March 11, 2018 – John W. McNeill
John 3: 14-21
There is a temptation to move right to John 3:16.
16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.
This verse is often cited as the Gospel within the Gospel. The key to salvation. Perhaps you’ve seen placards at sporting events showing “John 3:16.” I think what many people believe that this means is:
“Believe in Jesus so that you won’t die, but instead you will go to heaven.”
God loved the world so much, God gave his only Son that God gave us this way out of dying so that we could go to heaven.
A fair number of us find this a bit troubling in that it seems to set up Jesus in an exclusivist way as the way to heaven.
But what if we have been reading this in a way that keeps us in the dark?
What if “so” means not “how much,” but “in what way?” So a better translation might be:
This is how God loved the world: God gave his only Son.
But before moving right to John 3:16, perhaps we should pause a moment and give the verses that surround it some attention. Context is important.
The first verse of today’s reading is peculiar:
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up
Whoa. I know some of us don’t want to be hearing about snakes!
But let’s hear what this is about. This refers to an incident as Moses was leading the Israelites on their journey from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of freedom. Once again, the people were grumbling about being in the desert with no food and no water. God heard them grumbling and sent poisonous snakes among them to bite them. Many died from these snake bites. Finally, some of the people went to Moses to tell him that God was punishing them with poisonous snakes and that they were sorry. Moses prayed for the people and God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze and put it on a rod and hold it up. Whoever had been bitten by a poisonous snake could look on the bronze snake and would be healed.
Now this story may sound in many ways silly – if not offensive – to our ears, but the point Jesus makes in telling this story is that we must pay attention, pay attention to the things that are killing us. And, more than that, when he is lifted up – that is when Jesus is crucified – that we are to look at that. Look carefully at that crucifixion and all that has gone into it if we are to be saved.
If we give ourselves over to him, we will be saved. Again, the way to read this is not about acknowledging some particular facts, but rather about how we follow Jesus. Later on, in John’s gospel this is made abundantly clear when Jesus says: I am the way, the truth, and the life.
To find life, we are to walk in Jesus’ way.
So how do we know whether we are walking in Jesus’ way? How do we determine this?
Well, let’s look at the verses that come after John 3:16. It actually talks about the judgment.
19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light.
The judgment here is actually a little surprising. It’s not a judgment in the sense that God has looked at someone and said, “You’re bad.” The judgment is that the folks who are in trouble are hiding in the darkness. They will not come into God’s light. They do not come into God’s light because they do not want to be exposed. They hold themselves back from being saved.
On the other hand,
21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”
Those who are living in God, doing deeds done in God, doing what is true, want to be in the light, want to be revealed in God’s presence, do not hang back from walking in Jesus’ way.
And this gives us an understanding of verses 17 & 18, which we skipped over:
17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
Jesus has not come to condemn, but to save. Those who are following him, believing into him, allying with him, are not judged. On the other hand, those who are not following him are judged because they are avoiding the light that will illuminate their lives and save them. Hence, they remain in the darkness. There is no salvation in darkness.
Contrasts that are developed in this passage:
|Believing into (Following)
|Not believing into (Not following)
|Do what is true
|Do wicked things
|Have eternal life
Some sections of John’s gospel have this format of churning around in the relationships among several concepts. These passages immerse us in contrasts and connections to draw us into deeper connection with Jesus’ meaning.
But all these contrasts are governed by the first verse of our passage this morning:
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up
As the passage develops we come to understand that encountering this passage puts us in the position of judgment. We are brought to a reality check about who we are. We must ask ourselves:
Are we willing to hold our lives up to the light?
Paradoxically, only by willing to be judged will we escape judgment.
Perhaps we can better understand this if we see how the same principle is true in another sort of case.
Let’s think about dentists. Dentists use a lot of light. So, imagine this situation:
You take good care of your teeth. You floss twice a day. You brush with the right kind of toothbrush and toothpaste. Maybe you also use an anti-plaque rinse. You minimize sweets. You visit your dentist every six months. It’s almost a joy. The cleaning is barely uncomfortable because you have so little tarter. There are never any cavities. No extra costs. No problem. Your life and habits are arranged so that you do not hesitate to go to the dentist because you have no reason to expect any real problems. That dentist’s light will simply reveal a gorgeous smile. All your teeth will live.
On the other hand…
I can imagine a situation in which one does not floss even once a day, or even once a week. I can imagine a situation in which one never flosses. I can imagine someone brushing their teeth only in the morning and never before bed when it is most important to prevent tooth decay. I can imagine someone using a toothpaste not recommended by American Dental Association. For such a person going to the dentist might well fill them with dread. Especially if they have some discomfort in a tooth. The cleaning will take a long time, it will be uncomfortable. I may need a filling. It might hurt. It may cost a lot of money.
Okay, maybe I won’t go to the dentist. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it will get better on its own. I’ll start brushing and flossing more regularly. Starting tomorrow. That tooth will die.
I’ve talked before about judgment being a kind of diagnosis. It is not for our condemnation, it is a step toward healing, a step toward knowing how we can and must be changed or restored. Judgment is God taking us seriously and us taking God seriously. And, frankly, us taking our own selves seriously.
Jesus’ words here are not a threat. They are statements of how the universe is. If we avoid judgment, if we avoid diagnosis, that in itself leads to our failure to get better. If we step into the light of judgment we are taking the first step toward wholeness and peace. The first step toward salvation. So, in that sense, the judgment is not judgment at all.
How we imagine God will make a difference in whether we will step into God’s light.
Go back to the dentist image: Imagine we are in the second group who doesn’t take care of their teeth. If we imagine on top of all this that the dentist or the hygienist will be nasty and cruel and unsympathetic, all the more reason we will resist going.
And this is where I think we can elaborate a bit about this whole notion of “believe in Jesus.” It seems implausible to many of us that the only way folks can have eternal life is if they have a certain belief. And so these verses can be troubling to Christians who do “believe in Jesus” because of what it seems to say about those who do not believe in Jesus. It offers us an image of a God who is pretty narrow-minded. I share this concern.
But the passage in the original Greek text does not force us to a translation of “believe” as we often use that word. The Greek word is not a word about one’s opinion about a matter of fact. Instead it has the connotation of “trust.” So, the point is not in the first instance about whether or not one believes in the particulars about who Jesus is as much as it is about how one trusts into Jesus’ message. Trusts oneself into Jesus’ message.
From what we’ve said so far you can see the importance of trusting in Jesus’ message. If we trust Jesus’ message that God’s primary agenda is not to judge the world, but instead to save the world, we might be more likely to risk coming into the light for our diagnosis. Jesus’ message that God is primarily about forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing will alleviate our fears about entering into the light.
God’s goal is salvation – another word for “healing.” And so if we are not afraid to come into the divine light of truth and honesty and reality about our situation: the situation of our hearts, our relationships, our intentions, our priorities, we will find ourselves in a position in which we might find ourselves being healed.
So the question is will we entrust ourselves into God’s healing? Will we entrust ourselves into the truth about our hearts?
And then what about “eternal life?” When John’s gospel speaks of eternal life, it is not primarily talking about going to heaven. It is talking about a life that is connected and embraced into the life of God. Later in John’s gospel, eternal life is defined as knowing God. It is being one with God, whether in heaven or on earth. Eternal life begins as we bring our lives into the light of divine love. You may have noticed in the last verse of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” that he concludes the hymn with this:
Anticipate your heaven below, and own that love is heaven.
We come to eternal life as we entrust our life into God’s light, God’s healing, God’s wholeness, God’s life.
In this season of Lent we look ahead to Good Friday, when we remember the Son of man lifted up – lifted up on the cross that shines a light on our rebellion against God’s goodness and invites us to be healed.
It shines a light on the injustice of the powerful against the weak and invites us to follow Jesus’ way of justice.
It shines a light on the cruelty of which we are capable and invites us to follow Jesus’ way of compassion.
It shines a light on the love of God for the world and invites us to follow into that very same way of love. To be freed from our own small-mindedness and willfulness. To be freed from our resentments and greediness. To be freed from our pre-occupation with our own comfort and security in order to follow in Jesus’ path of justice and peace, forgiveness and compassion. To be freed from our fear and complacency to find the courage and the creativity to live whole-heartedly into the divine dreams.
It shines a light on the self-giving love of God. It shines a light on the way God loves: not as the overwhelming power that will impose what is right. But as the love that calls us into self-giving vulnerability that is open to that light and embraces the possibilities God is offering us for eternal life.