It’s a famous passage of scripture, the one we just heard.
Well, one verse of it is.
Some of us grew up in the day of memorization, and you may have been assigned just this one. John 3:16—“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I always remember these things in the King James Version, with the “thous” and “believeths,” the kind of words that make it sound like poetry, the kind of words that make it sound like something far away from where we are today.
John 3:16. Not only do we not memorize much scripture anymore—who memorizes *anything* anymore?—but we don’t have one accepted translation or even a collective understanding of what’s important to know. This verse, though, and particularly this citation, John 3:16, remains in the public consciousness, remains in the public eye, because people use it as shorthand, as code, as a brand.
Have you seen it on signs at sporting events? You can buy it on a hat or a t-shirt. Either it’s intended to get people who don’t know what it means to ask a question (as an evangelism tool), or it’s intended to be a sort of visual secret handshake, an insider’s agreement to agree completely and without question or elaboration to the premise that people who believe in Jesus will not die, but have eternal life.
It sounds simple. It sounds black and white. Believe and live forever.
But it’s not simple, nothing is that simple, and heaven knows, nothing in the Bible is that simple! What do we mean by not perish or not die? What do we mean by eternal life? And what is up with Moses and the snake?
If we had not just read that passage from Numbers, if you only heard John 3:14, would you know what I was talking about?
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…
In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 21, we are out in the wilderness with the wandering Israelites, and they are having yet another not-so-excellent adventure, one that involves snake attacks. Naturally, they blame God. Oh, and Moses. This happens again and again. They look at their situation and conclude God has not only forgotten them but in fact set them up for this torture by bringing them out of Egypt to doom and snakes in the wilderness.
I really don’t like snakes. I have a black and white relationship with snakes: I am good, and they are bad! There is no grey area! The Israelites lived a classic nightmare, one that is not unique to me, or a room or a plane full of snakes wouldn’t be such a potent image in films, would it?
For people of that time, or at least for the people who wrote things down and saved them to be read later, any bad thing that happened came from God as surely as every good thing did. And if a bad thing happened, there were only two possibilities:
1) You were a bad person, or a bad family, or a bad country, out of favor with God, and therefore being justly punished. Or,
2) God had very unreasonably decided to harm you, due to having a bad day or a bad epoch, and maybe if you sent your prophet to talk to God, God might change God’s mind.
That’s the black and white approach to thinking about God. Somewhere on the seat of power a mighty force—to most people in our Judeo-Christian tradition, a man-shaped force—decides to play with our lives, to keep us down or lift us up, to give us manna in the wilderness or to send snakes to bite us instead.
It’s an inexplicable story, yet in John’s gospel, Jesus references it while explaining what will happen to him later, vaguely. He knew Nicodemus would get the reference, because any good Pharisee knew his Torah and would remember the golden snake on the stick lifted by Moses, to remind the unhappy people of God’s love, that they might be healed.
How many kinds of trouble can we find with that ancient story? First, it hasn’t been so long since they have been warned off graven images, but we are making a graven snake for a stick to reassure people. Second, did God really change His mind so quickly, first sending the snakes and then sending healing? Third, isn’t it possible there were simply snakes in the desert, and the people had a very simple way of looking at why bad things happened, and blamed God for something God was not manipulating at all?
You may have questions about the story, too. It’s not black and white, any more than the way to interpret Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is, despite the images of darkness and light. People are forever defining good and evil according to their own local standards of behavior.
Think of the evolution of our attitudes toward smoking, from the dashing Marlboro Man and the chic ladies in the Virginia Slims ads of my childhood to yesterday, when I drove past Bath Iron Works and saw the big sign declaring BIW a Tobacco Free zone.
3:16, used as a slogan, sets up false lines of division, between people who articulate their understanding of who Jesus was in a certain way and everyone else.
I grew up where people, black and white, were divided according to their skin color. I remember going with my parents to the one McDonald’s in my hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia in the mid-1960s. We got our food and went back to the car on a Friday evening to watch the Norcom High School Marching Band practice on the other side of a gigantic fence. The kids at Norcom had no easy route to get to the McDonald’s, but we could watch them go through their maneuvers, these students at the one place in the city where black students could go to high school.
I knew one girl who went to Norcom. Well, I barely knew her, mostly from photographs at her mother’s house seen years after Carol graduated as valedictorian, and went on to become a school teacher. Carol’s mother, Catherine, took care of me when I was a little girl. Catherine washed our clothes and hung our diapers on the line to dry and ironed my father’s shirts and lives in almost every memory I have between the ages of 2 and 5-and-a-half. Catherine, or Ca-ca, since I was too little to say it right when we first met, took care of me and taught me the things you need to know. She comforted me; she became the reliable presence in my little girl life. But although she worked at our house every day, intimately involved in our lives, our worlds remained separate.
After we moved in 1967, Catherine got a job cleaning at a school, but we kept in touch over the years. When I got married the first time, she came to the wedding with her daughter and son-in-law and 7-year-old grandson. At the reception, I leaned over to say hello to the little guy. And he put his hand right on my chest, just above my heart, a brown hand on my white skin the way my little white hands had touched his grandmother’s dark skin so many years before.
Catherine taught me a lot about love and so when I think of God as mother, She has Catherine’s dark skin and her broad nose and her laughing eyes. Her arms reach out to children not her own. Her embrace feels so wide and so inclusive, it’s hard to imagine it might be based on whether a person used the right words to declare himself Her child.
It goes beyond black and white, beyond John 3:16, into John 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.
We can go on misunderstanding God; we are likely to keep doing it! After all, we’re human. God knows it, from making us and from being one of us in Jesus. It must have seemed
simple to the people in authority, as simple as black and white: if you could only kill the man, Jesus, the troubles would be over. It was inevitable that people would set out to kill a sign of God’s love and power embodied in a person, that we could not see who he really was until that moment of stark humanity on the cross.
It was not inevitable that Jesus would let us do it. We began Lent with the story of the temptation, and if we believe he was God, then we must believe he had the power to avoid that humiliating and excruciating death. He had the power, but he did not use it. He did not live by our limited human definitions of victory.
We killed the human Jesus, but we could not destroy the Christ. Somewhere between black and white, there is Love. Amen.