… Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…
The escape from Egypt had been so dramatic and exciting. Moses driving this disorganized group of former slaves towards the Red Sea – in front of them, leading the way – a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night…
And then, on the edge of the shore – Moses lifts his staff and parts the sea… and the people cross on dry land…
Then the waters return, drowning the Egyptians while Moses’ sister Mirium (or Mary) sings, dances and leads a celebration.
But then the wandering begins. 40 years of wandering in the desert – no food – no water – harsh conditions. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." The people cry.
The atmosphere is poisonous; the relationships are becoming poisoned; the people are poisoning themselves with their complete selfishness - self-centeredness.
Like the serpent in the garden who suggests to Eve that she and Adam could become their own gods if they want – the wandering former slaves, one day to become Israel, are also consumed with themselves, even as the serpents slither around them.
“Look up” Says Moses – What do you see? The serpent impaled and lifted up on a staff – the power of the serpent destroyed –
“Look up” Says Jesus to Nicodemus and “What do you see?”
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…
Look up, people of God what do you see? The power of human self-centeredness impaled on a cross – the power of death and evil, which seems so powerful, totally and completely impotent…
Look up, people of God, what do you see? Grace upon Grace… The overwhelming and abundant grace and love of God showering down upon us...
But it is hard to see at night. It is hard to make out things in the dark, or to recognize people in the dark. It is easier to hide in the dark. So maybe that is why Nicodemus chose to visit Jesus in the night. Our Gospel for today recounts the first of two encounters – this first with a learnéd Pharisee, a man who is very much a part of the power structure – He is part of the in group – he is established – he is knowledgeable – but he comes at night. And he will remain in the dark.
The 2nd encounter is found in the next chapter 4 - that encounter by contrast happens in the bright daylight with a foreign Samaritan woman who is definitely on the outside in every way - but she will see what Nicodemus cannot see. We will look at that story next week!
But Nicodemus comes to Jesus asking how it is that Jesus can do such great signs; how Jesus can talk about love and relationship. Isn’t our faith about following the rules (he asks) - you know, making ourselves right with God – doing all the right things – being the right kind of person – having the right background and culture? Don’t we have to do stuff to keep God from being angry?
No, says Jesus, just like your physical birth – which you had no control over – you have no control over your Spiritual birth – God gives you the gift of being Born Again in the Spirit – of being Born from Above – this is not based on anything you do or say or think or believe – it is an unconditional gift given in love – it is Grace upon Grace.
But we humans like to be in control – we like to think that we can control even our relationship with God – we like to think that we have the power to determine who and how one enters into a relationship with God. But – says Jesus – it is an unconditional gift of God’s and you have no control – all you can do is accept the gift, accept the calling to love and begin to witness – in other words: to live lives that reflect through words and deeds this incredible gift of unconditional abundant love and grace.
How can these things be? Nicodemus doesn’t get it. It doesn’t make sense to him. It doesn’t make sense to us either, does it? Because in order for it to make sense we have to give up our need and desire to be in control – we have to give up our self-centeredness.
It all comes down to love – says Jesus: 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.
We all know this verse from memory. But have we ever stopped to really think about it? For God so loved the world… This is the most important part – Jesus sums up our relationship with God in these few words and it all comes down to love. Not our love for God – but God’s incredible love for us. This is the key! Can we accept that? That God loves this creation and the humans that God created so passionately and abundantly that God has entered into our world by becoming en-fleshed, incarnate in Jesus! This is how much God love us – this is how God demonstrates that love.
And not only that, but God’s love is not selective – though we might like it to be – Jesus tells us that God loves the world…. No qualifications here – God’s love extends to everyone, from all cultures and backgrounds and lifestyles and races. To underscore this next week Jesus will reach out to a hated and despised outsider a poor Samaritan woman – but for now we need to let this sink in: God loves the world….
So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This is where we sometimes get hung up. We sometimes hear this “so that” as a condition. And I suppose maybe secretly we breath a sigh of relief – ok, great – I can understand that – so we have to do something after all!
Not so fast – let’s answer this question first: what exactly is belief? What is faith? What does it mean when Jesus says, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life?
The problem with the way we tend to hear this phrase is that we 21st century post-enlightenment Christians tend to define belief or faith as a mental activity – something we do with our mind. But we need to remember that in the Bible belief/faith is never a mental activity it is always an action – something we do and a way of living. And to this understanding John adds an additional dimension. For John, belief/faith is a way of being in relationship with God and with others – a way of being in relationship that is rooted in God’s love for the world. In John - to have faith means that we live in ways that reflect the loving relationship and commitment that God has for us, and the action on our part is to allow this love to define how we are in relationship with others.
Jesus is also saying something else – and it is this: That you cannot say you believe if your lives reflect hate and exclusion; you cannot say you believe in Christ if you spend your time supporting and finding ways of pushing other people away or judging or dismissing others. To believe means to be in a relationship that is rooted in love of God, through Christ and others.
And this gift of relationship includes Eternal life… which is not some kind of heaven far into the future – but, like the Kingdom of God in Luke and Mark and like the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew – the gift of Eternal life begins NOW – it begins in Baptism – it is nurtured and sustained by the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion, and it is a gift which comes from being in a relationship with God in Christ that is rooted in love.
Jesus tells Nicodemus and us – it is all about love
Look up – and what do you see?
God’s incredible love, God’s overwhelming love which is given to us freely..
But at the same time calls upon us to accept the gift and to love in return…
This is Grace upon Grace
For God so loved… you and me… and them and everyone – the world that God GAVE the only son – the one who is God incarnate – the one who is the creative WORD – so that everyone who accepts this gift of love will not perish; so that everyone who accepts this gift of love will not succumb to the poison of the serpents of selfishness – but will experience the gift of Eternal life – that is the gift of relationship with God and with others that begins here and now – today – this moment!
Look up … and see!