Lent 4B, March 15, 2015

March 17, 2015

Believing Out Loud
John 3:14-21

3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.”

This reference to Moses lifting a bronze serpent in the wilderness isn’t one of those Old Testament stories that we 21st Century Christians give much attention, but it seems to have been an important image to our early Christian ancestors – particularly our ancestors who were Jewish before they were Christian. Those early Jewish followers of Jesus were much more familiar with these stories from the Torah, and this story about Moses lifting the bronze serpent in the wilderness would have been a story they knew well. It was their version of Snakes on a Plane. Of course they would have referred to it as the story of the snakes on the plain.

The story is that the people of Israel were growing tired of eating manna and quail every day out in the wilderness and thy started complaining about the situation God had put them in. They were talking about how much better they had it while they were back in Egypt, and God responded to their complaining by sending them a bunch of snakes. I don’t guess there’s anything that gets our attention quicker than a bunch of snakes. People went from complaining to begging Moses for relief, and with that God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent on a pole and to lift it up for people to see. When people viewed the bronze serpent on the pole they were healed of their snake bites and they lived.

It’s an unusual story, and while it raises a few questions about God’s sensibilities it’s ultimately a story of how God provided for the wellbeing of the people of Israel while they were in the wilderness. It’s a story about how God once again rescued the Israelites from death.

Looking at a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole isn’t a particularly appealing thing to do, but it was a life-saving thing to do, and John found some kinship between that faith experience, and this new thing that had happened with Jesus. Jesus had been lifted up on a cross which was a terrifying form of death, but for John, that image had become transformed into a symbol of the life-giving power of Jesus.

I mentioned last week of how I’ve become convinced of the deeply Jewish roots of the Book of John. My perspective has been greatly influenced by this book I’m reading that was written by this retired Episcopalean bishop, John Shelby Spong, who puts forth the argument that the Book of John articulates the experience of early Jews who were rejected by the mainstream Jewish community because of their faith in Jesus. And their experience was of finding true life through this man who was killed in that horrific manner. What was intended to be the ultimate form of humiliation, rejection, and defeat had for them become the most glorious moment of Jesus Christ’s life. By going to the cross Jesus had shown them that true life was not found through self-preservation, but through self-giving love, and they embraced this image of Jesus being lifted up on a cross.

John is the only Gospel-writer who made this connection between Jesus being lifted up on a cross and Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness. It’s a unique comparison, but there’s a powerful message here as well, and I think it was a particularly rich comparison for those early Jewish followers of Jesus. In fact I’m thinking they probably saw a bit of contrast between what Moses provided and what Jesus provides. While Moses provided a way to prevent the death of the Israelites while they were in the wilderness, what Jesus provided is far more than the prevention of death – Jesus provided access to eternal life.

The early Jewish followers of Jesus fully embraced their spiritual history, but they placed their spiritual future in the hands of Jesus – who they saw as the culminating gift of God to the people of Israel. Which is so well articulated in this wildly familiar verse: John 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.

This is a beautiful verse of scripture. It’s a wonderful verse of scripture, but in some ways it has the power of a worn out bumper sticker. It’s been overused – maybe even abused. You don’t see as many of the giant John 3:16 posters in the end-zones of football games during field goals or extra-point attempts as you used to, but this passage has been highly utilized by people who portray Christianity in a manner that sort of puts me off.

I don’t really know how to expose the inappropriate way that verse has been used. It’s more of a feeling that I have about the way it’s been used than I know how to describe it’s misuse, but I feel that it has often been used to oversimplify the long and rich relationship that has been going on between God and the world since the beginning of time. It’s probably not very helpful for me to tear down what has meaning for someone else, but I also think this verse has been used to define who is right with God and who isn’t. Some would use this verse to divide the world between the believers and the losers, and I don’t think this is what John intended.

This extended passage does get in to this reality of people not being right with God, but such judgment has far more to do with what we focus upon than how God chooses to see us. It’s not God that cuts us off, but it is possible for us to choose to live in darkness rather than in light.

Many Christians would say that our access to eternal life depends upon our belief in Jesus, and I won’t necessarily argue with that premise, but I will argue that it makes a huge difference how you define believing in Jesus and how you understand the concept of eternal life. And it seems to me that the way John understood the concepts of believing in Jesus and finding eternal life are far different from the way we are often inclined to define them.

We often equate believing with giving our mental approval of something, but I don’t think that’s what it meant for John. For John, believing in Jesus wasn’t just a matter of belonging to a particular group of people who were affiliated with Jesus. John portrays believing in Jesus as an act of trusting in the way that Jesus lived, of rejecting the dark forces that put Jesus to death, and of embracing his self-giving manner of loving other people. To believe in Jesus is to believe that you can find your way to God in the midst of any kind of trial or tribulation, and it calls for us to deal with our trials and tribulations in a very particular way.

Believing in Jesus is an act of defiance to whatever powerfully dark forces may be at work in the world, but that same belief requires us to reject those dark forces with love in our hearts – which is the hard part.

There’s a great interdenominational campaign going on that’s called Believe Out Loud. It’s sort of an online movement that seeks to give voice and encouragement to Christians who have non-traditional sexual orientations. There are people around here who wear believe our loud buttons. It’s a phrase that serves to remind us of the importance of giving voice and power to people who have been marginalized by traditional Christianity. I think the book of John speaks to the importance of believing out loud because believing isn’t a quiet undertaking.

But God’s love is always more challenging than we want it to be, and I was reminded of that by an essay I read on the progressive Christian website called Patheos.com. The essay was written by a professor at SMU named Dr. Maria Dixon. In addition to several other degrees, Dr. Dixon has a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, but she teaches in the field of communication, and she is very familiar with the landscape of undergraduate misbehavior.

Dr. Dixon is an African American woman, and she wrote an essay about the ugly incident involving the fraternity pledges at the University of Oklahoma. If you don’t know what I’m talking about consider yourself lucky, but there is this video of these young white men – she would call them pre-adults, singing a horribly racist song on a bus, and Dr. Dixon didn’t like the way the school officials handled the situation. She didn’t take issue with the outrage they expressed, but she didn’t think total rejection was the most helpful thing to do.

She wrote a great essay about what she thought could have happened to turn the situation in to more of a teachable moment, but she also owned up to the unlikeliness of such a thing happening. She concluded her essay with the following paragraph:

Look, I know it is easier just to be done with these students. Bashing them is incredibly popular and dismissing them from the island of humanity appears to be all the rage. Unfortunately, I am called to the two most idealistic professions—teaching and preaching and I believe in the power of conversion. I believe in the power of Grace. I believe in a God of Second Chances. I believe in a God who is a master teacher.

Her essay reminded me that this business of believing out loud is a perpetual challenge to our pre-perfect souls. Just when we think we know who the enemy is and what we need to do to them – we get a glimpse of the one who chose to be lifted on a cross so that we could see what love really looks like and how to obtain true life.

To believe in Jesus is to believe out loud that there’s hope for us all. We are called to boldly resist the dark forces that are at work in our world, but probably our largest challenge is to resist the endless forms of darkness that we are each tempted to embrace. Living in the light has always been a challenge, and it always will be, but God has provided us with a great gift. For God so loved the world God didn’t send more snakes to get our attention – God gave us Jesus, and if we will truly believe in him we will find our way into the light and experience this gift of abundant life.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.

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