Due to technical difficulties, today’s sermon can not be heard on the Christ Church website, but you can read it here.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes the Bible makes absolutely no sense? I can’t be the only one. I mean, snakes on sticks is just crazy talk. Am I right? Of course, in some cases, the nonsensical nature of God is precisely the point, which might be what we are dealing with this morning. But, in order to get a grasp on what we are supposed to take away from this strange Gospel passage that coincidentally includes perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible, we need to take a step back and figure out some context; we first must understand when, where, and to whom Jesus is talking.
Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from a larger story about a man named Nicodemus. It follows on the heels of Jesus cleansing the temple, which, if you’ll recall from Kellie’s sermon last week, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel, and not the end, like in the other three. It is right around the Passover, the annual festival in which the Hebrews remembered God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. It is a time in which many faithful Jews came to the holy city of Jerusalem to offer prayers and sacrifices to God. With the broken tables of the money changers still in the background, we hear the story of Nicodemus, who John describes as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish people.
Nicodemus knew that coming to see Jesus was a dangerous decision. He had certainly seen what had happened just a day or two earlier in the Temple. He was, no doubt, aware of the many miracles that Jesus had performed during Passover Week. The city was teeming with excitement over this new Rabbi who had burst onto the scene, and Nicodemus wondered what it was all about. So, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus sought out Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said to Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Before Nicodemus can even ask his question, however, Jesus interrupts, and says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”
As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was well versed in the Scriptures and in the Law, but like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, he knew nothin’ about birthin’ no babies. Still, Nicodemus was sure that what Jesus was telling him made absolutely no sense. Whatever he came to talk with Jesus about was flung far out of mind when suddenly, Nicodemus found himself engaged in a deep theological conversation over what it meant to be born of God, apart from being born of the flesh. Jesus is clear, if you want to understand what he is talking about, you’ve got to give up your old ways and be born of water and the spirit. Nicodemus, as smart and as well educated as he was, had no choice but to throw up his hands and say, “how can this be?”
It is from Jesus’ response to the confused and frustrated Nicodemus that our Gospel lesson comes. Essentially, Jesus tells Nicodemus that as long as he continues to look for the Kingdom of God to be well ordered and to follow the constructs of human beings, he will remain lost and confused. To prove his point, Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch his Biblical knowledge a bit. “Do you remember that story about Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness? It is in the Book of Numbers, one of the five books of the Torah. You’re supposed to be an expert in the Torah, right? Remember how the people complained bitterly against God and Moses? How they wished they had been left as slaves in Egypt? How they lamented that there was no food to eat, even as they complained about how bad the food they had was? God got so fed up with them that he sent poisonous snakes to teach them a lesson. As they cried out in their pain and torment, Moses begged God to do something, and do you remember what God did?
“I’ll tell you what God didn’t do. God didn’t take the snakes away. That would have made too much sense. That’s what the wisdom of the world would have suggested, but that’s not what God did because sometimes, God just doesn’t make sense. Instead, God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze, and to put it on a stick, so that when the people got bit, and they would continue to get bit, they might look at that bronze snake and live. Talk about crazy. Well, Nicodemus, that’s exactly what God is up to in me. The Son of Man will one day be lifted up so that those who look on me will gain eternal life.” You can almost feel the uncomfortable silence as Jesus then goes on to utter the most famous line in the Bible, John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” More than snakes on sticks, this line might be the hardest bit for Nicodemus, or any of us, to fully comprehend. There just isn’t any logic to how much God loves creation. There seems to be even less logic in how much God loves you. And don’t even get me started on how it could be possible that God would love me that much. Yet, that is what Jesus wants Nicodemus to know, God’s love is so much bigger than anyone can possibly comprehend, that its ultimate form looks like the utter humiliation of the Son, lifted high upon a cross, that will, paradoxically, also serve as the exalted throne of the King of kings.
In this encounter, Nicodemus is unable to wrap his mind around the utter illogicalness of God. He leaves Jesus to return to the same darkness from which he originally sought him out. For Nicodemus, this love is too big. His worldview is based on judgment rather than grace. Here, Nicodemus is not unlike many Christians I have come to know over the years. They read John 3:16 and focus on the perish bit. They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe. Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.
Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to hear the promises of John 3:16 and focus on the love part. God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of condemnation, but rather, Jesus entering the messiness of this world was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love. If it is based in love, then the measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but one of relationship. To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it. Eternal life isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy; it is something we are invited to take part in creating. Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.
Sometimes, the Bible just doesn’t make any sense, and that Jesus would let a confused Nicodemus walk back into the darkness seems like one of those moments, but the story of Nicodemus doesn’t end in the darkness of that post-Passover night. A few years later, Nicodemus will once again seek out Jesus. This time, it’ll be as the sun is setting on the day before the Passover. Nicodemus will come with a hundred pounds of precious myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial: the body which he had no doubt looked upon, lifted high like Moses’s snake on a stick, in order to be saved. No, none of it makes any sense, but that’s just how it is with the love of God. It might be too big for us to grasp, but thanks be to God, it is so big as to carry each of us to eternal life. Amen.