(Lent 2A John 3:1-17)
It's such a great story. Lent this year is full of great stories from John's gospel, and although I am a Mark fan rather than a John lover, I look forward to the return of these stories in the lectionary.
Except this one, even though it's great.
If you've been to or watched a major sporting event, you may know why. There are too many people who use "John 3:16" as code for "whosoever says a certain set of words, the same words someone told me to say, is all set, and the rest of you fools? Mwahahahaha!" It's the theological equivalent of what my dad used to call the only thing an athlete says in an interview before one of those sporting events: "We've got a great bunch of guys, and we're going to go all the way."
The gospel at risk of becoming a slogan, a cheer, a secret code.
3:16 "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.
3:17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Maybe the problem is not reading through to verse 17, or maybe it's taking the couplet out of context. Because if you read the whole story, from the entrance of Nicodemus in verse 1, you'll see that what Jesus is saying is not simple or readily understandable. He introduced new concepts, ideas that puzzled even a leader among the Jews, a Pharisee, a learned man. To be born from above, what does this mean?
Nicodemus asks a practical question, trying to show that in a literal interpretation, what Jesus says makes no sense.
And then Jesus employs a literary device that reminds us meaning is found on many levels:
"And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…"
We are in the realm of things beyond our understanding, in which we must employ similes and metaphors to come close to comprehending.
His words bring us close, but not all the way, to his meaning and his purpose. They are the pin-prick in a piece of cardboard that allows us an indirect view of the eclipse.
But in our desperate attempt to control what is too powerful for us, we reduce him to a piece of poster board and the shorthand, "John 3:16."