Grace Presbyterian Church
March 14, 2021, Lent 4B (recorded)
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
The Crisis of Jesus
For today’s gospel reading, It’s just about possible to make any sense out of it – especially that first verse – without reference to the reading from Hebrew Scripture assigned for the day. It is true that the readings given for a particular Sunday are usually meant to bear some relationship to one another, but seldom is the connection quite so explicit as in today’s reading. So we really might as well go ahead and examine what happens in this account from the book of Numbers before we try to understand what Jesus is talking about.
We find the Hebrew people on their journey through Sinai, having been unable to gain passage through the land of Edom and seeing a way around that region. As happened more than a few times during these wanderings, the people lost their patience and began to complain, both against Moses and against God. You know that on some level they are complaining just to complain, since one of their chief complaints seems to be that there was no food and the food was terrible. When you can’t even be logically consistent, you’re frankly just trying to be a jerk.
At this provocation, poisonous snakes were set loose among the Israelites, and many of them died while others were suffering great pain. Somehow this provoked an outcry of confession among the people, and they pleaded with their terrible awful no-good leader Moses to plead for their lives before God. Their terrible awful no-good leader Moses did exactly that, and God gave Moses a curious instruction: make a replica of one of the serpents and put it up on a pole, and the people who were bitten by the real serpents would be able to look at the fake serpent and avoid dying from their wounds.
While this sounds like borderline idolatry, in fact it works as the opposite of an idol. In order for their lives to be spared, the people would have to look at the very consequences of their sin directly, without flinching or looking away. You either confronted the wrong you had done, or you died, rather painfully at that. You could not help but be reminded of the sin you had committed and the painful consequences of that sin – not only for yourself, but for others.
Moving to the gospel reading for today, we begin with that very image, of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. We do so, unfortunately, by lopping off the beginning of John’s account of Nicodemus and his visit to Jesus. We lose Nicodemus’s initial greeting and Jesus’s impatient let’s-get-down-to-business response; we lose the imagery of being “born of the Spirit” and the wind blowing where it will as image of the Spirit, and we miss Jesus’s chastisement of Nicodemus and his fellow religious leaders for not hearing Jesus and his testimony (which, so far in John’s gospel, mostly consisted of the clearing of the Temple we read of in last week’s gospel reading). Today’s reading begins at something of a pivot in this discourse, as Jesus turns from what has happened to what will happen.
The parallel isn’t exact here: when the Son of Man is “lifted up” it won’t be about the healing of a bunch of poisonous snake bites. But the comparison does work, and to help it along it will be useful to take a closer look at two words in this discourse and check on the original Greek, which contains some nuance that our English translations, even the NRSV, don’t quite catch. One of those even affects The Most Famous Scripture Ever, the one which is so widely known and memorized as to make this whole passage almost unpreachable.
I suspect most of us have that verse programmed into our brains (if we do at all) in the old King James Version: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” So pervasive is this widespread piece of learning that other translations (such as the NRSV in our church’s pews) hew pretty close to that version. In all of these cases there is one word in this verse that, while not necessarily translated inaccurately, is translated in such a way that a particular nuance of the Greek text is not preserved. That word is, believe it or not, “so.”
When we hear “God so loved the world,” we automatically translate it in our own minds as to say “God loved the world so much.” The Greek from which all these versions are translated, though, uses a word that is accurately translated “so” but with a different shade of meaning; were we to render that nuance in English, it might come out as “God loved the world like so,” or “God loved the world this way” if we were to put aside the word “so.” In this way the act of God giving God’s “only begotten Son” is tied again to the Moses’s raising up of that serpent in the wilderness. God’s love for the world is not separate from the world being confronted with the consequences of its sin. Jesus raised up on the cross confronts the world with its own sinfulness and the horror that comes of that sinfulness.
Keeping this context and shade of meaning in mind then opens up the remainder of the reading in a way that is less bound to the kind of rhetoric and definition about “judgment” that often derails full understanding of the words of scripture. That other nuanced word of the Greek text, this one found in verse 19 and there translated as “judgment,” opens this up even more.
In that verse, the Greek word translated as “judgment” is kreis (κρεις). And yes, “judgment” is a proper and accurate way to translate that word. However, the variety of “judgment” referenced here is not really fully captured by the way we tend to read the word “judgment” in scripture. We lapse over pretty quickly into all the images of hellfire and brimstone that have been popularized in certain strains of American theological thought and miss the immediate moment that this word wants us to notice. It might be useful to consider the English word that is adapted from that Greek word kreis: “crisis.”
This puts the focus on that immediate moment, when the world sees verse 14 in action – “the Son of Man be lifted up” and the world confronted with its sinfulness and the consequences of that sinfulness. One might see this as the “moment of crisis,” or “moment of truth” to use a long-standing English-language idiom. Once the world sees “the Son of Man … lifted up,” once one is confronted with Jesus on the cross as the ultimate consequence of our unrepentant sinfulness, there is no more innocence, so to speak. It is the moment of truth.
One cannot walk away from that “sight,” that realization, that confrontation with the sinfulness of humanity and the horror it wreaks, without having to make a choice. Eventually we are going to choose one or the other: we will believe, we will take up the journey of faith, we will follow…or we won’t. We will eventually embrace the light, or we will shy away from it for good. To put a popular music spin on it, that old song title from the Doobie Brothers – “Jesus is Just Alright” – doesn’t really work as a response. Jesus is the one we are seeking or Jesus is the one we are fleeing.
Perhaps the hardest part of all this is to keep verse 15 in mind when all of the other verses come tumbling after with words like “condemned” and “darkness” and “evil.” But that verse, maybe even more than the famous verse preceding it, is where hope is sustained in this reading. Condemnation is not the purpose of this raising up; salvation is.
One of the other challenges in reading such scripture is to hold it in tension with other words from scripture, for example the reading from the letter to the Ephesians. Its concluding verses might not have quite the fame of John 3:16, but they hold no less significance. We can be prone, unintentionally I’m sure, to hear the scripture from John and slip into the idea that the act of believing becomes our salvation. Not so. That’s not what John is saying, and this letter to the church at Ephesus squashes that misconception flat. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Even that act of believing is God’s gift; it is God’s grace that activates and works and saves, and that is our salvation; we did not do anything to “win” it or “earn” it or “grasp” it in any way.
This is how God loved the world; salvation – life eternal – comes by the Son being lifted up, like that old bronze serpent in the wilderness. It’s all a gift of God’s grace – nothing we have earned, nothing we can earn. The most we can do is not flee from it.
For the One who was lifted up, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #462, I Love to Tell the Story
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