The Lover and the Beloved 03/11/18 (Lent 4)

The Lover and the Beloved
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
March 11, 2018 ~ Fourth Sunday of Lent


This week began with me texting or emailing all of my close clergy friends: “It’s John 3:16 this week! I hate this passage! What are you going to do?”

Yes, I use the word “hate.” Why?

Well, first of all, there’s this. How does one preach on a passage that’s so well known it has become a bit of a cliché? Bumper stickers and signs simply say, “John 3:16.” Songs that sing about Jesus as the one way to salvation. The ability many of us have to finish the phrase, “For God so loved the world…” without looking it up. In fact, many of us probably figure we know what it says. Certainly those who hold the signs, sing the songs, plaster the bumper stickers think they know what it says. And those who are most adamant in their professed understanding of this passage tend to focus on a few phrases and their very particular interpretations of those phrases – namely these:

 whoever believes in him may have eternal life (v. 15);
 so that everyone who believes in him may not perish (v. 16b); and
 those who do not believe in him are condemned already (v. 18b).

The assumption underlying many people’s use of this scripture is that “eternal life” means life after death. And given that assumption, the interpretation follows that heaven is only for those who believe – and believe “rightly” – in Jesus. But is that what Jesus – or the author of the Gospel of John – meant? Are these words about the afterlife at all? Are they about a ticket to heaven – with that ticket being belief in Jesus? Are they indicating an eternal condemnation of anyone who doesn’t believe? And what does belief in Jesus even mean?

Are we to believe that God’s love and welcome and healing and peace are not for those who are not Christian? Are all of the millions of non-Christians in the world doomed to hell simply based on one fact: that they have not named Jesus as Lord and Savior? And are all of the thousands upon thousands of people who claim to be Christians but who appear to be following some other path than the one laid out by Jesus saved in spite of their acts and the lack of love in their hearts? Is “claiming the Name of Jesus” all that matters?

Many Christians – often the loudest Christians – say yes. And I simply cannot say yes to any of that. So I struggle with this passage. I struggle mightily.

If I’m going to deal with this passage at all, rather than just dismiss it as judgmental evangelical propaganda, then I have to force myself to slow down and wonder what gift this passage might have for me, for us. I have to put aside all of the hateful and ugly ways in which this passage has been used to bully people into “becoming Christians” and to condemn those who are not Christians – or are not the right kind of Christians. I have to get out of my own way and listen for a word from God. I have to tame that serpent of anger and resistance that uncoils itself within me and makes me want to run in the other direction – any other direction, as long as it’s away from John 3:16.

Speaking of serpents, perhaps it will help if we begin where today’s passage begins: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (v. 14) The text we heard from Numbers this morning tells a strange and slightly obscure story about Moses and the Israelites who are wandering in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt and their experience with serpents, and it’s to this passage that the Gospel of John refers.

In that passage, God, weary beyond belief at the grumbling of the thankless Israelites, sends an Exodus-like plague of venomous snakes to chastise them. It is, to say the least, effective, and when the people repent, the Lord commands Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole, so that whenever someone is bitten he or she can look to the snake and be healed. [1]

In the same way, the Gospel of John, Jesus is lifted up for our healing. He is lifted up on the cross, and he is lifted up to heaven. And as with the people who looked up at the bronze snake found healing, so too do those who look up to Jesus receive healing. Those who see the love that infused his life, even to the point of death, are healed.

Those who look up to Jesus – specifically to Jesus on the cross – receive healing. That insight led me to ask: what do the stories about Jesus tell us that he did when he healed people?

He restored them to life. By this I mean: he cured their diseases, ending their isolation and returning them to community. He faced that which took possession of their souls, the things that which would destroy them – and he eradicated it, making them free. He turned their despair into hope, their suffering into solace, their brokenness into wholeness.

Perhaps we remember from all of our study and exploration over the last two years that in the Bible, the Greek word sozo means “saved,” and it also means “whole,” “healed,” “preserved,” and [made] “well.”

Furthermore, the fact that we read this passage during Lent can serve to remind us that when he himself was threatened with the most gruesome violence, he allowed himself to be lifted up, rather than resorting to violence of his own. His love would not allow him to turn away from his commitment to wholeness, even for his enemies.

It’s all about love. Love is always the point.

And it’s all about the here and now. Heaven and hell have nothing to do with it. Belief, creed, nationality, and gender have nothing to do with it.

Listen again:

For God so loved the world (v. 16a)

The world. Not a privileged few.

And hear:

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world. (v. 17a)

Condemnation – at least in terms of our everlasting souls – has nothing to do with it.

And remember that in a later passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

Eternal life is life a life of loved lived now and lived in relationship with God through Christ.

Honestly, I wish we’d spend more time with verses 19 through 21 than with verses 14 through 18, because I think we can only understand the famous 3:16 if we read it through the lens of those final verses. It’s here in these verses as rendered by Eugene Peterson’s The Message that we hear:

This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is. (vv. 19-21)

The Greek word krisis, which the New Revised Standard Version renders “judgment,” can also be translated as “crisis,”  “verdict,” or even “decisive moment.” As one scholar says,

That emphasis [on krisis as crisis, verdict, or disclosure] might help us hear the verses after 3:16 as more descriptive than accusatory. Those who believe that God is love are saved; they look to the One lifted up for healing. Those who cannot imagine that God comes bringing love rather than punishment are lost, lost to their despair, sin, and confusion. The verdict, conclusion, revelation is indeed that we love darkness more than light. That it’s hard to imagine God being different than we are. That we do not want to admit our need and receive God’s grace and forgiveness. That there is something in us that fears being exposed and, perhaps we assume, rejected or, for that matter, transformed. [2]

This is the crisis we’re in: we have so much that needs to be healed, and we need that healing now, not later. And we receive that healing when we turn to the light. Moment by moment, we are given opportunities to either live in the light or run from it.

In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes:

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to one state or the other. [3]

We gain eternal life –we are saved now, given a full and restored life – when we choose to enter into the life-sustaining relationship God provides, when we turn to the light. For those of us who call ourselves Christian, that sustaining relationship is offered in and through Jesus.

Sometimes we manage to enter into that life-sustaining, healing, loving relationship. And sometimes we turn away from that gift of life and love and try to go it alone. Sometimes we live in clarity and truth; sometimes we live in cloudiness and confusion. Sometimes we live in the darkness and sometimes we come to the light. And of course, that is true for people the world over, not just those who claim the name “Christian.” Everyone everywhere has the opportunity to live in truth, light, goodness, and love. Just as Jesus did not condemn the Samaritans who believed differently and did not name him Christ, so he does not condemn the millions of people who do not follow him today. The only question that Jesus asks is, “Do you live in the light? Do you live in love?”

We don’t always manage to do so. That’s just the human condition. When we don’t live from a place of love, the place Jesus taught us, then our lives are circumscribed; we are condemned to live broken and lost – not later. Now. Every time we choose the dark, rather than the light.

But that condemnation is not forever. As one person has said, “We all want to be on the side of light; we all at times veer towards the dark. Often we are in a half-light, like at dusk. But Lent is more about dawn than dusk. As the days lengthen, Lent offers a springtime of the heart.”

And just as spring comes time and time again, so are we given opportunities to choose light, time and time again. That is eternal life: to live in the light, here and now.

Thanks be to God.


[1] David Lose, “Lent 4B: Overlooked Elements of John 3:16.” 5 March 2018.

[2] ibid.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Morality and Psychoanalysis,” Mere Christianity, chapter 4. (New York: Harper Collins, 1952) p. 92.

[4] “John 3:14-21,” The Fourth Sunday of Lent. Pray as You Go.

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