirk theological quandaries or refuse to dig a little deeper. So, what’s left to us is to approach this as we might a picture of a pile of candy canes made into a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Imagine that for a second…
We’ll start with the corners.
The easiest piece is that Nicodemus is an admirer of Jesus, but an admirer like a person who wears their “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt under a sweater and a jacket and only watches the rallies on Facebook live. He doesn’t really want anyone to know he’s an admirer, especially not his pals – the other Pharisees – who are having a really hard time with Jesus. So, he sets up this clandestine meeting, at night, where he sneaks in to talk with the person he wants to learn from, in secret, because he admires him so much, but doesn’t want anyone to know it. Change is always the hardest part of learning, or growth.
Jesus, as he often does in John’s gospel, knows everything and is expecting this action from Nicodemus. He doesn’t waste any time, meeting his praise with this – “Very truly, I tell you,” – in other words, pay close attention — “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now, right away some of you might be thinking, did pastor say that right? Isn’t it – “born again?” I’m so happy you noticed. Here’s our first corner piece. The phrase, in Greek, is GennEthE AnOthen, which literally means “begotten from an up-place.” AnOThen is an adverb, and can mean: from above, or from a higher place, it can mean from the first, or from the beginning, or it can mean anew, or over again. Given those options we might think that we should of course translate it as “anew, or over again” because we are used to the choice the King James Version of the Bible made – “born again.” Yet this is not the only option, maybe not even the best option, and it is loaded. It leads us full speed into a particular theology, one that is quite prevalent here in our neck of the woods.
This flavor of Christianity says the Bible is inerrant, that the steps to becoming Christian are – focus on your sinfulness, on Jesus dying for those sins and your need to believe in him or face eternal damnation. Then there’s other things that follow, now including some political positions that one must have with equal certainty as a sort of sign of your “born again-ness.” This, despite its heavy saturation where we live, is a pretty recent theological invention and not representative of the richness of the Christian tradition.
Nicodemus, for his part, responds to this assertion from Jesus that he must have another birth of some kind with literalism, a big mistake with the Jesus of John’s gospel, who is always speaking in riddles and metaphor. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” – a statement that is as ridiculous to hear out loud as it is gross to imagine. C’mon, Nicodemus – have a little imagination. Jesus does not let him off the hook but answers with even more cryptic language about water and Spirit and flesh and wind blowing where it will.
When I read John’s gospel, I am often reminded of the movie, Shakespeare in Love, where Geoffrey Rush plays Philip Henslowe a sort of producer of plays in his day and age, working with Marlowe and Shakespeare creating plays in the Globe theatre. He makes some rather shady business acquaintances along the way as he seeks whatever capital he can to get the plays made.
At one point in the movie, with Shakespeare in a writer’s block, he promises the local gangster, Mr. Fennyman, that the play will go on and he will get his money back. He pleads his case saying, “Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” Fennyman responds, “So what do we do? And Henslow replies, “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” “How?”, Fennyman asks. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
That’s the operative word in Christianity that has been lost in the shift towards fundamentalism. Where is there room for mystery…for stating that the resurrection is a reality, but being thin on details because it’s not something we understand with our heads, it’s something in which we trust with our hearts? How do we acknowledge that we understand there to be some kind of interaction between God and humanity, centered on Jesus and his life, something that involves his death on a cross, but we don’t fully comprehend it? How do we step away from the certainty of Jesus’ impact on what happens to us after we die and live into the mystery of what Jesus means for our lives before we die?
The passage today features heavily in the heaven-or-hell theology that fills much of the religious airwaves in our context. First corner is “born again,” and the second corner is, “For God so loved the world.” John 3:16. It’s in the top ten of Bible studies, always part of our memorization collection from Sunday School, and, of course, it’s been plastered all over major sporting events for decades. It is so prevalent that the “John 3:16” sign forms the basis for many people’s experience of Christianity. Many even claim John 3:16 as “the gospel in a nutshell,” as if Jesus’ death is the good news – and our afterlife the only reward, the only meaning that can possibly be ascribed and, likewise, a meaning that most of us cannot accept.
“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.” It’s not even the whole thought, the entire paragraph, which also says in the very next verse, the one that doesn’t get referenced on the signs – “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” When you add that, it makes it much harder to see the previous verse in the accusatory way that it is often presented. It sets forth Jesus as a cosmic rescue plan, rather than cosmic sacrifice.
This is a highly coded message in John’s time, and it is still coded now, only the codes are different, and working only with a translation doesn’t help this at all, for many of the concepts from the ancient Greek-speaking world don’t translate along with the simple word-to-word transfer. As an example, we read, “For God so loved the world,” and we hear this – “God loved the world so much,” as if the word “so” were a qualifier of degree. We hear it as a precursor to the claim that Jesus dies for our sins as substitutionary atonement, that cosmic sacrifice and it introduces for us this dilemma – dealing with a God whose supposed unconditional love is so big it requires very conditional penance. It makes no sense to claim this word “love” in the name of a God who sends his son to be tortured and killed because we owe God. If that’s love, you might rightly say to yourself, I don’t want any part of it.
But the Greek word outos, here translated as “so much,” can just as easily mean “in this way” or “in this manner”. So this can be read, perhaps ought to be read, “God loved the world in this way, he gave his only Son, etc.” Read this way, we might also see a theological model where God is sending Jesus for some other reason, with some other agenda, maybe Jesus as a messenger to announce God’s actual agenda for us as humanity, an agenda that includes mercy and compassion, the ending of hierarchy and the embrace of diversity. Then, this version of the story goes, WE kill him, not God, because that agenda is too threatening, too revolutionary. And, in the next turn, the resurrection means something else entirely, as well…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll save that part for Easter.
Except that this much should be said now – there are many different explanations of what happens to Jesus, both on the cross and after. John, for instance, uses this example from what he would have called scripture then, what we call the Hebrew Bible, or the so-called “Old” Testament. It is from Numbers, this reference to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. The Rev. Carl Gregg, from the Patheos website, describes it this way:
“…the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.
And they are growing impatient with year after year of hiking around the Sinai Peninsula. They don’t like the food and there’s not enough water. And in one of those classic Hebrew Bible moments, God responds to their complaints by sending “poisonous serpents among the people.” It’s kind of like treating a broken arm by smashing the patient’s toe with a hammer. Your arm may not feel better, but you’re too busy screaming about your toe to complain about your arm.
In this case, all those poisonous serpents biting people, gave the Israelites some perspective. They stopped complaining about the quality of the food, and started praying for God to contain the snakes. In response God told Moses to,‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” That is the immediate background the writer of the Gospel of John has in mind: just as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to cure people bitten by the snakes, so God lifted up Jesus “that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
It is a story about remembering to trust in God for healing and salvation, to not squabble about minor inconveniences and remember the bigger pictures of freedom, justice and liberation. It isn’t confess your sins, say the right magic words and get water on you in the proper fashion. No, faithing is learning to see yourself and the world in a different way. Interestingly, later in 2 Kings, the story is told of King Hezekiah breaking this bronze serpent into pieces, for people had started praising it as an idol, turning faith into a formula, not a relationship…they saw the bronze serpent as an end in itself, disabling the purpose of religious practice, which is not to support orthodoxy, but to bring us closer to God and, therefore, one another.
Jesus calls on Nicodemus to walk away from the power and privilege of his leadership position and join what is seen by everybody as a lost cause for justice and liberation, to cast in his lot with outcasts, to move his believe from his head to his heart…and then to his feet and hands. Jesus is also pushing his followers to understand that new life emerges constantly from the old, that God sends new life from above and new perspectives to interrupt our old habits. This is what Jesus names as salvation, that we will finally pay attention to the ways that God has been trying to tell us that Love and Grace are the ways God intends us to live with one another. Maybe if we look upon Jesus lifted up, John tries to impart to us, we will finally accept that message. God sent Jesus so the world might be saved through him…not as an act of membership in a particular religious tradition, not as a competition, not as an act of exclusion, but through his message of love and the vision he bears an act of incredible inclusion, drawing the whole world to the Way of Jesus…not that we might all believe the same things about Jesus, but rather so we might act like Jesus. For whatever our theology, whatever construction we have created or accepted or internalized to explain to ourselves what happened on the cross or after, even if our strategy has been not to think about it at all, I know we don’t manage to think ourselves into a meaningful encounter with the Holy.
Some might call John 3:16 the “gospel in a nutshell.” I prefer Micah 6:8:
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Though we might indeed develop theologies, living our faith is where we encounter God, in the momentary meeting of the stranger, in the chance encounter that slowly seems not-so-chance, in the singing…what wondrous love is this…where our heads may fail, but our hearts know the way. For the mystery is where we find God, in faith we connect to the Holy, in trust we find our way home, our salvation tied to doing justice, loving kindness, (and our neighbor, and our enemy) and walking humbly with God.
May we learn to love the world in this way — as God so loves the world…so much that God gave to us Jesus…whatever that means.