I'm working on a sermon, for Lent, week 4, and just now I am reflecting on the Gospel text, John 3. 14-21. One part of this very familiar passage is about people who prefer darkness rather than light.
There's something here about being blind to what is really happening, or preferring not to see. The Epistle for the day is Ephesians 2, with its familiar words about being saved by grace through faith. So many things to hold together …
- The John passage beings with the idea of Moses 'lifting up the serpent in the desert'. This is about the people in diabolical trouble. They had escaped from slavery, plagues and all sorts of oppression, only to be caught now in the desert, and more plagues! Just when they thought nothing more could go wrong … But God provides for them. Still today the image of a snake on a pole is used to indicate medical care!
- Then we come to the idea that the 'son of man' must be 'lifted up'. God provides a way for salvation: but whereas I am inclined to ask 'how', and perhaps even to protest at the answers offered ( a death that somehow satisfies a divine requirement is always a puzzle), these texts actually address a different question; not how, but for whom? For whom is this salvation: and this is the stunning thing in both these texts.
- God provides a way in the desert, for 'the world': the whole world, not selected ones, not deserving ones, but 'sinners'. 'While we were yet sinners …'. God did not condemn the world, but sent the Son so that the world might be saved.
- It's just a matter of believing it: so the texts seem to say. Is this a condition of God's salvation, or the means of salvation? If it is a condition, then somehow or other faith becomes what Luther and reformers (following the apostle Paul) called 'works of righteousness', as if in some way it merits God's grace. But that would not be grace!
- Salvation by grace through faith is and can only be God's gift, and John is saying that this gift is for everyone who will receive it, enter into it, believe it. Those who do not receive it are not condemned by God: they condemn themselves.
- What's this condemnation like? It's very familiar, too, I reckon. The condemnation is precisely the misery Luther suffered, and so many of us in the evangelical stream of faith and theology also know well. It's about thinking, maybe secretly, that somehow or other we have merited God's grace, and we had better make sure we continue to merit it. (What kind of untrustworthy God is this?) And implicitly, there are others who have not merited God's grace, and they are 'out'. We struggle with the idea of 'free' salvation, and pure grace: we WANT to merit it, and we work hard to deserve it! Yet, damn it all, no matter how hard we work, we can't earn it, we can't deserve it, and we therefore can't enjoy it. Even less can we enjoy that this same grace is offered so freely to others, who don't even make an effort. That's the judgment, the condemnation suffered by many who want to earn God's way, and we might be 'religious' types or we might be those who stand apart from all that, preferring not to be that hypocritical. But whichever way we go, it's not fun. We just can't make it work.
- It's interesting that Nicodemus disappears from the dialogue and narrative of John 3. He came enquiring, and his theology was pushed and challenged, and he steps back into the night. Is he one who preferred darkness; or is he one who needed a lot more time to come to accept and enjoy the reality of his own tradition,— the One who provided healing and hope in the desert and who will again and again save all who will receive grace upon grace. I'm with Nicodemus. It's taking a while!