Posted on Mar 11, 2018 by Pastor Dave Whetter
This verse is perhaps the most popular verse in the New Testament and it is considered by many as the best summary of Christianity as a whole. The verse became extremely popular in the 1970’s when Rollen Stewart, a self-proclaimed hippie with a rainbow afro wig, would dance around at NFL games holding up a sign that read, John 3:16. With sports being televised so much more and the growth of the NFL it became a Bible verse that many came to know, whether or not they were Christian. “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” (John 3:16). Mission accomplished!
But I wonder if this evangelism ploy really has been all that successful? When writer of this Gospel wrote down these words, I wonder if he intended to promote such a simplistic view of salvation? Personally, I don’t think John ever intended for this to be “The Verse” to summarize our faith. Oh, it is important, and it is beautiful, and it is true, but there is so much more that we fail to understand when we cut this one verse out of the whole story. So, let me explain.
To begin with, this story is part of the story of Nicodemus. Jesus had recently arrived in Jerusalem and as we heard last week he had begun to upset the “apple cart.” He told the religious leaders and the business leaders in the community that their profit-making ways would no longer be tolerated. Now, John tells us that some people began to believe, but many others didn’t and so, Nicodemus, a religious leader, a Pharisee, came to Jesus, at night, to talk to him and to try and get some answers. But when Jesus began to address Nicodemus he spoke in terms that Nicodemus doesn’t understand. Jesus said things like, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3:3). Jesus was talking about changing your life. Jesus was trying to explain to this religious leader that to see God’s kingdom one would need to be willing to see the world and God’s ways differently. To see God’s kingdom one will need to live differently and be open to seeing God’s word as life-giving and not life-taking. To see and be part of God’s kingdom, one will need to always be on the side of justice and peace, not the side of hatred and violence. But Nicodemus couldn’t see, or understand this. He could only think literally and so he stumbled and he wonderd how one could literally re-enter a mother’s womb and be born again. Nicodemus, like so many others, wanted to stay in the dark about the truth and refused to enter a new world filled with the light of God, because he believed he already had God’s ways and God’s word figured out, and to change now, to begin to interpret or explain things differently, would be too hard. It might even mean he would have to admit he was wrong. And in response to this line of conversation Jesus finally says what I personally consider to be one of the most important lines in all of scripture. No, not John 3:16, but John 3:14. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”. This veiled reference to the cross is what sets the stage for the rest of this story.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, so Jesus knew he knew the story God and God’s people in the wilderness and so he took this opportunity to remind Nicodemus of a time when the people sinned against God and how God had sent venomous serpents to bite them. When the people repented, God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole, so that whenever someone was bitten he or she could look upon the snake and be healed. The bronze “snake on a stick” that God commanded be made was not about how God punished the people for the sin, but how God offered healing and hope. In reminding Nicodemus of this history, Jesus was also foretelling how he, too, would be lifted up on the cross for the very same reason. God was about to change the cross from a sign of punishment to a sign of forgiveness and healing. Yes, God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it. In essence, Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, look you want to save God’s people through law and customs and government, but God will save God’s people through love, through forgiveness, and through peace. Forgiveness and healing for the people will come, like it did for the ancient Israelites as they gazed upon the bronze serpent, from God, not from any law or any manmade ways. Forgiveness will come from not only believing in, but living out God’s ways. Nicodemus didn’t get it and we don’t hear from him again until the end of the story when he comes in the daylight along with Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body to give him a proper burial.
So what is the point for us today as we make our Lenten journey to the cross? Well, first and foremost I believe we are being challenged today to look to the cross first in everything we do.
You know, last Wednesday, when I woke up and turned on the morning news, the first thing I heard was that a Clinton police officer had been shot and killed. This was the second time in less than one year a police officer in Clinton had been shot and killed. Now as sad as this, what is sadder is that news like this is all too commonplace these days.
I mean, in 2017 44 police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty. In addition, in 2017, police officers killed over 1,100 people. And if that kind of violence isn’t enough to upset you, did you know that since April 20, 1999, which is the date of the Columbine school shooting, there have been over 213 school shootings that have lead to 282 deaths and 416 injuries. As a society, we seem to become immune to violence and to the idea that if things are going to get better that we need to get more laws and more rules. In fact, the total figures I just shared with you about the school shootings in this country since Columbine in 1999 are equal to or greater than all the school shooting and deaths from the 50 years prior to that combined.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for laws and rules that will curb violence, but we have been creating more laws and rules to deal with our sinful ways for eternity; it seems to me our ways aren’t working.
What if, instead of immediately adding a new law, we sought to first turn to the cross? What if instead of seeking to have more guns on the street, more prisons to hold prisoners, we actually looked to the scriptures to see if there are ways that God might be challenging us to peacefully come to understand why such violence is occurring. What if we turned to God’s ways and we learned how to eat and talk with those who are different from us and instead of fearing them we could know them and “love” them.
What if we developed a system that sought to help people with mental illness as children of God instead of ignoring them or locking them up until they finally do something that causes us all to suffer. Like Nicodemus, sometimes I think we, too, love the darkness because we know it and it seems easier to stay in the dark than to do the work needed to let Christ’s light shine.
Brothers and sisters, the ways of this world do not work! God has given us Jesus and Jesus has willingly allowed himself to be lifted up on that cross. Today we are challenged to turn to that cross and be healed. Will you join me in turning to the cross this Lenten season to find the healing that we so desperately need? Amen.