A sermon that attempts to peer beyond the mess we have made of John 3:16. Listen to the sermon here
I don’t like snakes. No. Let me make it perfectly clear, I hate snakes. I hate snakes because I am afraid of snakes. Snakes terrify me. I know that my fear of snakes is unreasonable. But when it comes to snakes, I could be described as a biblical literalist, because thanks my mythical fore-mother Eve, there shall be enmity between this particular woman and the serpents who are confined to slithering about the dark corners of my imagination. So, perhaps it is my fear of snakes, my hatred of snakes, that has prevented me from seeing beyond the literal words on the page when it comes to this morning’s gospel text. That a snake could lead me to a new understanding of the words put into the mouth of Jesus, by the anonymous gospel story-teller that we call John, comes as a complete surprise to me.
You might be able to tell that I am struggling to fight off a cold; the full effects of which hit me during the course of our congregational retreat on Friday night. So, when I arrived home late yesterday afternoon, I took a decongestant and went straight to bed. Decongestants have a strange effect on me. Sometimes they zone me out and sometimes they send me to this strange place where my brain races around at a million miles an hour. Yesterday, I was hoping for the latter, because all week long I have been struggling to figure out what to do with this gospel text and try as I might, I’d been stymied by a wall of doctrine that I simply couldn’t see my way past and despite all my hard work I had no idea what to do with this text.
I was kind of hoping for a bit of a medication buzz to get me past the wall of doctrine so that we could move beyond the line of text that strikes fear into the heart of this particular progressive Christian preacher. “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, or as it’s popularly known: THE GOSPEL in a nutshell.
These days, ardent fundamentalists don’t even bother writing out the words of the text, they just wave about their signs emblazoned with the mere mention of John 3:16 as a kind of declaration of what it takes to judge the content of one’s character. Either you believe John 3:16 or you don’t; one way or another you will be judged. Bow down before the Gospel accept that 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. Bow down and worship, believe or else.
Believe? Believe that God sent his only son to die, to die for you, to die for your sin, to die a horrible death on a cross, so that God your heavenly Father, could be satisfied, and muster up the grace it takes to forgive you, you wicked sinner that you are. Bow down and believe or face the wrath of the Father. Bow down and believe John 3:16 lest ye be judged. Bow down and believe John 3:16 or face the fire torment that awaits you in Hell; damnation! Bow down and believe. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only song so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Untangle that one, you progressive Christians, wangle your way out of that particular piece of Good News.
In my drug induced haze, I considered the possibility that the wall of doctrine is just too high to climb and far to wide to go around. Maybe I should just give up, surrender and stretch out in the shade provided by sheer size of a wall that seems impregnable. Lying there in my bed convinced that the walls of my room were actually closing in on me; I began to wonder if I’d made a crucial mistake. Could I be that stupid? Oh, my dear God. I’m an idiot. I found the strength to get out of bed and there on the bathroom counter was the proof of my stupidity. I hadn’t actually taken the daytime cold medication. No buzz for me because I’d taken the nighttime dose. Just burry me beneath the wall of doctrine, cause I am done for. Help me Jesus, Help, Help, me Jesus! Help me Jesus, yeah get me out this mess! Where oh where is the great sky-god when you need him? There was nothing left but to sleep. Sleep, sleep perchance to dream. Lord let there be a way through that wall of doctrine. Wall made of bricks, bricks forged in fiery furnaces of hell, fire and damnation. Bricks and mortar, plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.
I don’t know what time it was, I only know that when that snake poked its little head between the cracks in the mortar of my imagined wall of doctrine, I knew I just had to follow the little bugger. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Numbers 21:4-9. That serpent slithered through a tiny crack in the wall and I peered through the place where he had gone and beyond the wall I saw, the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, bitching and moaning, some of them sniping at Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.” Manna from heaven could not satisfy this bunch of complainers. Poor old Moses, what could he do to placate his people. “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” Hoc est corpus, “this is my body” The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”
Poor old Moses, they don’t know what they’re asking. Poor old God; blamed for the existence of serpents. Poor old me, what am I doing in the dessert of woe. “And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” Do it Moses, come on you know you want to, give the people what they want; what’s one more spectacle?
“So, Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole: and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” Healing by way of a serpent; a serpent made of bronze? You’ve got to be kidding me. What am I supposed to do with that image? I’ve been trapped by a serpent! Trapped like so many who have gone before me. Trapped, hoisted on my own petard. I wanted to wipe out that image, no more slithering serpents. No more hocus-pocus. Hoc est corpus, “this is my body” broken for you. Hocus-pocus. Snake on a pole. Lift it up high. The snake will heal you. Hoc est corpus, “this is my body”
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
NO! Take him down of that damn pole! NO more hocus-pocus! That’s it, you evil little snake, when I catch you you’re done for. Where the hell are you slithering off too? Where did the snake go? I’ve never in all my life followed a snake anywhere. Get up, get up and follow that snake.
Second Kings 18: Hezekiah is king of Judah. King Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord.” But not Hezekiah’s subjects; no not them. They just couldn’t help themselves: their own search for healing brought them to the Bronze serpent which Moses had fashioned in the wilderness. No longer able to see beyond the symbol of the bronze serpent to the God to whom the serpent pointed, the people bowed down to the sacred pole. Idolizing their own notions about the way in which the DIVINE SOURCE of all that IS works in the world, they worshipped the sacred pole itself and failed to see the work of the DIVINE in their midst. So good old Hezekiah cut down the sacred pole. “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offering to it; it was called Nehushtan.” The idols, the doctrine of healing to which the people bowed down was crushed by King Hezekiah so that the people could see beyond their beliefs, beyond what they trusted to heal them, beyond the religious trappings of their day, to the source of their healing, to the DIVINE reality that lies at the very heart of their existence.
I followed that snake as far as it could take me. Hovering over my old-fashioned concordance, I realized that the snake may have led others through this crack in the wall. So, I fired up my computer and low and behold I discovered a fellow traveller, a Unitarian, the Reverend Dr. Carl Gregg had travelled this way before me. Listen to what he wrote: “Ironically, the bronze serpent had originally been built to remind the Israelites to trust to look to God for healing and salvation—to stop complaining about minor inconveniences like food quality and to be grateful for major events like freedom from oppression. In Hezekiah’s day that same bronze serpent had become an end in itself. Judeans were worshipping the snake instead of the God to whom the statue pointed. So, that idol smashing King Hezekiah “Broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses made.”
Which made me wonder about the idols we have created out of the doctrines established in the 4th century when the Council of Nicaea adopted a narrative to describe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth which insist that we bow down before a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to placate a vengeful god. The Rev. Dr. Greeg was way ahead of me. He writes: “the writer of the Gospel of John finds healing in being lifted up on the cross—just as the Israelites found healing in Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. But in 2 Kings, we see how the symbol of the serpent has hardened. It no longer points beyond itself to God. Instead it has become a simplistic formula: if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple. But God cannot be reduced to a formula.
Today, for many Christians, John 3:16 has become the same sort of gimmick: read this verse and believe, and you’re saved.” The good doctor is on to something here: believe John 3:16 and you’re in, question a particular interpretation of John 3:16 and you’re out. We have the formula. Just believe it. Hoc est corpus, “this is my body” broken for you. Hocus-pocus. Snake on a pole. Just believe.
“But God cannot be reduced to a formula – neither can the ways of God, revealed in the life of Jesus.” The good doctor offers us a prescription for healing which looks familiar: tear down the idol. “Like the bronze serpent in Hezekiah’s day, John 3:16 alone is an insufficient guide for healing and salvation. Instead, we need an authentic encounter with the MYSTERIOUS, LOVING, and GRACIOUS PRESENCE that we call God.”
Taking John 3:16 out of it’s biblical context has allowed the fashioners of idolatrous doctrine to narrow our focus onto the death of Jesus and so we have failed to see beyond the cross to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the ways of being in the world that he embodied in the flesh. By staring up at the image of a crucified Christ to the exclusion of the living Christ we have become trapped within the walls of our own making and we cannot muster the strength to take up our crosses and follow Jesus into a new way of being. The Gospel, the Good-News cannot be contained in a nutshell; especially not a nutshell that has been robbed of its flesh. The writer of the Gospel according to John, whoever he was, lived and died at the end of the first century as a faithful Jew who knew the history of his own people. He told the story of Jesus of Nazareth from within the context of a religious tradition that encouraged people to see beyond the symbols and stories to the God to whom the symbols and stories point; a God who is the SACRED POWER behind all that is, was, and ever more shall be, a God more splendid, more compassionate than we can begin to imagine. But imagine we do for that is the very nature of the beings that we are; always searching; always questioning, always seeking knowledge of the ONE responsible for our very creation; the ONE who lives and breathes in us, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being.
We cannot let our images, our idols, our doctrines, our speculations, or our scriptures, prevent us from peering through the cracks to see BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also, to the ONE to whom Jesus of Nazareth pointed. In our wilderness we can lift up Jesus way of being in the world to provide healing for the world. But we must not fashion the ways of Jesus into an idol that we worship. We must be prepared to look beyond Jesus to the ONE to whom Jesus pointed. Our friend Jack Spong reminds us that “No Where in the Gospel According to John, does Jesus die for our sins.” The writer of the Gospel According to John did not understand Jesus in that way at all. This idea about Jesus does not appear in the words of the Gospel –storyteller that we call John. Jesus dying for our sins, is just not there despite the fact that so many who claim the name of Christ insist on misremembering the words of scripture when they declare that God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die for us. The gospel does not say this. The gospel-story teller we call John wrote that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that all who believe in him may have eternal life.
Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that God needed Jesus to die as a blood sacrifice, before God could forgive us. Believing in Jesus is about trusting the experience of God that we encounter in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The writer of the Gospel according to John did write that when asked why he had come, Jesus said: I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is eternal life; eternal that which has no beginning and no end. This is our great gift: life to be lived abundantly. Life with no beginning and no end – a mystery beyond our comprehension. Life to be lived abundantly loving our God who is the SOURCE of this eternal life; loving God and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.
This is the Gospel, the good news: we have been given the gift of eternal life, to be lived abundantly, loving God and loving our neighbours, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. Walking humbly beyond John 3:16, beyond the walls we have erected from bricks and mortar forged in the fires of hell and damnation, fires fueled by the symbols of our past. Let our idols fall way so that we can, live fully, love extravagantly and be all that you were created to be. This dear sisters and brothers is the Gospel: good news!