Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Fourth Sunday of Lent


Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Our Gospel reading this week is part of the passage that describes the visit of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish governing council, to Jesus by night. 

[My sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent last year, which is still available online, looks at what has taken place up to the point where our Gospel reading this week begins.]

 Nicodemus has seen the ‘signs’ that Jesus has been doing and, unlike most of his fellow council members, he has an open mind.  He believes that no-one can do what Jesus is doing unless the ‘presence of God’ is with them.

 Nicodemus, though, is clearly still not fully convinced by Jesus, but, by coming to Jesus, albeit under the cover of darkness, he has begun a journey that will lead to him being prepared to identify openly with Jesus after Jesus has died on the Cross.  He and Joseph of Arimathea, another ‘secret disciple’ and also a member of the governing council, will together, after Jesus has died, prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again from above by the Spirit’, something that Nicodemus has trouble understanding.  Our passage this week is a continuation of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ question, ‘How can these things be?’ (John 3:9).

It is not clear where Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus finishes.  Ancient manuscripts didn’t have punctuation.  Some interpreters continue Jesus’ response until verse 21.  However, it is more likely that Jesus’ answer finishes at verse 15, and that we then have St John’s own reflection, as the author of the Gospel, on Jesus’ words.  Whether Jesus’ answer finishes at verse 15 or verse 21, Jesus, in his answer, refers in verse 14 to a famous incident in Israel’s past.  Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel, would have been familiar with this story as would most Jews.  It is a story told in our first reading for this week.

 In the story, the people of Israel, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, are wandering in the wilderness.  Life in the wilderness, however, isn’t easy, and they have become impatient and fed up.  In their impatience, the Israelites moan and complain to Moses.  God, we are told, sends poisonous snakes as a punishment.  The snakes bite people and those bitten die as a result.  The people realize that they have sinned against both God and Moses by complaining and speaking against them, and they ask Moses to pray for them, so that God will make the snakes go away.  Moses prays to the Lord, and the Lord says to Moses:

‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ (Numbers 21:8)

Accordingly, Moses proceeds to make a serpent out of bronze, and sets it on a pole as the Lord has told him to.  Those who are bitten and look at it live.  So how does this answer Nicodemus’ question?

Nicodemus asks how a person can be born a second time.  Jesus answers by telling Nicodemus that for it to happen, for Nicodemus to be born again from above by the Spirit and enter the kingdom of God, Jesus must be lifted up on the Cross.  In the same way that the Israelites who looked at the serpent lived, those who believe in Jesus when he is lifted up on the Cross will also live.

This is the first time that the phrase ‘eternal life’ occurs in St John’s Gospel.  It is a favourite phrase of St John.  The word St John uses for life (Greek: ζωή - zoe) in this phrase occurs 135 times in the New Testament.  66 of these are in the books attributed to St John: 36 times in the Gospel; 13 times in the letters; and 17 times in the book of Revelation.  The phrase ‘eternal life’ itself occurs 17 times in the Gospel and 6 times in 1 John.  In the Gospel of John, this word for life is always used to describe ‘eternal life’ and not natural, physical life.  St John uses another Greek word (Greek: ψυχή - psuche) for that (see, for example, John 10:15, 17; 12:25; 13:37; 15:13).

This phrase has been translated in the past as ‘everlasting life’.  ‘Eternal life’ is certainly everlasting, but it is more than that.  ‘Eternal life’ describes the quality of the life that Jesus gives.  It is a life based on a relationship with God, made possible by Jesus’ death, and which is given through the Spirit.  Being everlasting is one of its qualities, but there are more as St John will make clear.  Eternal life begins now, here in this life, but it will continue beyond death with God forever.

The answer, then, to Nicodemus’ question about how a person can be born again is that for it to happen Jesus must die.  Those who believe in Jesus as he is lifted up on Cross will be born again from above and receive eternal life.  This takes us to the end of verse 15.

The words that follow, which I take to be words by St John himself, reflect on Jesus statement that he ‘must be lifted up’ if those who believe in him are to have eternal life.  John chapter 3 verse 16 (‘For God so loved …’), the verse which follows Jesus’ words, is often lifted out of this context and made to stand alone as summing up the message of the Gospel and of Jesus himself.  However, there were, of course, originally no chapter and verse divisions in the Gospel and these words belong very much with what precedes and follows them.

St John tells us that Jesus being lifted up, a metaphor for his death, was the way in which God loved the world.  It is because God gave his only Son that the eternal life that comes from being born from above is able to be given to those who believe.  Had God not given his Son, even those who believed in Jesus would have perished.

This is really important.  We will see in a moment how St John describes the judgement that faces those who don’t believe.  But the judgement of God is not what causes people to perish.  We are all perishing already.  If God had not given his Son, we would all just perish; it is the giving of God’s Son that makes it possible for those who are perishing to be saved.

Imagine a building that is unsafe and in danger of collapse.  The Building Department arrange for an architect to visit the owners to tell the owners how the building might be saved from demolition.  The architect has been sent to save the building, but if the owners refuse to do what the architect tells them, then they are effectively condemning the building to destruction.

St John writes that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order to save those who were perishing.  It didn’t need God’s Son to come for the world to be condemned.  However, the result of the coming of God’s Son into the world is that those who do not believe in him and accept God’s loving sacrifice of his Son have effectively condemned themselves.  By refusing to believe in God’s Son, they show that they are condemned.  Their lack of belief says it all.  It is how people react to the death of Jesus that shows whether they are condemned or saved.

The death of Jesus is the defining moment in world history.

But what does St John mean by the word ‘world’?  The ‘world’ (Greek: κόσμος - kosmos) is an important word in St John’s Gospel.  St John uses it 78 times.  It also occurs 24 times in the letters.  This is 102 times out of the 185 times that it is used in the New Testament.  St John uses the word ‘world’ in three different although related ways.

Firstly, he uses it to mean everything that exists.  St John begins his Gospel by telling us:

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.’ (John 1:10)

This includes what we call the natural world that we inhabit.  At the end of his Gospel, St John writes that if all that Jesus did was to be written down the ‘world’ itself would not contain the books that would have to be written (John 21:25).  St John is using poetic licence here, but it is clear that the ‘world’ he is referring to is the physical world.

Secondly, the word ‘world’ is used of the human beings who live in this natural world: us, in other words!  St John can use the word ‘world’ in this way relatively neutrally.  So, for example, he quotes the Pharisees who say, ‘Look, the world has gone after him!’ (John 12:19).  We would say ‘everyone’ has gone after him.  When St John uses the word ‘world’ to refer to humans, however, it is humanity in its lostness and sin, and the society that they create, that he has most in mind.  This includes its culture, values, and attitudes.  Jesus says to his ‘brothers’ who are urging him to speak more openly of himself:

‘The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.’ (John 7:7)

It is not the physical world we live in that is bad, but we who live in it and what we have made it.

Thirdly, as if this is not bad enough, we learn in St John’s Gospel that this evil world, inhabited by lost and sinful humanity, is also under the control of an evil being.

St John doesn’t dwell on this and nor should we.  But nor should we ignore the reality of the personal power who is behind evil in this world.  As St John puts it in his first letter:

‘We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.’ (1 John 5:19)

The Bible doesn’t have a dualism of powers in which two equal powers, one good and one bad, battle it out.  But the Bible does recognize a real, personal power of evil.  The devil is more than an abstract evil force; he is an intelligent and dangerous being.  We are to take him seriously, but not so seriously that we diminish the power of God.  As St John reminds us:

‘… for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’ (1 John 4:4)

The predominant idea of the word ‘world’, then, is of lost and sinful human beings and the society and culture that they create. It is in darkness and under the power and control of an evil being.

The tragedy, St John tells us, is that the light has come into the world that is in darkness and people have loved the darkness rather than the light.  Why would this be?  It is because the light shows us what we are like.  It exposes the true nature of our lives and how we live.

It’s like a person who has just got out of bed and who looks a bit of a wreck.  Fortunately, it is still dark, and no-one can see what they look like.  But then, someone else comes into the room and puts the light on.  The reaction of the person who has just got of bed is to tell the other person to put the light off.  They don’t want anyone to see them like this.  People don’t want to come to the light because they don’t want what they are really like to be seen by anyone – often, they don’t even like looking at themselves.

Those, however, who have believed in Jesus, who have been born from above, and who have received the gift of eternal life, are happy to come to the light.  It is not that they themselves have done anything on their own worthy of praise, but rather that what they have done has been ‘done in God’.  It is God who has made it possible for their life to be transformed.

As we have seen, this passage contains one of the most familiar and popular verses in the Bible.  It has been described as the ‘golden verse’ of the Bible.  We read it every time there is a Eucharist at Christ Church: ‘For God so loved …’ (John 3:16).  It is easy to see why it is a verse that believers are drawn to and like to recite.  Sometimes, we are encouraged to recite it by inserting our own name into the verse: ‘For God so loved Ross that he gave …’  I actually don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with doing this, but it is all a bit more complicated than this makes it seem.

No matter how hard we try, it is difficult when we read about ‘love’ in the Bible for us to rid ourselves of popular ideas of love.  In the 20th century, love became a defining idea both for understanding how we should think about God and how we should live as a result.  What God wanted from us, we were told, was not obedience to rules and laws, but a life lived on the basis of love.  Love was about wanting what was the best in any given situation.  This was an idea that was revolutionary at the time, but which has now become a generally accepted truth.

We know, of course, that what is meant by ‘love’ in the Gospels and in the New Testament is not the same as the love that is portrayed in popular culture through books, films, and song.  But given how pervasive the idea of love is in our culture, it is perhaps not surprising that the Church has been heavily influenced by our culture’s understanding of it.

‘All you need is love’, sang the Beetles, suggesting that love is something that exists in its own right.  Love has come to be seen as a force that we should seek to let control us and influence our actions and behaviour.  We, in the Church, have embraced this idea and, quoting St John’s first letter, chapter 4 verse 8, we equate God and love.  The words, ‘God is love’, are, for many in the Church, the most fundamental definition of God.  Everything we say and think about God must now be subject to this one controlling idea.

As an aside, it is interesting that the Church Fathers and Councils of the Church never felt the need to include any statement about God and love in the Creeds.  It is hard, however, to imagine any modern-day Council not including it.  Today, it is not God who defines what love is; love defines who God is.

And, of course, if God is love that means that anything that doesn’t conform to our idea of what love is must, by definition, not be of God.  And if God loves us, this also, again by definition, must mean he wants what is best for us.

We are now witnessing the final stage in the argument: if God is love, and God loves us, we should love ourselves too.

We have gone from how love is seen in the Bible, where love is about denying ourselves and putting God and others first, to how most believers now think of love, where love is about affirming ourselves and seeking what we believe is good for ourselves as a precondition for seeking what is good for others.

Love has become something we feel and which is affirming of us and who we are.  And because this seems to us to be so obviously what love is, this is now how we understand the references to love in the Bible.  Anything we read that doesn’t fit with this understanding, we either seek to explain away or we simply ignore.

It comes as a shock, then, to be told that this way of understanding love is the exact opposite of what love is in the teaching of Jesus.  What is more, it is our understanding of what love is that is preventing us from seeing what God’s love really is.

When it comes, for example, to the ‘golden verse’ of the Bible, we understand the words: ‘For God so loved the world …’ to refer to the intensity of God’s love for us.  He loved us so much.  Yet, in context, these words refer not to the intensity of God’s love for the world, but to the way in which God loved it: he loved so he gave.  He did not give his Son because he liked us or was attracted to us; indeed, given what we are, how could he like us or be attracted to us?

Rather, God seeing what we are like and despite being utterly repulsed by us, instead loved us.  God loved us by sending his Son to us, giving him to die to save us.  Love refers to what God did for us, not to how he felt towards us.

It is perhaps significant that we focus a lot less nowadays on the death of Jesus.  What matters more to us is the life Jesus led and the teaching he gave.  Some have even expressed revulsion at the idea that God could give up his Son to death.  This idea is now often described as a form of divine or cosmic ‘child abuse’.  We find the idea of God sacrificing his Son incompatible with our re-definition of love.

Jesus’ death is increasingly seen in a similar way to, say, the death of Gandhi.  Gandhi was assassinated because of who he was.  We don’t, however, think that his assassination was the purpose of his life.  It is not his assassination that we focus on when discussing his significance.  Gandhi’s teaching remains valid regardless of his death.

Jesus’s death, however, is not only an important part of what he came to do; it is what he came to do.  In St John’s Gospel, Jesus describes it as ‘his hour’.  It is his moment.  The Son of Man must be ‘lifted up’ if we are to have eternal life.  Without Jesus’ death, we would not have the possibility of life and would, as St John puts it, have to endure ‘God’s wrath’ (John 3:36).  The giving to death of his Son by God was why the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.  Without his death, we don’t have life.

Of course, given our understanding of love, it is impossible for us to think that God would ever withhold anything from us, least of all life.  That God would reject us or punish us is unthinkable to us.  And so, everything else that St John says in our reading this week, apart from the statement that God loved us, just gets ignored.  But the verse we love about love has a context and is just part of what St John tells us.

I have said that we are sometimes told to insert our name into John 3:16.  If we are going to do that, then we need to insert our name into all that St John writes, including what he writes about anyone who does not believe being condemned already:

‘For God so loved Ross that he gave his only Son, so that if Ross believes in him he may not perish, but may have eternal life …’ (John 3:16), ‘but if Ross does not believe he is condemned already’ (John 3:18).

We need to give up this fiction that we are really lovely people who deserve to be loved.  St Paul, in our second reading this week, expresses our real condition:

‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.’ (Ephesians 2:1-2)

St John is making the same point when he tells us what God’s assessment of the situation is:

‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)

This is not what we want to hear.  Jesus tells his disciples that the world hates him and will hate them as well (John 15:18).  We need to see ourselves how God sees us.  When we do, it won’t diminish our appreciation of God’s love for us, rather it will help us see just how amazing it is that, although we did nothing to deserve it and although we were unlovely, God acted to save us.  As St Paul puts it:

‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

God’s love for us doesn’t mean we should love ourselves, but it does mean we should love God instead of ourselves.  It also challenges us to rethink how we present the Gospel to our world and how we share our faith.  Jesus said to the crowd in Jerusalem:

But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.’ (John 8:45)

In the Church, we naturally want people to believe what we say, and so we tell them what they want to hear.  What they want to hear is not only that God loves them, but that God loves them in the way they want to be loved.  They want to be told that God affirms their life choices and lifestyle, but God doesn’t.  God challenges people to see that they are condemned; that they are living in darkness; and that their deeds are evil.  Everything isn’t going to be alright for everyone in the end.  Anything but.  People can’t expect everything finally to come good, regardless of how they live and what they do.

Telling people the truth, as Jesus has revealed it, won’t make us popular; it won’t lead people to like us; and it won’t fill our churches.  As St John tells us, those who love darkness won’t come to the light.  In fact, we may wonder who will bother coming at all.  Thankfully, St John tells us in our reading precisely who it is who will come:

‘But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ (John 3:21)

There won’t be many who come, but there will be some.  And who does or does not come is, in any case, not our worry.  It is better that those who do come, come to the truth rather than believe a lie.  It may be a lie that gives some temporary comfort in the present, but it will not survive the reality of life in this world, and it will not give us eternal life in the world to come.

Quite what Nicodemus made of all this, we are not told.  It certainly can’t have been what he expected to hear or wanted to be told, but, nevertheless, perhaps even despite himself, he was drawn to the light.

May we be drawn to it too.


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