About seven years ago I was in a time of transition. I had resigned from the church I was serving and was not sure yet what my next ministry would be. Five years post cancer treatment, I was still battling fatigue and other issues that were not going away. Dan was also in pastoral transition. Our oldest child was in college and the next two were not far behind. I was perplexed, frustrated and ready for answers about my health and our future. On a fall day in September, I felt a strong inner urging to go up to a retreat house and walk their outdoor prayer labyrinth. It is a great way for me to pray when I have a hard time sitting still for long. Maybe God would finally give me some answers—as you can imagine, I was ready for a plan—chop, chop!
Just before our Gospel reading today, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, also came to Jesus for answers. Jesus had turned his world of religious rules and customs upside down—cleansing the Temple and doing signs of healing such as Nicodemus had never seen. He recognized God’s power at work in Jesus, but Nicodemus wanted to understand what Jesus’s message really was. What was the true point of his mission? What was his purpose and where did Nicodemus and we fit into it? Nicodemus was ready for Jesus’ plan—chop, chop!
Jesus does give Nicodemus what has become the most famous passage of the bible, seen on bumper stickers, placard signs at football games, t-shirts, and ball caps: 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.” It’s a darn good mission statement, but not really a plan.
Our passage does, however, give us much more than just this one verse. We hear what comes before and after John 3:16 so with Nicodemus we can discover what this really means for him and for us. First Jesus makes a somewhat odd reference to a passage in Numbers when the Israelites complained against God’s provision in the wilderness. God did not like their grumbling and punished them with poisonous serpents; the people who were bitten, were dying. The Israelites repented of their grumbling and asked Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up above the people. When they looked at the bronze serpent they were healed of their bites, and spared from death. Notice that God did not take away the source of their pain. Instead, when looking to the bronze serpent, the Israelites would see both the consequence of their sin, and their need for God. This one image symbolized their brokenness and their dependence on God’s provision, their need for God’s forgiveness, and the pure grace of God’s gift of life—none of which would have happened if God just took away the serpents that tore at their ankles. As Jesus says later in the passage, their deeds had to be brought into the light, and once acknowledged, they are forgiven and given life.
Jesus explains to Nicodemus: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
We may wonder why God did not just take away sin without the cross, but Jesus’ image of the Son being lifted up like Moses’ serpent gives us an idea. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross of crucifixion, we are reminded of our own sin while, at the same time, acknowledging our need for God. In looking up at our suffering Lord, we must see the violence we inflict on others, on ourselves, on this planet, we must see our own suffering, and the suffering of this world; and we also see our need for God’s forgiveness, and the pure grace of God’s love given in Jesus, and the gift of eternal life—none of which we would grasp if God just eliminated sin for us. Our darkness had to be brought into the light and then we are given life. Those who looked up at the bronze serpent were given life; those who look up at the cross and believe in Jesus are given eternal life.
But Jesus does not only speak of his crucifixion when he talks about being “lifted up—for Jesus will be lifted up two more times. He will be lifted up in the resurrection with power over death, so that we can see this promise of eternal fulfilled here and now on earth. Jesus will be exalted over the power of sin! The truth can come into the light because Jesus conquers the power of all that separates us from God.
And then, even more so, Jesus will be lifted up in the Ascension when he returns to the Father so he can prepare for us, the abiding places and the many mansions in his Father’s house. The One who has descended will also ascend to make the abiding relationship he has with the Father available to each of us—that we may be one with Father as he is one with the Father.
“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.” Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus that God did not send him into the world for us to remain separated from God, but that through him we may have an abiding, eternal, on-going, relationship with God, the Creator that begins right now. That is Jesus’ mission and plan according to John’s Gospel—as he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself, so that they will abide in God as Jesus abides in God.
Abiding with God is to abide in the light, always recognizing our need for forgiveness and love in our sin and wrongdoing. God’s love and grace and life are always offered alongside our failures. The serpent and the gift of life are lifted up together. The suffering of the cross and the gift of grace are lifted up together. The reality of living in a fallen world and abiding in an eternal relationship with the Father through Jesus exist right now together. It is not a plan—chop, chop—it is a lived reality; it is being willing to dwell in the light every day; it is accepting that life is both deeply painful and full of immense love at the same time. It is being willing to let go of duality, either/or, and black/white thinking, and instead dwell in God’s “now” where God abides with us and we know fully even as we are fully known. Right this minute, we abide in God as we accept that we are a sinner and a saint, broken by sin and full of grace, a clay pot and a temple of the Spirit, in need of forgiveness and a gift to the kingdom always at the same time. Right this minute, we are broken by sin and abiding in God and God is abiding in us, all at once and the same is true for our neighbor, and the people we love, and the people we hate.
And that is what happened to me in labyrinth on that fall September day. I wanted an answer, and like Nicodemus, I wanted a plan—chop, chop. As I walked through the labyrinth, winding my way through the long circular paths—which was supposed to be meditative—my mind raced, filled with a jumble of issues and questions, and mostly, my desire for a plan, for a future, for, a little clarity. I arrived at the center and sat on one of the tree stumps to listen to for God to give me my answer. But that is not what God gave me. Instead, I got a picture, an image of God’s movement through time—eternal life is abiding with God now. Abide with me and I will abide with you. Live with the unfolding, engage in the journey, abide in the relationship. And finally, that is the only plan there is—I am with you until the end of the age.
There are parts of me that still do not like this answer. I still crave concrete direction—chop, chop. But so often, the response is not an answer, but an invitation: abide with me. This is the purpose of any of our spiritual practices, whether a walk or a table prayer, it is to listen, to be aware, notice, and pay attention to the presence of God who is abiding with us and in us. Jesus, who descended into the world has been lifted up on the cross, lifted up in the resurrection and lifted up in the ascension, so we might look to him and know that he prepares a place for us here and now that we might abide with God, and know that eternity begins right now.
- Read the first part chapter 3 to put the conversation Jesus has with “Nic at night” into context. When have you wanted clarity and plan from God? What kind of answers did you receive?
- What are your experiences with John 3:16? Have you stopped to think about what it really means? How would you express this verse in your own words?
- Ultimately, God’s greatest power is to love us through suffering rather than take it away. Is there a time of suffering in your own life that deepened your faith because you had to rely solely on God?
- For the Gospel of John, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are one event—salvation is not complete without Jesus returning to prepare “abiding places” or “many mansions” in the Father’s house (see John 14). This makes the ultimate act of salvation, not forgiveness from sin or damnation, but an eternal relationship with God that is real and begins here and now. How does this change or impact how you think about and experience your own faith?
- Martin Luther taught that we are at the same time sinner and saint—like the Israelites looking at the serpent and us looking at the cross—we see our sin and God’s love simultaneously. How does this help you balance pride and humility, ego and shame, healthy self-esteem and unhealthy self-negation? What are creative ways you deal with this inner duality?
Photo: Amber D., 2020 on Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/mercy-conference-and-retreat-center-st-louis?select=j2LBfwTcP-wFFRf9nyL9Ag