In this way
For God so loved the world …
It is one of the best known and most loved verses in the bible, for good reason. John 3.16. For God so loved the world.
Usually when we hear that word “so”, we think of it as meaning “so much”. That God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. And there is certainly truth in that reading.
But the word that is translated as “so” actually doesn’t mean that at all. The Greek word is “houtOs”, which means “in this way”. God loved the world in this way. This is how God loved the world.
And to help us understand the way in which God loved the world, Jesus points us back to the story about the poisonous snakes.
You’ve all seen this symbol, the symbol of a snake on a pole.
It’s the symbol of the Canadian Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and health organizations around the world. It is the universal image for healing. The healing of the world. God loves the world in this way.
It’s a strange image to use for healing. I don’t know about you, but I have a great fear of snakes, especially poisonous, venomous, deadly snakes. And the snake in this image, on this pole, is not a friendly, harmless little garter snake. It is a fiery, poisonous, deadly snake. Because this image which we use as our global symbol of healing has been drawn from the story we heard in our Old Testament reading from the book of Numbers. This is the story that Jesus points to when he says that God loves the world in this way. This is Jesus’ way of drawing us into the mystery and meaning of the cross.
In the story from the book of Numbers, the people’s sin has finally caught up with them. The people complain against God and against Moses. They reject the food that God has given them. They accuse God of misleading them. They become alienated from God and from Moses - trust has broken down. “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” This is a story about the destructive power of human sin. Sin has power and it has consequences. When we become alienated from God and from each other, when trust is lost, when injustice and violence hold sway, these things are like a poison that will destroy us and lead us to death. The poisonous snake is the image of the self-destructive power of our human sin.
And so the people cry out to God to take away the serpents. But God does not take away the serpents, instead God does a curious thing. God tells Moses to “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.”
God loves the world in this way.
The serpent, the source of death, hasn’t been destroyed. Instead it has been transformed from a source of death into God’s instrument of healing. Theologians call that redemption. God’s power to draw good out of something that is bad, to transform serpents, situations and even people for the better.
In order to be healed in this story, the person who has been bitten by the snake doesn’t have to say or do anything special. All she has to do is to look, to simply look at the snake on the pole. To see the thing that has bitten her.
In order to flesh this out a bit more fully we have to know a little something about how the act of seeing, of looking, vision, was understood in the ancient world.
The ancients believed that in order to see an object, something, a ray, what they often called a visual fire, was emitted from the eye to the object being seen, and then returned to the eye of the seer. This is usually called the emission theory of vision. In order to see, we send something to the object we are looking at, and then something from the object is returned to us. A connection is established. An exchange is made.
And in the imagery of this story, a very particular exchange is being made. The poisonous, death-dealing venom of the snake, which represents the self-destructive death-dealing power of sin, is sent to the bronze serpent on the pole, and there it is transformed so that in return God sends back life-giving healing to the one who sees. God receives poison, transforms it and returns it as healing love.
“God loves the world in this way: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so in this way the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
When Jesus speaks of the lifting up of the Son of Man, it is a foreshadowing, a reference to Jesus’ coming death on the cross, and to the resurrection which will follow. The cross, even more than the snake, is an image of the self-destructive power of human sin, an image of cruelty, violence, hatred and death. And yet, just as she did with the snake, God will transform this symbol and instrument of the human sin which destroys us into the symbol and instrument of the divine healing which restores us from death to life.
No longer is this story just for the Israelites wandering in the desert. This is now a story for the whole world, God loves the world in this way. And no longer is this story about physical illness, snake-bites and physical death. Now it is a story about the whole of the human condition, a story about spiritual sickness, the whole of what afflicts us, our alienation from God, each other, creation and even ourselves. The cross becomes an instrument for the healing of the whole of our being, not just physical healing, but spiritual healing as well, what our scriptures call salvation.
And just like the ancient Israelites, we are called to look at the cross, just as they needed to look at the snake on the pole. Remember the ancient understanding of what it means to see, in this case, what it means to see Jesus on the cross. To see is to establish a connection, and to make an exchange. We send God our hatred, rejection and pain, and then to our great surprise, we receive back God’s forgiveness and healing in return. To see Jesus on the cross is a revelation. We see the truth about our condition, we see human sin and violence at its worst, and then we experience the redemptive and healing power of God’s grace, loving us back in response.
In fact, Jesus takes us beyond the language of seeing, and upgrades it to the language of believing. The reason that God has made all this visible to us on the cross is so that everyone who sees, indeed who believes in him, may not perish but have eternal life. The word “believe” here does not signify cognitive assent as we so often use it. The word used is pisteuOn, the verb form of the noun that we translate as faith. Everyone who faiths in him, everyone who trusts in him - this is the better sense of the word. Not only are we to make the connection signified by “seeing”, we are to enter into the relationship of trust signified by the word “believing”.
Can we trust that God, when confronted by the worst that humans have to offer, violence, evil, death, even death on a cross, can we trust that God will somehow absorb even these things, transform them, redeem them and give us back in return forgiveness, grace, and healing?
Yes we can. And when we see this and when we believe this, then we become the ones who are transformed, healed and redeemed. Because there is nothing more powerful than God’s grace and mercy made known. Nothing empowers us more than knowing that we are loved.
This is the way that God loves the world. Not by condemning the world but by loving the world so that the world, all of us and all creation, might be saved. This is the way that God loves the world. By healing and by forgiving. By redeeming and by transforming. By taking on sin and giving back love and mercy in return. And by making that visible for us on the cross, revealing to us the very depths of God’s love for each one of us.
Homily: Yr B Lent 4, March 14 2021, St. Albans
Readings: Numbers 21.4-9; Ps 107. 1-3,17-22; Eph 2.1-10; Jn 3.14-21