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Lent 4B 15th May 15
Ps 107:1-3, 17-22
These are very interesting readings, aren’t they?
First we have the story of Moses and the people and the poisonous snakes, which is surely one of the strangest stories in the OT. Then we have John’s gloss on it as he uses that same story to illustrate something about Jesus. And to make it even more confusing, this morning we have only half of the gospel passage. This section is the second half of the conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus. Jesus tells him that he has to be born, either again, or from above and Nicodemus doesn’t really understand. This section is part of Jesus’ explanation to Nicodemus. And right in the middle of it all comes the most famous bible verse, the one we all know off by heart, the one we hold up at the cricket, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that those who believe in him will have eternal life”.
And that verse is central to making sense of the whole. The point is that regardless of anything else God loves his world- and that means everyone in it- so much that he “Gave” Jesus for its salvation. And it is about salvation, that is made clear by the reference to the snakes in the wilderness, so let’s just look at that for a second. There are the Israelites, complaining again and God sends poisonous snakes to bite them. Now they repent and ask Moses to ask God to take the snakes away, but God does not remove the evil but instead gives them a way to be saved. Moses lifts up the bronze snake on the pole and they can be saved if they keep their eyes on it. That’s interesting, isn’t it? John sees this as a metaphor for what happens when Jesus is lifted up on the cross. The evil represented by the poisonous snakes does not disappear, but when Jesus is lifted up he is both crucified for our salvation and glorified- the word has both meanings! This salvation is obtained by belief or trust and the Israelites had to believe in the power of the serpent lifted up to find their salvation as well. Can’t you imagine them, still complaining, “Why didn’t God just take the snakes away? Why do we have to look at the stupid pole?” But in that act of faith, looking to the serpent, in fact the text says, keeping their eyes fixed on the serpent, they were saved. And so it is for us, we believe or belove and look to Jesus, fix our eyes on him and we are saved. The evil hasn’t gone away- the poisonous snakes are all around us- but Jesus has been given to us by God and all we have to do is trust.
It is important to understand that for John writing this, of course, with hind-sight, the whole of the story is seen together, Jesus died on the cross, he rose again from the dead, and he ascended back into heaven- it all fits together to make our salvation complete. Last week we recognized that Jesus replaced the temple as the locus of God’s glory. Here it is about Jesus coming into the world, “descending” in John’s language and then “ascending” again after the events of the cross, that make it all possible. Jesus has saved us, not just by his death, but, fundamentally, by his rising to new life, and then going back to the Father.
And what about the light? John has this imagery of light and darkness all the way through his gospel beginning in the prologue, “and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” and this imagery continues right through the gospel. Here he explains it clearly. Jesus comes into the world and brings with him light, and in this process the world is judged. It is something that has already started, in fact it started with Jesus coming and His light will continue to judge all of us. The word “condemn” is used by the NRSV but that is an unnecessarily negative connotation. The word just means “judge”. And it is a kind of process of self-determination. The things that are comfortable to be out in his light are the things that are right and good and the things that need to be hidden are the things that bring death, ultimately. All the way through John’s gospel the choice for people is plain, choose the light, choose kingdom life in Jesus or perish. And in that sense we, all of us, either live or condemn ourselves. It is our choice- do we want to live in the light or do we prefer the dark?
And what about our deeds how do they stack up? If we bring our deeds out into the light what do we see?
This is the big challenge for all of us. When we really expose ourselves and examine every thing we have done, or sometimes have not done, how does it look? Do we want our whole lives to be on display for the world to judge? Probably none of us could answer truthfully that we would like everything that we have ever done or said exposed. We have all done or said things that we regret.
If everything that was in the locked cupboards of our lives was exposed we might feel quite vulnerable. We might feel that other people would judge us harshly, and that God wouldn’t want us in his kingdom at all.
But is that true? What does it say in these verses? That God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that we might believe in him and have eternal life. And in the next verse God does not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it.
So what about the unpleasant things that we have hidden in the cupboards of our lives? Well, like everything that is dank, mouldy, smelly and nasty we need to pull them out into the light of Christ and let him clean them up. Jesus promises that when we repent he will forgive our sins. But we do need to confess them first. So we need to get all the things out that we haven’t asked for forgiveness for and let Jesus cleanse us. That is one of the purposes of Lent, to allow us a period where we really examine ourselves. The thing that I think we often need to work on is looking at all the little things that we have had tucked away in our memories that for years and that we have been denying are sins. You know, all those little things that we can justify to ourselves, but at some deep place we are ashamed of. Let’s pull them out this Lent and allow ourselves to admit that we did wrong and ask God’s forgiveness and then maybe ask the forgiveness of who ever it was that we have hurt. If anyone feels the needs to confess them out loud and hear God’s forgiveness proclaimed, you can ask me for the Rite of Reconciliation. Whether we confess straight to God or through the process of telling someone else, then when we have received God’s forgiveness we can safely put the memory back in the cupboard to remind us never to go there again.
One of the questions that is raised is this business of belief in Jesus- we understand it as a kind of intellectual assent. We believe in Jesus if we can say the creed with conviction. But I recently read a book by Marcus Borg that had a very different slant on “believe”. He makes the point that in both the old Latin “Credo” and the English “believe” it s\is something that comes from the heart not from the head- one does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, you believe in Jesus the Son of God. He suggests that we replace the word “believe” with “belove” which he suggests is a more accurate description of what we need to do.
Now there are many people who do not have a personal, loving relationship with Jesus- does this mean they are to be condemned? I don’t know, and I am prepared to leave that God, but I do think that IF Jesus is the light of the world, and a person chooses the light rather than the darkness, they must, in some sense, be choosing Jesus even if they do not know his name. The really important thing for us is not to judge other people and what their relationship with God is, but to ensure that we are constantly choosing light.
We need to be a people who are characterized by living in the light, having all that we do, and all that we say able to be scrutinized by the world. In this passage John seems to be saying that some people live in the light and some in the darkness, but the reality is that we all live in the dappled sunshine, don’t we, with light and shade? The last verse should be an encouragement to us, however, because it says that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God”. It is a process that we are all working on, and we are slowly bringing our lives into the full sunlight. We can show good deeds, good things we have done, in an unselfish way, for others and for God. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people looked at each of us and saw God’s light, God’s love in us?
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him might have eternal life”