Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21
Fourth Sunday in Lent
I really dislike this passage from John, by the way, not for what it says but for the baggage it carries. I feel like I need to over-explain it every time it comes up because the culture around us has such a hold on it. There is so much tedious grammar and comparisons with the other gospels and digging into what Eternal life means to John and eschatology and so many big theological things that need to be explained and deconstructed and reconstructed that it’s almost impossible to create a non-boring, useful, related to real life sermon out of it all. And completely impossible to do it in under an hour. Especially if it’s going to stick with you so that I never have to do it again.
But for many people what they know of Christianity is a guy at a ball game with a big sign that says John 3:16 and they google it, if they don’t already know, and they find it and say to each other, Oh it’s those Christians acting like everyone else is going to hell. And no amount of grammar and theology and social context is going to fix that.
If I had my life to live over again I would have done the entire series of reflections during Lent on this because it actually goes with all the passages:
- God loves the entire world – as shown by the rainbow covenant with all living things
- Jesus is not going to go for power, glory, fame or popularity – as shown by his rejection of easy routes to those things during his time in the wilderness.
- God is going to create a great nation and this is going to require commitment (aka belief), whether by leaving home and homeland and trusting an unlikely promise or by picking up a cross and becoming great by becoming least
- There will be rules. And the importance of the rules is their ability to strengthen our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.
Which brings us to here. With things being lifted up. And God loving the world but those who do not believe are condemned.
Let’s start with lifting up. The bronze snake was lifted up so that people could see it. They had to look up, toward the mountain, toward God, to be reminded of what their grumbling had cost them and how trustworthy God had been. Lifting something up can mean exalting it – which is what ended up happening to the bronze serpent.
People stopped looking past it to God and started looking at it as a god until the righteous King Hezekiah had it smashed to pieces along with other idols that had snuck into Israel’s religious practices.
When Jesus, the Son of Man, is lifted up, on the other hand, it is on a cross and that not look like any kind of exaltation. It looks like humiliation and suffering and defeat.
That happened because God loved the world. To explore that properly you’re going to have to come on Good friday, but it’s part of what we saw with creation and with the rainbow covenant.
And all that stuff about condemnation and eternal life. This is tricky because “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life” sounds like if you believe in Jesus you get to heaven. And “those who do not believe are condemned already” sounds like if you do not believe in Jesus you are not going to heaven.
When Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the first place, Jesus explained about being born anew. He wasn’t talking about revisiting the birth canal as Nicodemus first seems to think. He was talking about becoming part of a new family, the family of Jesus followers.
Those who become part of this Jesus follower family express their family loyalty through behaviours that are compassionate, justice-driven and push us towards God, love, life, Spirit, Eternal Life and Salvation.
There is so much baggage in those words I can hardly stand leaving them alone. But I’m going to for the sake of all of our sanity and so we can go back to the Whosoever believes bit.
Belief is complicated in the Bible. First, it is not a one time offer. Numbers is the last of the grumbling stories. There are at least six times that God wants to give up on Israel and Moses negotiates a reconciliation. Even when God does give up, it’s temporary. God knows that. The prophets know that. It’s only the despair of the present time that makes it hard for everyone else to know that.
And the reason that things came to such an unfortunate pass so many times was usually because people didn’t believe. And by believe I mean act like they had faith.
Believe is a verb and faith is a noun and they go together but believe is not intellectual or emotional agreement with Jesus is Lord (not Caesar). Not in any of the gospels, even the gospel of John. Believe is behaviours that reflect an allegiance to Jesus as Lord (not Caesar). You can probably figure out what those are. They aren’t about profit. They aren’t about judgement. They aren’t about hoarding or hiding or staying safe. They are about hope. They are about compassion. They are about risk. They are about justice. They are about trusting God.
And the question that comes to the people of God, in every time and place, over and over again, is: Do we trust God? Or are we – people used to being in control of our own lives – unwilling or even unable to trust God with our church, with our lives, with our hopes and dreams? THAT is a, maybe the, fundamental question of discipleship.
Do we believe? And can we behave like we believe?
If there were homework, that would be it: pay attention to how you view the world, some of the choices you make this week and ask: Do these choices reflect an active belief in God? Or do they say that I think I am (we are) the one in control and responsible?