And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, . (John 3:14-16)
We’re in John chapter three this morning, or should I say ‘we’re back in John chapter three this morning’ for it is a part of the Bible we often visit.
Unlike the story of Moses and the bronze snake that is referred to in this passage – a story that is only read in church once every three years – and unlike any number of other sections of the Bible that don’t get read at all here on a Sunday morning, this passage from John chapter three is one we read quite regularly, and indeed it is a passage that I have known from my youth.
I have a feeling that John 3:16 was the first memory verse I was taught as a child – “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life”.
That’s a slightly different version from the version I read just a little earlier, but that’s the version I memorised in my youth and I remember that both my parents and my Sunday-school teacher being pleased that I had this verse under my belt, as it was seen as a verse that crystallised all of the Christian faith. It was the Gospel in one sentence! It said it all!
I’m not at all convinced that that’s the case as I’m not at all sure what it means – “that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life”. What does it mean to ‘believe in Him’ in this context? The obvious answer is that it means the same as it meant in the story of Moses and the snake.
Moses put a bronze serpent on a pole and lifted it up so that everybody could look at it, and those who did look at it were apparently healed from the venomous effects of snake bites! (Numbers 21)
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole, so Jesus is to be lifted up, and people are to believe in Him, presumably in the same way that they believed in the snake, but I’m still not sure exactly how that works! Indeed, apart from the fact that the snake on the pole and Jesus on the cross share a certain gruesome visual resemblance, and that both are somehow mysterious sources of healing, I’m not clear as to exactly how these two events are connected!
It’s odd, isn’t it, because this “For God so loved the world” verse (John 3:16) is indeed seen as a bedrock passage that spells out the Gospel clearly for us and yet, as I suggest, it is a mysterious and elusive image. Even so, mysterious and elusive is exactly how we would describe Jesus’ broader encounter with Nicodemus.
John chapter 3 – the broader chapter in which these words and images occur – is indeed the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus; a man described simply as a ‘leader of the Jews’ (3:1), but evidently not a civil leader but a spiritual leader – a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, a man of religion.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and they argue into the wee hours, and while you’ll have to forgive me for once again seeing the Gospel story as being something like a boxing match, these encounters we see between Jesus and His various antagonists in the early chapters of John do come across as something like the early rounds in a great and dreadful fight.
This isn’t the first round, mind you! The first round, as recorded in the Gospel according to St John, was against His mother!
That always strikes me as being very true to life. The first round in every man’s life is against his mother, and it’s a round we generally lose. Freud had his own angel on the way that battle worked. Jesus’ stoush with His mum doesn’t fit that template particularly well. Even so, He had to break from his mother, so it seemed, before He could embark on His ministry.
He does that and now faces another archetypal antagonist. This time it’s the priest!
I do think that it is helpful to see these early chapters of John’s Gospel in this way –as a series of battles against archetypal figures – rather than simply as a random collection of entertaining encounters.
What Jesus confronts here in John 3 is religion as traditionally conceived. He confronts religion not in the abstract (as a series of doctrines and dogmas) but in the concrete form of a man – Nicodemus – an educated and articulate representative.
From here Jesus will go on to confront a Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. She too is archetypal. She represents ‘the outsider’. She is a woman. She is a foreign woman. She is a notorious foreign woman. She represents everything that good and decent religious folk shy away from. More on her next week. This week the encounter is with Nicodemus – a man who represents everything that we solid religious types embrace. He is pious, upright, and a man of the book.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, we are told (3:2), which in itself is a subtle reminder of the fact that he arrives in ignorance. He comes in telling Jesus what he ‘knows’, and Jesus tells him straight away that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows, and so the mysterious conversation begins.
‘You must be born again’, Jesus says. Or at least that’s what Nicodemus thinks He says. The Greek words for ‘again’ and ‘from above’ are identical, and what Jesus says is that Nicodemus needs to be ‘born from above’ but Nicodemus misinterprets what Jesus is saying and think Jesus is telling him to be born all over again.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)
The very awkwardness of the language and the imagery reflect the fact that Nicodemus is off balance with Jesus from the outset of their argument.
Once again the boxing analogy comes to mind for me. Having had the privilege of sparring with some of this country’s (and the world’s) great boxers, I know what it’s like to be moving and parrying with someone who is a master of the art who keeps you constantly off-balance.
This is what it is like with Jesus and his opponents. It is not a brutal slugging-match by any means but a subtle dance where those who would attempt to tell Jesus what they know come to realise rather quickly that they know almost nothing at all! Nicodemus is educated, intelligent and prayerful, and yet he knows very little of the spiritual life and Jesus has to treat him with ‘kids’ gloves’.
“The wind blows where it will”, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “and so it is with the Spirit of God. You hear its sound but you don’t know where it’s come from or where it’s going next!” (John 3:8)
Nicodemus gets all confused by this again, of course, because the word for ‘wind’ and the word for ‘spirit’ are also the same in the original language and the poor man just isn’t sure what’s going on. But that’s OK because the point is that he’s not supposed to know what is going on. The Spirit of God is like the wind and it blows where it wants to blow and not where Nicodemus or anybody else tells it to.
The Spirit of God, in other words, is unpredictable, and what Nicodemus (and all the religious people that he represents) need to learn is that no amount of religion can contain God!
God is God! And no matter how well you know your book and no matter how pious your are, and no matter how well you do your rituals or say your prayers you can’t do much to affect the movement of the Spirit of God. The best thing you can do is to watch, and expect to be constantly surprised!
I think that this is the heart of the encounter between Jesus and the priest, and it’s an encounter that really confronts us as to what religion is really all about!
The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘religio’, meaning to ‘bind back’, and that word can denote a beautiful process of ‘binding ourselves back’ to our creator and to ourselves and to our origins. For many though it seems to be a process of ‘binding God’ such that religion tells us what God does and what God is going to do, such that we end up, if not actually controlling God, at least having such an authoritative understanding of God that we know exactly what God can and can’t do and can predict with complete reliability exactly where God is and what God is up to and, more importantly, what God is not up to and where God is not!
‘The wind blows where it will, Nicodemus”, and so it is with the Spirit of God! You don’t know whence it comes or whither it goes, but you know when it’s blowing!’
This is how genuine religion works. It doesn’t control and determine. It simply observes and gives thanks! For genuine religion is not about us. It’s about God, and so it’s about following where the Spirit of God is moving.
If you’ve captured this imagery – the wind, the being ‘born from above’ and, perhaps especially, the snake – you could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing particularly religious about Jesus’ form of religion, for if there’s one thing that religion has always stood for in our society and in every society, it’s stability!
You only need to look at the way we design our buildings – great, huge, heavy stone monuments that are designed to go nowhere for thousands of years, filled not with chairs that can be pushed around but with enormous pews that take great teams of men to move. And here we gather week after week, and here we hear the immutable truth, preserved for us by our forefathers and foremothers, and handed down to us from the ages whole and undefiled!
Here we gather and here we take our stand for all that our ancestors fought for – all that is good and noble and true and (forgive me if I start yawning) …
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not against tradition, and I don’t think Jesus was against tradition, what He was against though was a religion that was about religion – a religion that was static because it was focused on fixed rules and fixed regulations and all things set and stable. Genuine religion is about God, and God moves like the wind. You have no idea where that wind came from or where it is blowing next but you cannot mistake it when it’s blowing!
This is the religious life, is it not? It’s a roller-coaster!
I was listening to a Christian elder recently who was saying that he couldn’t stand those testimonials from people who would talk about all the problems they had before they came to Jesus. He said his experience was that he came to Jesus when he was eighteen years old and that’s when his troubles began!
In truth, if you’re looking for a religion that is containable, that doesn’t ask too much of you, and that won’t contain too many surprises, choose a God who is made of stone or wood or something that isn’t going to change suddenly. In other words, choose something dead!
For trying to follow the living God can be like chasing the wind! You don’t know where it’s blowing next just like you don’t know where it came from, and yet isn’t it fantastic to be standing in its path when the Spirit of God is blowing!
“For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life”.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 16th of March, 2014.
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