a sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent
John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous verse of the bible. But we really can’t understand it without pondering the question, “How is Jesus like a snake?”
Today is the 4th Sunday in Lent, which by tradition is known as “Laetare Sunday.” Laetare means, “be joyful.” It’s as if we are half way through the season of Lent, and the church is saying “lighten up, it’s all going to be OK!”
Maybe that’s why today we heard one of the most famous passages of the bible, and one of the most obscure. The Old Testament reading is the obscure one. It’s a light hearted little story about the time when Moses and the Israelites were wandering in the desert. Just as they came upon the land of milk and honey that God had promised them, they learned that it was already occupied by the Canaanites, who were fierce warriors. The Israelites weren’t so sure that they wanted to fight for the land that God had promised them, so they turned around and headed back into the desert. God saw this as an act of rebellion and faithlessness by the Israelites, and punished them by giving them what they wanted – life in the desert – for the next 40 years.
Of course 40 years is a long time, and the Israelites were great complainers. They complained about everything. They were tired of wandering. It was hard to find food and water, and the food they did find was lousy. They were angry with each other, they were angry with Moses, and they were angry with God. “We would have been better off staying in Egypt,” they complained.
Just when things could not get worse, they fall into a plague of poisonous snakes.
But God’s punishments always bring us back to God. And the people, realizing that the snakes were a result of their sinfulness, repented and prayed for relief. So God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and mount it on a stick, so that anyone who looked at it would live. Today, that symbol is called a caduceus and it’s used by the medical profession. The idea is that all who look upon it will be healed.
Of course, the most famous reading is the one from today’s Gospel: John 3:16. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Even if a person has trouble reciting any passage of the bible, they at least know that “John 3:16” is a reference to the bible. In the past 50 years, we’ve seen it on countless billboards, signs, and even in the “mascara” football players wear during games.
One reason this verse is a favorite for so many people is because it is “the Gospel in a nutshell.” For some Christians, it is the very reason they became followers of Jesus Christ. For others, it is the simplest expression of their faith. No wonder this verse is so beloved.
But for some, this passage not only proclaims the love of God, it also reveals what they see as the exclusiveness of the Church. The problem comes when we look at the qualifier, “that those who believe in him should not perish”. This seems to say that those who don’t believe are condemned to die just like the Israelites who were bitten by those snakes.
Suddenly, what we took to be the simplest and most beloved verse in the bible doesn’t look so simple or universally loving. What starts out as a wide and inclusive invitation to the whole world now seems more narrow and exclusionary.
The question is: Is this a statement of love and grace, or is this a pronouncement of judgement?
And if it’s judgement, who makes that decision?
Back in the 1970’s there was a television series on PBS, called Cosmos. It was produced by the famous astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, and it described a few of the amazing things that happen in the universe if we were to travel outside our own small world. Cosmos is the Greek word that’s translated here as “world,” but it actually means something much larger that our planet. The cosmos is more than just the people in this room. It’s more than the people on this planet. The cosmos is the entire created order – all that exists. The sun, moon and stars; every creature that has breath and every plant that grows; all the people ever born; even the planet we live on, and those that are far beyond our solar system. This is the cosmos that God so loved.
God so loved the cosmos – This is a big, bold, inclusive statement. It’s a statement about how the entire creation, not just humanity, was created out of God’s divine love. In the beginning when the Spirit of God moved over the chaos and said, “Let there be light,” that light was created out of God’s divine love and God called it good. And when God created humankind in God’s image, male and female, God called them not just good, but very good.
God so loved the cosmos that when God heard the cry of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt, God set them free. And he gave them a rule of life, the Ten Commandments, which promised to keep them free. And even in the desert, after all their moaning and groaning, after all the snakes and wandering in the wilderness, God continued to love them.
God so loved the cosmos that in the years and the centuries that followed, God continued to love the poor, and the oppressed, sending prophets to proclaim that the kingdom of God lies in loving the least and the lost of society.
God so loved the cosmos that out of God’s perfect love came the perfect man. This loving God gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And through Christ, God revealed that all of the law and the teachings of the prophets could be summed up in a simple law of love: Love for God and love for our neighbor.
God so loved the cosmos, that having once saved the Israelites by giving them the sign of a serpent on a stick, now saves the entire world by giving us a man on a stick. It is a sign of such incredible love and power that those who looked beyond their own pain and suffering would live in the abundant light of God.
God loved the cosmos so much that he made another promise, marked by the sign of his son, lifted high up on a cross, so that we could live through him forever. We can lift our eyes up, up from our own sin and misery, and look past the ultimate symbol sin, misery and death. We lift our eyes up to see his conquest over death. We lift our eyes up to the cross, so that we might have eternal life.
God’s love far exceeds God’s judgment. God love the world so much, that he transformed the ultimate symbol of death into the ultimate symbol of eternal life for all. God loved the entire world, even those who do not know Christ and those who choose not to follow Jesus.
Today is Laetare Sunday. Be joyful! Because God so loved the Cosmos, that he gave us his only Son, so that we all might live forever in the pure light and abundant love of God.