Fourth Sunday in Lent John 3:14-21

The readings for today invite us into God’s amazing loving kindness and mercy through several distinct, connected places in humanity’s long journey with God.

In the book of Numbers, (21:4-9),  the narrative gives us God introducing venomous snakes into the group, causing many in the group to get bitten and die. What does this mean? It means that God did this to get to the next action, in which Moses constructs an idol of a bronze serpent on a stick, reminiscent of the golden calf the people made and worshiped in Exodus. Those who looked on the bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole, though they were bitten by a venomous serpent, still lived.

This is not a subtle allegory.

This passage in Numbers is an invitation to look upon the Servant of God, lifted up on a pole, and – though poisoned by sin – still live.

We are led from the desert into the psalm, which says: “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures for ever.”

The word that we translate as “steadfast love” is a different word in Hebrew. The word is hesed. It’s often translated as “loving-kindness and loving-mercy.”

From the love of God in the psalm, (107:1-3, 17-22), we are invited into today’s reading from Paul, (Ephesians 2:1-10),  which we heard in the forgiveness pronounced near the beginning of the service today.

You were dead through the sins in which you once lived. All of us were once dead through sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his hesed loving-kindness for us, even when we were dead through sin, God has made us alive together with Christ.

By grace we have been saved.

By grace we have been saved.

Hear these words: “For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God. Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

For we are what God has made us. We are created in Jesus, and we can respond to the great gift of God’s grace by way of good works. God has made us this way.

We were dead! But God, who is rich in hesed, even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ. By grace we have been saved.

And through this amazing grace we come to the Gospel according to Saint John, in the third chapter, verses seventeen through twenty-one.

Which includes, of course:

John 3:16

Say it with me now, in King James’ translation:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever liveth and believeth in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.

By a show of hands: Who owns or has owned an item with the reference printed on it? Just the reference. Just “John 3:16.” A fan, a hat, a shirt, a bumper sticker, a coffee cup. Anything.

Who has seen a John 3:16 reference? Maybe on television at a sports event.

I hope I’m not the only one who looks at the lectionary readings for today and wonders who chose John 3:16 and why they didn’t instead choose Ephesians 2:5 instead. By grace you have been saved. Maybe “Ephesians” is too hard to pronounce.

What happens when we look at John 3:16, which many people consider the Bible in a nutshell, out of the context of Jesus’ conversation by night with Nicodemus, an observant Jewish middle-class leader?

It sounds a lot like what one pastor calls “you gotta” theology. You gotta believe – and then you get the prize.

Where does that leave those of us who don’t believe, or have never had the opportunity to think about whether we believe, or who think we believe but have had doubts along the way?

Where does that leave those of us who are convinced, as Martin Luther once was, that we can’t possibly believe enough, or believe rightly enough, to earn that eternal reward?

Where does that leave those of us who look up John 3:16 – and decide that the Way of Jesus is not for us? It sounds as though there’s an entry fee. Maybe it sounds good to us because we know the code. We are okay with “those who believe in him” because we are one of those who believe in him.

Where does John 3:16 leave those of us who come to John 3:16, and read it, and then keep reading? “In order that the world might be saved through him.” Well, that sounds okay. “Those who believe in him are not condemned.” Oh-kay. “Those who do not believe are condemned already.”

Whoa! So if, for whatever reason, we are hesitant about counting ourselves among the believers, it’s too late. We are already condemned.

This can’t be good.

Where is the good news out of today’s readings?

It’s right here in the gospel – a word that means “the good news,” in fact it is right here in John 3:16, when we look at John 3:16 through what we have heard today.        By grace we have been saved.

            As a recovering English major, I notice the grammatical tense. We have been saved. It has already happened and is still happening, and will continue to happen. Not the result of works, that none may boast. God did it all. God is doing it all. God will continue to do it all.

When we bring that truth to John 3:16, we get to look at the good news of “whoever believes in him” together with the good news, “By grace we have been saved.”

Rhoda Janzen, a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, writes of a healing story in the Gospel of Mark in which a father says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

Dr. Janzen says: “For me the takeaway is … that we can be an unholy mess … or a frustrated skeptic. What a relief it is that we don’t have to be good at religion in order to seek God…. All we need is the desire to believe.”

“Whoever believes in him shall never perish” is one way of saying, “By grace you have been saved.”

We have already gotten the reward of life everlasting. By God who is rich in hesed, lovingkindness and loving-mercy, all of us in baptism have already been saved by amazing grace.

So now what? Ephesians 2, verse 10, says: 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.”

Knowing, hearing, remembering that we believe, and that God helps us in our unbelief, means that we don’t have to judge ourselves or anyone else. We just get to love. We get to live in the light. We get to go through all our lives responding with gratitude to the reward, the prize, which was ours from before the very beginning. By grace we have been saved. Amen.