“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
We are at the half-way mark in our journey through Lent!
That’s bound to mean more to some people than to others. Some of us take our Lenten journey very seriously – undertaking a forty-day personal moral inventory and giving things up (like sex or chocolate, or perhaps even sex and chocolate) whereas others amongst us probably aren’t even sure what the word ‘Lent’ means.
Actually, it’s quite possible to take your Lenten journey very seriously and still not know what the word means. The word ‘Lent’ is simply a variation on the word for ‘lengthen’, and reflects the fact that the days are lengthening at this time of the year, which of course they are NOT – not in the southern hemisphere at any rate!
The whole Lenten concept thus reveals itself to be rather culturally inappropriate and confusing, even if you’re not giving up sex and chocolate at the moment, and this confusion is compounded today by our Gospel reading where the theme is not one of moral self-awareness or giving things up but simply one of love!
We are in John chapter 3 today – home of the New Testament’s best-known memory verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life!” – John 3:16
That’s probably not exactly the wording you heard read earlier and it may not be exactly the wording that you remember yourself but that’s what I memorised when I was roughly the same age as my youngest child is now! John 3:16 was the first Bible verse I ever learnt by heart, and I suspect that the same holds true for any number of others in our church community.
This is a verse we learn as children and that we grow up to teach to our children – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son” This verse seems to encapsulate the Christian Gospel in a way that few others do, and it is a verse that focuses squarely on the love of God.
‘What’s it doing here though?’ we might ask – here in the middle of Lent when we’re busy clawing our way through forty days of dour confusion in the spiritual wilderness.
This is a fair question, I think, and a good starting point in responding to that question is recognition of the fact that the person to whom these words were originally addressed would have found them entirely confusing!
We are in John chapter three, which outlines the meeting between Jesus and the religious leader Nicodemus, and it is a dialogue that is characterised by confusion in almost every sentence!
Many of us know this scene well. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, we are told, and the darkness never seems to lift for Nicodemus, who struggles the entire time to make sense of what Jesus is talking about.
Jesus talks to him about the need to be ‘born from above’ and Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about re-entering his mother’s womb! (John 3:3-5)
Jesus talks about how the Spirit of God moves like the wind – “the wind blows where it will! You hear its sound but you know not whence it come or whither it goes!” – and Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about!
And the dialogue culminates with this pronouncement on the part of Jesus – “for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” – and, according to the written record of the encounter that is in our possession, Nicodemus said nothing.
How could Nicodemus but be enlightened, we might think? After all, these words of Jesus are clear and straightforward, are they not? For God so loved the world that He gave his only son (Jesus) to suffer and die on the cross so that we might be forgiven and share life eternal with Him – this is straightforward, is it not?
The answer to that is that it is very straightforward to those of us who have been brought up believing in Jesus as the Son of God, and who have come to take for granted that there is a connection between the suffering of Jesus and the mercy of God, We forget that for the uninitiated these connections might not seem immediately obvious.
As you probably realise, I have always spent the vast majority of my time in ministry with non-church-going people. That has always been the case in my (almost) twenty-five years here. The only difference is that most of the street kids I used to spend my time with had Christian upbringings in the background somewhere, and I was able to tap into that. So many people I interact with nowadays have no religious background or are practicing Muslims. I can’t take for granted the same level of cultural connect.
Having said that, the experience of communicating on religious issues with people who don’t share my religious language or culture has been extremely helpful for me, I think, in terms of clarifying my own understanding.
How do you explain the link between the sufferings of Jesus and the forgiveness of God to someone for whom the idea of one person suffering on behalf of another makes no sense at all? What makes us think that the blood of Jesus can somehow cleanse us from our unrighteousness? We use this sort of language in church all the time church but the underlying concepts are not universal truths shared by all religions and cultures by any means! They are specifically Christian concepts!
Why is it that Jesus had to suffer and die for God’s plan to be fulfilled? Don’t we normally assume that those upon whom God’s favour rests live longer, stronger and healthier lives than those who live ruinously? The whole concept of God in Jesus suffering on the cross seems to many outside of the faith to be as morally repugnant as it is religiously absurd!
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life!” What does that mean? I don’t think the statement is really as self-explanatory as it first appears to those of us who have been weaned on it!
Of course Jesus Himself offers an interpretive key for unpacking that statement. He compares His own coming crucifixion to Moses’ lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness. Perhaps Nicodemus found that parallel helpful. I personally find it impenetrable!
Of course I do think of Moses as something of a prototype of Jesus. Indeed, during Lent especially, we can’t think of Jesus and His forty days in the wilderness without thinking of the forty years that Moses led the people of Israel through the wilderness. Even so, the link between Moses and Jesus and the snake on the pole is not one that would ever have occurred to me had Jesus not mentioned it!
It would have made more sense to me if Jesus had compared Himself to Moses as one who leads people out of slavery and into freedom! It would have likewise made sense to me had Jesus drawn on images of Moses parting the Red Sea, communing with God on the mountain, sharing God’s law with the people, or even destroying the Golden Calf, but how does Jesus find Himself in the story of the snake on the pole?
If you’re not familiar with the story (and it’s not one of the highlights of Moses’ career) it’s recorded in Numbers chapter 21. The people were dying from snake bites so Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole and apparently whoever looked at the snake recovered from their snake bites! I appreciate that this sounds more like voodoo than divine healing, especially given that Biblical religion normally detests all graven images. Even so, God works in mysterious ways, and this is the way it apparently worked for Moses and this is where Jesus finds Himself in the Mosaic story!
It’s a story of healing – that much is obvious – and it’s a story of grace, where really nothing was required of those who were suffering except that they look at the snake. Beyond that I find the whole story very mysterious, just as I ultimately find the death of Jesus as the way of salvation to be very mysterious.
None of it makes logical sense, so far as I can see. The Christian understanding of love and mercy and blood and sacrifice don’t fit neatly within a scientific framework. It is all very mysterious and confusing, and my message for today is that that’s ok since this is really all about God, and God is mysterious and confusing!
I’ve indicated already that I spend a lot of time dialoguing with people who speak out of different religious frameworks or who speak from an explicitly non-religious framework, and one of the things I find consistently with these people that I dialogue with is that their religious (or anti-religious) understanding of things is generally extremely straightforward!
This is particularly true of fundamentalist religion (and probably fundamentalist Atheism as well) where every complex question always has a simple answer! Fundamentalism in all its forms sees everything in blacks and whites. There are no shades of grey and there is no great mystery about anything.
There are only ever two types of people –sinners and saints, the righteous and the unrighteous, us and them, and we are the ones who know the truth and they don’t.
Fundamentalist religion in all its forms has no room for mystery, and I think that’s basically because fundamentalist religion is not really about God. It’s about us.
Listen to the pronouncements that filter down from Al Baghdadi (the self-appointed Caliph of Islamic State). You don’t hear a lot of mystical theological talk about the attributes of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. The focus is all very earthly! It’s all about who we are and what we have to do and about how you have to become one of us instead of one of them, and it’s all very human – all too human!
Jesus speaks of God and of the movement of the Spirit and of being born from above, and He points us to the mysterious symbol of the snake as a source of divine healing, and so uses that to introduce us to the way in which God is taking it upon Himself to bring healing and justice to our world, where apparently all we need to do is look at the snake (so to speak).
And it’s all very confusing because it’s all very mysterious, and that’s because the focus is all on God and what God is doing for us and not on what we have to do. Indeed, we barely come into it! The religion of Jesus is a religion of God! That might seem like a really banal and obvious thing to say but it’s actually quite revolutionary!
So much that goes under the banner of religion is about us getting it right – doing the right things and eating the right foods and saying the rights prayers and making the right sacrifices, etc., etc.! The religion of Jesus begins instead with ‘God so loved the world that God did something about it – sending His son to play the role of the snake on the stick so that new life might be freely available for everybody!’
Is that confusing? For sure! It’s a lot more straightforward and comprehensible to have a religion of mathematical precision where every sin necessitates an appropriate punishment and where only those whose good deeds outweigh their bad deeds make the grade and graduate into Heaven, or to have no religion at all where everything likewise works according to some set of predicable mechanical laws.
The truth which Jesus brings us in His proclamation that ‘God so loved the world’ is not straightforward and obvious and doesn’t fit neatly into any simple logical system, and that is as it should be for the truth which Jesus brings us is the truth about God who is mysterious and ultimately incomprehensible, and so defies the simplistic frameworks we create in our attempts to constrain Him.
Mind you, the question I began with today was not whether John 3:16 made sense but whether it made sense to be reading it in the middle of Lent – a time of sober self-reflection and giving things up. And the truth is, of course, that its placement today is entirely deliberate.
For today is ‘Laetare Sunday’ (from the Latin ‘Laetare’ – to ‘rejoice’) and this Gospel reading is deliberately inserted into the middle of Lent lest we get so dour and self-obsessed that we forget what the Gospel is all about. For while self-examination and self-discipline are the great, the Gospel is ultimately not about us at all! It’s about God and about the love of God!
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 15th of March, 2015.