“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his unique Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
I was listening to an audio-CD on weight-loss in the car earlier this week, and I found it odious!
I’m not actually trying to lose weight at the moment (the CD belonged to my friend in the passenger seat) and so it wasn’t any personal reaction to the challenges of the program being outlined that was bothering me. It was the speaker himself!
I won’t mention his name because I thought he was a pill! I will say though that he was an Australian guy who sounded as if he’d been trained as a tele-evangelist in everything except his raw Occa accent!
He had that personality of relentless cheerfulness that one normally associates with a used-car salesmen, and he kept telling his listeners ‘I believe in you!’, even though from my reaction I was giving him very little reason to believe in me!
And he spoke about how ‘you can achieve anything you set your mind to’ and ‘you deserve the body you desire’, which is an interesting twist on what I’d always thought – namely, that you get the body you deserve!
Anyway, there was one particular thing he said that particularly annoyed me, and that kept coming back to mind when I was reading through today’s Bible readings. It was his discussion on the human need for certainty.
‘Human beings need to have certainty in life’, he said, and he assured the listener that the entire academic world in the fields of psychology and psychiatry were right behind him on this. ‘Human beings need certainty’, he said, and I thought (and said out loud to my friend sitting next to me in the car), “What a load of rubbish!”
It’s like talking about the human need for inter-galactic travel – ie. a lovely idea but not remotely possible! Nothing in life is certain! We might wish it was. We might wish we could know for sure that
- we’d still be alive in ten years’ time
- and that our health then will be as good or better than it is today.
- That our children will remain happy and healthy and safe for years to come
- And that the world of the future will remain pretty much the same as it is now
But in truth we very little to zero control over any of those things, and we don’t really have a clue where tomorrow is going to take us! That may be unsettling, but it’s the way it is!
If there is a human need for certainty, then it is a need that can never be met, though I have become conscious over my years as a pastor that, ironically, this is exactly what draws a lot of people to religion of one form or another! People feel a need for certainty, and think (understandably perhaps) that within these thick and fixed granite walls they are likely to find some!
The other side of that coin, or course, that I’ve also discovered in my years as a pastor, is that when things go unexpectedly wrong for a lot of religious folk (and when things go wrong they are almost always unexpected) they question their faith.
They say things like ‘how could God allow this to happen? I’ve lived a good life!’, and ‘Why am I being punished like this after all my years of faithful service?’ – the assumption in both cases being, of course, that those who are faithful to God should be entitled to live lives that are uneventful and predictable.
Tell that to the people of Israel! Our first reading today detailed a time when the people of Israel – en route from Egypt to the Promised Land – were attacked by an enormous brood of snakes, and that calamity must have been totally unexpected!
Encounters with snakes tend to be like that – all the snake-encounters I’ve experienced at any rate: ‘Where the heck did that come from!?’
Now I don’t know how you feel about snakes. I have a brother-in-law who is a snake-handler, and he likes nothing better than sticking his arm deep into a hole in the ground and pulling out a python by the tail, but I personally have never been able to get comfortable with the creatures.
In my managerial role with our campsite at Binacrombi I’ve certainly seen plenty of them. I remember the last time I was inspecting the piping, I was looking for cracks in the thick black plastic piping that carries water around the property and suddenly it appeared to me that a large section of the pipe was moving!
It was a very adult black snake, of course, though I know enough of the bush now to know that the black snakes are our friends because they eat the greens and the browns who are the really dangerous ones!
At any rate, I am yet to be bitten (thanks be to God) though I am sure if it happens it will be a case of “what the hey?”
Snake-bites are like that, and I’m sure that when the people of Israel got attacked by snakes it was the last thing they were expecting!
They must have been convinced that they had done the hard yards by that stage:
- They had intimidated Pharaoh
- They had crossed the Red Sea.
- They had met with God at Mt Sinai
What more did Moses expect from them?
And yet it seems that the relationship with God was ongoing, and that the God of Moses was quite capable of acting in ways that nobody could anticipate.
And of course the Moses story ends up with the snake on the pole incident, which always mystifies me somewhat!
Why would anybody (Moses, most especially) who had just received a series of holy commandments, that included right up the top a command not to make any graven image, go ahead and make a graven-bronze image of a snake?!
“Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth.” Surely that includes snakes!
And if you know the sequel to the story, you know that the Israelites indeed held on to that snake, gave it a special name and started worshipping it – ie. doing exactly what the commandment prohibited them from doing – such that good King Hezekiah, many years later, had to eventually destroy the thing! (2 Kings 18:4).
The whole snake incident does mystify me, though what mystifies me even more is how Jesus, when he relates His work back to the ministry of Moses, chooses this same point of connection – the incident with the snake!
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
This is, I believe, the only point at which Jesus compares His work to the ministry of Moses, and it is significant, I think, that Jesus doesn’t draw on the image of Moses as a law-giver or a leader or a worker of miracles, but instead chooses this bizarre point of connection!
And in context, both the snake and the cross are symbols of pain and death! And yet it appears that both are to be used by God as avenues for healing and hope!
It’s all very hard to pin down though, which I guess is what you’d expect in John chapter 3, where the quote we’ve been looking at is extracted from a larger conversation between Jesus and the Jewish spiritual leader and theologian, Nicodemus, where what is being discussed once again has a lot to do with certainty!
Now we can’t pretend to know too much about Nicodemus, but he appears to be one of those old-time religionists who believes in God, the Bible, and the rule of law! I’m guessing that he was one of those guys who didn’t smoke, drink or chew or go with girls who do?
As I’ve said often enough from this pulpit, most religion, as I understand it, boils down to a belief that if you do right by God, God will do right by you! If you obey the commandments of God and follow what is written in His book, God will basically have no choice but to make sure your life goes in the right direction and that you’ll have an appropriate space booked for you in Heaven after your life on earth is over.
And it’s interesting that in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses too images – wind and birth – both of which are things that we have no control over!
“The wind blows where it will”, says Jesus. “You hear its sound but you do not know where it has come from or where it is going, and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit!”
I preached on this text in my 20-year anniversary sermon you may remember, where I testified that this has certainly been my experience. The Spirit of God blows where it will, and often that Spirit appears where you would least expect it.
For better or worse, it is not something that we control! And not only are the movements of the Spirit beyond our control. They are beyond our understanding. We can neither control that Spirit nor predict where the Spirit of God is going to move next.
“The wind blows where it will”. We don’t know where it’s come from nor where it’s going next, but we can’t fail to recognise it when it’s blowing!
I’m sure each of you, like me, can testify to the fact that often the Spirit of God blows in places that we entirely do not anticipate! The Spirit of God seems to be happy to work through saints and sinners alike, rich and poor, black and white, and (in my experience) gay and straight and people of the right religion and people of the wrong religion!
Experience confirms what Jesus tries to get through to Nicodemus – that the Spirit of God is a free agent and (like the wind) blows where it will!
And if we can’t control the movement of the Spirit of God, the other half of the equation is that we can’t control our own relationship with God either.
It’s like birth, and you have to be born from above, Jesus tells Nicodemus, though Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, of course, and thinks that he is talking about being ‘born again’ (as there’s an ambiguity in the original language in which the text was written).
And if you know this dialogue well, you know it’s a bit like an insider’s joke, where we understand what is going on whereas poor old Nicodemus keeps taking everything the wrong way!
But the point is this: that God’s relationship with us begins and ends with God and not with us! And that is crucially significant.
I remember way back in my Uni days someone made a distinction that I found very helpful between ‘salvation by Grace’ and ‘salvation by magic’.
‘Salvation by magic’ is where we believe we can leverage God, such that He has to love us, save us, look after us, etc. So long as we do the right rituals or follow the right laws or believe the right things, God has no choice but to complete His end of the contract.
‘Salvation by grace’, which is what we find in our passage today, is where God loves us because God loves us – where whatever relationship we have with God is something that was initiated from God’s side and something that both begins and ends with God.
It comes from the ‘other side’ (so to speak), which means that our confidence in our relationship with God has to be based on our confidence in God rather than in any confidence we might have in our own religious accomplishments.
Am I getting too theological and esoteric? Well … in the end I think it does all resolve itself into basic life issues such as human certainty.
Can we be certain about the future? No. Nothing in life is certain, regardless of anything tele-evangelists or used-car salesmen or weight-loss programmers might tell you.
This is an area of real personal significance for me at the moment as things for me personally are frankly going really well. The church and the Fight Club and the Youth Centre and the whole shebang are really progressing to a point where the vision I’ve been nurturing for God-knows-how-many years seems to be finally taking shape.
And yet I am radically aware at the same time that it is all remarkably fragile. It could all fall apart at any point so very easily, though I don’t take this as a reason to be anxious about it, but rather a reason to be thankful for each and every step we take along the path.
For nothing in life is certain! We might wish it was but it is not.
Your job may seem secure today and your marriage rock-solid and your health robust, but none of us knows what tomorrow may bring! And what Christ calls us to, I believe, is not certainty but faith, and there’s a big difference between the two!
Certainty is the assurance that nothing will ever go wrong – that nothing will change, fail or decay, and that people, friendships and circumstances will all remain constant.
Faith, on the other hand, is a trust in the Grace of God – a belief that whatever may and will go wrong and whatever happens to us and to our children and to our world, that God is still God and will stand with us and ultimately bring us through!
We are to be people of faith, and our faith and confidence in God, Jesus tells us, is to be based on an understanding of God as one who loves us.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his unique Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on March 18, 2012. To read the written version of this sermon click here.