Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, March 5, 2023

YEAR A 2023 lent 2

Lent 2, 2023
Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17
Psalm 121

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There are SO many things to talk about in today’s gospel reading!  There are at least four different sermons I wanted to write.  But you’ll be happy to know I am going to spare you all that, and focus mainly on just two verses.  And they’re the last two verses.  But, as you can see, there’s a lot going on in this reading.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness—literally and metaphorically.  They have a pretty intense conversation.  And Jesus keeps trying to get him to understand, by using metaphors and analogies, but Nicodemus just doesn’t get it.  He remains in darkness, you could say.

And at the end of this gospel reading, we get the two verses I want to talk about.  The first is often called, “The Gospel in a nutshell,” John 3:16.  You’ve probably seen the sign at football games.  But the words of that verse are, 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.  Sounds great, right?  Gospel in a nutshell.

Problem is, many church people use this very verse as a way to keep people out of the church, by making the claim that it means God did not give God’s only Son for those who don’t believe in him, or something like that.  Like there’s this extra step in order to be included, and it means you have to believe in him, whatever that might mean.  And if you’ve never heard anyone use this verse in that awful way . . . well, good for you!  But if that limiting focus on belief is true, it means that anyone who does not believe in Jesus is not part of the world.  Which is ridiculous, when you say it aloud.

Two things about this . . .
First: The Greek word for “the world” is cosmos.  And when John uses the word cosmos in his gospel, it has a certain hostile flavor to it.  Like—for John at least—the cosmos is a place that does not naturally welcome God.  The light shines in the darkness, right?  When Jesus is born into the cosmos, the world was not on God’s side, would be one way to think of it.  Jesus comes into a hostile place in order to save this hostile cosmos.

And the second thing is, this John 3:16 is followed by a much better, more important, and gospel-focused verse—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.  If you ask me, that’s the verse that should be called the gospel in a nutshell.  Nothing to see but grace here, folks.  Though the world is hostile to God, Jesus comes to save the world, not to condemn the world.

Some people would use John 3:16 to claim that only those who currently believe in Jesus Christ will be saved.  Well, here’s a little secret for you.  Maybe more like a confession for you.  There are times in my own life when I honestly cannot believe it.  Any of it.  There are times in your priest’s life where he just cannot muster up the strength to really believe that it’s all true, because it all seems too good to be true!  There are times in the middle of the night where I wake up in a panic thinking, “What if it’s not true?!?”

I look around and see the failure of our institutions, the vitriol of our public discourse, the suffering of the people who live next door, our wanton disregard for the planet . . . I sometimes have a hard time believing it’s all even redeemable.  And if the critical thing is that I believe in Jesus, that I believe Jesus can save us, then I am often failing the crucial test.  Plus, if Jesus only saves those who believe, then it puts all the responsibility in our hands, which is definitely not a safe place to put anything this important.

That “belief clause” in John 3:16 actually serves as a barrier between me and God.  If that’s the gospel in a nutshell, then I am a squirrel who is not eating on some days.  I am a part of this cosmos that rejects Jesus Christ, to put it bluntly.  John 3:16 might be the gospel in a nutshell, but in the wrong hands it is the worst possible news . . . in a nutshell.

We don’t need more John 3:16.  What we need is more 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.  That’s the good news in a nutshell.  Jesus does not come to condemn; Jesus comes to save.  No matter what you might hear from others, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  And that means, Jesus Christ came into the world to save you, and to save me.

But you might still be wondering, what’s this stuff about Moses and the snakes?  Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  What does that mean?  Well, in the book of Numbers—in what we Christians call the Old Testament—the people are being bitten by snakes, and they come to Moses and say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he might take away the serpents from us.”  So Moses prays for the people. And the LORD says to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  Moses makes a bronze serpent and sets it on a pole. And if a serpent bites anyone, they would look at the bronze serpent and live.

That’s the story Jesus is referencing when he talks about being lifted up to save the people.  Nicodemus would know that story well.  And Jesus says to him, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Jesus is lifted up on the cross in the same way, and for the same reason that Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole.  The one who is lifted up saves the people.

Think about that serpent story for a moment.  Think about when you’ve been “bitten by snakes” in your own life.  Think about times you have needed healing and didn’t know where to turn.  Have you ever found healing comfort in looking to Jesus?  The One who came down and was lifted up?  The fact that you’re here this morning suggests that has happened in some way, at some time in your life.  Maybe you can explain it with a strong and powerful testimony, an actual conversion event in your life.  Or maybe, like so many of us, you find yourself using metaphors, and similes, and stories about something else, that point to the same truth that you have experienced firsthand.

Or maybe you’re coming to Jesus at night, in darkness, not knowing what you expect from him, but like Nicodemus you have made the connection that only someone sent from God can do the miraculous things you have heard about.  And maybe, for you right now, you’re needing a whole lot of miraculous in your life these days.  This world can be a messy, scary hostile place, but we live our days here, and we are part of it.  And that takes us right back to where we started.  Jesus Christ came into this world to save it, not to condemn it.

That world out there, that messy beautiful cosmos that God created, we’re in it—right now.  It’s not “out there”; it’s everywhere.  There is no actual separation between the Church and the world, because the Church is part of the world.  The needs of the world are the needs of the Church.  The needs of the people outside those doors are the same as the people in this room.

As some people are fond of saying, there is no such thing as “secular.”  Nothing is secular, because God created it all.  And Jesus came to redeem it all.  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.  You are among the redeemed, because you are in this world.  And God loves the world.  And God loves you, and has redeemed you.

May we always look to the one who was lifted up, the one who draws the whole, hostile world to himself.  And, may God give us the faith to trust that Jesus came not to condemn, but to save—this wondrous, rebellious cosmos, which God has lovingly created, and yet more lovingly restored in Jesus Christ.  Look to the one who is lifted up, for he has redeemed all creation.


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