Lent 4, 2012
The Rev'd Christopher L. Epperson
There are several features to this Gospel text that cry out for explanation. First, Jesus is in conversation with a pharisee, Nicodemus, a member of the religious establishment. Remember, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. He came under the cover of darkness and was fearful. Nicodemus was part of the established order, yet he saw something in Jesus that called him to seek more information. We come upon them after they have had the discussion about being "born from above" or being "born again".
Nicodemus doesn't quite get it, so Jesus delves into Israel's history. Jesus invokes the time after Israel was freed from Egypt, spared at the Passover and delivered at the Red Sea. Israel was wandering in the wilderness, awaiting the land of promise. In the midst of one of the cycles of whining, being punished by God and then saved, Israel fell prey to a plague of snake that bit and killed many. The 21st Chapter of the book of Numbers tells us God sent the snakes as punishment for the latest episode of murmuring.
While the scriptures often speak in terms of God's punishment, I think it is too simplistic. Rather than reflecting the actual working of God, I wonder if we are not talking about something much more human. I wonder if the negative consequences experienced and illustrated are ascribed to God because the characters are moved to repentance through the negative outcomes.
The saving act in this vignette occurred when God had Moses make a bronze image of a serpent to hold up for Israel to see, and it somehow neutralized the snake bites.
Jesus invokes this story to cast his ministry and identity in these saving terms. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God is doing again, what God does, but in a new, stunning and complete way. The promised, hoped for, but surprising way.
The problem is, however, the same. Moses encountered resistance to God's offer of be God and Israel be God's people. It was often compromised by the longing for a certain kind of satisfaction. Call it prosperity. Call certainty or comfort.
Nicodemus is part of the culture of the haves. He comes to Jesus secretly because he fears losing what he has. He senses God's work in Jesus. Nicodemus longs for the fulfillment of the Kingdom, the new day, the new age, but he is where he is and has what he has. For now, Nicodemus will have to stay put and wonder.
Much of the culture Jesus faced resided in darkness, fear and resistance. Jesus offered a bigger view of humanity, God's love and reign of peace. The resistance Jesus faced, the resistance that led to his death was invested in the prosperity of the moment, comfort and status quo.
Jesus said that kind of culture is under God's judgement already. That Judgement isn't bound up in a desire to judge, so much as it is bound up in rejection and resistance. Is it judgement when darkness is chosen over grace, love and God's reign of freedom?
Last week, I was intrigued by Gregg Smith's piece in the NYT about leaving Goldman Sachs. I don't know Gregg Smith and I don't know too much about the culture of Goldman Sachs, but I was fascinated by Smith's portrayal of a firm that had lost its way, no longer faithful servants of clients, but greedy and self-serving, choosing to earn profits for the company over the clients they serve. Smith painted the picture in moral terms. He felt under judgement and chose another way.
I think Smith's story is the good news of acknowledging judgement.
I usually know when I am headed down the wrong path. I usually know when I am acting out of fear and for self-serving reasons. Most of us know when we are in a state of grace or in a state of sin.
The Good News is that through God's grace we are given insight and freedom to embrace and the just, faithful and righteous course. We are gifted with the spark of divinity within us, that won't let us alone, when we are embracing something other than the right. We know when we are wrong. We know that God is the God of redemption and forgiveness.
Hopefully, we remember not just John 3:16, but 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."