Old Testament: Numbers (21:4-9)
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “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.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
The Response: Psalm (107:1-3, 17-22)
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3 He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
17 Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.
18 They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death’s door.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
20 He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.
21 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.
22 Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.
The Epistle: Ephesians (2:1-10)
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
The Gospel: John (3:14-21)
[Jesus said,] “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.
“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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that 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 to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“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.” – John 3:16.
There might be other verses of scripture that are better known than this one; but I feel safe in saying that there is no other one for which so many people can cite the book, chapter, and verse. I have seen that citation — sometimes with the quote itself, sometimes without it – on bumper stickers, on billboards, on T-shirts, and on signs held up during televised sporting events.
Granted, it is a beautiful saying; but those who display it seem to be at least suggesting that it is the answer to all life’s questions, that it somehow is the most important verse in the bible, and that the rest, by comparison, are secondary. That is an extremely simplistic approach to the message of the gospel, not to mention to the message of the other 30,000+ verses in what we claim to be “the word of the Lord.” It would be a lot easier for all of us if life were that simple; but it clearly is not.
Neither is the bible. It is comprised of 66 different books (not including the apocrypha), written by many different authors, modified by countless editors, over hundreds (and, in its roots, thousands) of years. Sometimes its stories and teachings reflect timeless insights into God, humanity, and the world in which we live; and sometimes it reflects only the culture and values of a particular time and place. There are clear contradictions in some of its narratives. And there are both complementary and contradictory points-of-view given, in the New Testament as well as in the Old. Contrary to what some people claim, you can’t pick out a single verse and find the “pure and simple truth.”
The truth of God cannot be reduced to the 26 words of this particular verse, or to the 140 characters of a tweet, or to whatever brief slogan can fit on a bumper sticker. As Oscar Wilde once observed, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
Yet, at the same time, the focus, especially of the gospels, remains essentially the same. And, in a broader sense, it remains the focus of the entire bible. John, in this verse and others, calls it “eternal life.” The other three gospels use the term “the kingdom of God” or, in Matthew’s case, “the kingdom of heaven.” But, contrary to the way that many people construe them, those terms do not refer exclusively, or even primarily, to a world beyond this one, to a place that we want to go after our death, to a place apart from this world. Some have suggested that a better translation might be “the dominion of God,” since the term itself focuses on God’s work in this world, only this world transformed to be what God intends it to be.
That’s very different from the emphasis that one encounters in the thinking of many Christians. And it’s very different from what one hears in many, well-loved, sweet, sentimental, religious hymns, especially many that emerged in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. They tend to focus on what God can do for me as an individual. And they tend to focus in particular on what God can do for me and what God can give me after I die and “go to heaven.”
That’s an attractive approach, and it’s no surprise that it has so many adherents. We like to focus on ourselves, even though Jesus’ teaching calls on us to focus on serving the needs of others. We like to focus on some place or life that is separate from the world in which we live, even though Jesus summons us to focus on making this world what God intends it to be. And we like to zero-in on something that is not only simple, but simplistic, even though Jesus shows us how to live and minister in the complicated world of which we are a part.
That “eternal life” about which John speaks, that “kingdom of God” or “dominion of God” about which the other gospel writers speak, is not about life in a different world. It is about the fullness of life in this world: a fullness of life in which we are invited to share. And it is about the fullness of life which God calls us to make a reality for our fellow human beings by working to transform this world to conform to God’s vision for the world.
That is a lot tougher assignment than what many people, including many Christians, want to tackle. But it is the one to which Jesus calls us. He, who was “lifted up” for our sake, calls us to take up the same cross and follow where he has led the way.
In reflecting on our reading from the book of Numbers and on John 3:16, Lutheran Pastor and author, John Stendahl, has observed:
“We misunderstand the text if we think it is only about otherworldly damnation or salvation when we die. Look, people are sinking under the waters. Here in this wilderness, people are perishing. The snakes are biting still, all sorts of venom claiming human lives.
“Throw out the lifeline to the drowning. Lift up the cross, like that serpent in the wilderness, that the snake-bitten may lift their eyes to its hope and healing. Let them know that there is a rescue, that there is life, abiding and abundant life, and that they can lay hold of it.”
Yes, God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to call all people to the fullness of life. But God so loved the world that God also sent us to remake the world to be what God intends it to be and to join with Jesus in calling others to share in that life, to share in that hope, and to share in that work.
And it is in sharing and especially in living the complex and difficult message of the cross that we enable others to see past the simplistic and shallow messages that they hear, the shallow and simplistic messages that all too often pass for the gospel, and instead to encounter and embrace the challenging yet life-giving word of God.