A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
As we journey through Lent, we are recalling that the whole thing is about the overwhelming mercy of God. Our salvation is not mostly about God and a little bit about good things that we do, and it is definitely not about God, plus making some good choices, and being nice, and pretty good-looking and saying a few of the right words, either. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that the whole world might be saved through him. It is God’s mercy; God’s love for every one of us that makes life and hope possible.
The text for today’s sermon is the Gospel of John, chapter three, verse seventeen. Why didn’t I choose John 3:16, like those guys write on the signs they wave at the football games and anywhere they can get in front of a TV camera? Because if we stop at the end of John 3:16 without including the next verse, we misunderstand completely what Jesus is saying. “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. . . . 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.”
Some mistakenly think that John 3:16 is about believing, and earning eternal life through believing. That couldn’t be more wrong. We who believe know that God has come into the world to save this world, through his life, his overwhelming mercy brought to us in spending that life with us and for us, even to being lifted up on the cross. But when I say us, I don’t mean this small group gathered here this morning, or some people who wave signs in front of cameras. I mean that God sent his Son into the world—that the whole world is saved by him.
The Gospel passage does talk about condemnation. Condemnation is real. Most of us have felt it, experienced it. Indeed, the question of God’s mercy and salvation wouldn’t be very meaningful to us, or at less not very compelling, if it were not for the reality of condemnation. What is that condemnation, where does it come from? The Gospel says this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come into the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” People condemn themselves by turning from the light and running away from the truth.
The Old Testament lesson is a story from the fourth book of Moses, the Book of Numbers. It is another grumbling in the wilderness story—there are a lot of those, perhaps because people grumble a lot. Here is their complaint: “There is no food… and we hate this food that God has given us.” The food available for the Israelites back then probably did not compare with Calvary Church’s St. Patrick’s Day potluck next Saturday—where we share with one another as in God’s heavenly banquet.
Have you ever noticed that the people who complain the most and pity themselves the most are those who are used to having the most and being the most privileged? So in this story, God basically says, “Oh you don’t like the food? Try snakes.” For some reason they did not like the snakes either. Of course, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” I don’t think my kids would have liked the snakes either. But somehow, in this story, the children of Israel end up knee-deep in snakes.
Somehow, a lot of people end up deep in trouble, deep in condemnation, and they don’t see that it is the result of their own self-pity and anger; or in accepting the hurt and anger of other people and letting that define them. While we do this, God has something else for us. God’s way is mercy, not condemnation. His way is constant love from the beginning and healing of our hurts.
And that’s where those snakes come in. God had Moses lift up a snake, and the people focused on something beyond their self-condemnation and they were healed, they were saved. And so our Gospel lesson begins: “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.” It is the mercy of God, the gift of God, that heals us, that heals this world.
We are invited to live in the light of Jesus—by living a life of welcome and acceptance, of generosity of spirit, of being merciful and leaving self-pity behind. We are called to proclaim God’s love for the entire world, to live together as a body building one another up, not as individuals competing against others for a reward they can’t have.
He sent for his word and healed them; and saved them from the grave.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy;
and the wonders he does for his children.
Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving;
And tell of his acts with shouts of joy.