Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Gospel: John 3:14-21

A reading from the Gospel of John.
Glory to you, O Lord.

[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.”

The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.

Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer


At just about every major sporting event, someone will be holding a sign that says John 3:16. What has always interested me about these signs is the singular focus. The camera always seems to pan to one of the signs at least once during a big game. Probably no other Bible verse has had as much air time on television as this one verse from John. Frankly, if I had to choose a Bible verse to send out on the airwaves every single game for decades, this wouldn’t be the one.

A few years ago billboards went up quoting another Bible verse, one that most of us like to pretend isn’t in the Bible. It’s from Ephesian 6:5 and says: “Slaves be obedient to your masters.”

The Bible does say that. A letter written by Paul to another culture at another time has that line, and I wish it didn’t. And a few years ago an American atheist group put that verse up on billboards so that people would read it and understand why, in their eyes, religion and belief in God are wrong. And honestly, that’s pretty compelling…if that’s all you know about the Bible.

I believe people are free to believe as they want, and I’m not preaching against atheists here, because honestly I met some pretty moral atheists. What I am preaching against is taking one verse, pulling it out of context, slapping it on a billboard or sign, and saying it speaks for all of Christianity. Because it clearly doesn’t. It’s lazy reasoning that wouldn’t pass muster in a first-year logic paper.

But we can’t condemn it too harshly. Because we Christians sometimes do the same thing. We find a few verses that support whatever it is we support, or condemn whatever it is we condemn, and we latch onto them. We live in the black or white instead of living in the nuances.


So what about our texts this weekend? What do they say?

This week’s passage from John uses a fairly obscure story from Israel’s wandering in the wilderness to illustrate Jesus’ mission on earth. The text says that just as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the desert, so will the Son of Man be lifted up. Jesus indicated that he would be lifted, and there he would provide salvation for all. If we stop thinking about Jesus comparing himself to the bronze serpent in verse 14 and simply move on to John 3:16, then we short-change the power of what he was saying.

In the wilderness narratives, when the Israelites complained—understandably—that they were without water and—ungratefully—that they were tired of manna, God sent fiery serpents among the people and many died. The translation of “poisonous serpents” in the New Revised Standard Version is somewhat lacking, I think. These were literally “the seraphim snakes.” Picture not just fatally poisonous serpents (as if that weren’t frightening enough), but giant flaming serpents—bigger than humans with multiple sets of wings—that were accustomed to serving in the heavenly court in the presence of God. These heavenly monsters didn’t just bite, they flew and were on fire.

When Moses, on behalf of the people, asked God to take away this utter nightmare, God did something strange—God had Moses cast a bronze serpent. The fiery flying serpents didn’t stop terrorizing the people. But when the people were bitten, they could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. The terror wasn’t completely taken away, but the people were given a way in which they could be saved by looking upon the one who was lifted up.

Jesus brought up the story of the fiery serpents to Nicodemus as a series of object lessons. His first point was about beings that came from heaven—not the normal earthly variety of things. It’s important to notice, then, that Jesus doesn’t reference just any snakes that God called together. To make the point about where he comes from, it wouldn’t suffice to compare himself to a normal animal. Rather, Jesus pointed to his common home with the fiery serpents that were sent down from the throne room of heaven.

Second, we need to remember that Moses’ bronze serpent doesn’t only appear in the book of Numbers. During the time of King Hezekiah’s reforms, the bronze serpent played a somewhat important role.

2 Kings 18:4 summarizes Hezekiah’s reign, saying he smashed the sacred pillars, and cut into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made. The bronze serpent, originally meant as a healing gift, had become an idol when the people started to worship the bronze thing instead of God who sent it for their salvation.

Thirdly, Nicodemus and everyone else living under Roman occupation in Jerusalem would have had at the front of their minds the ways in which God, working through previous kings, had repeatedly spared the people from captivity and saved them from oppression. That Hezekiah probably used the broken bits of the bronze serpent to save the people from wrath was not only incredibly shrewd but also prefigures how Jesus would be broken and given over to an evil empire. The Son of Man was crushed and descended into the realm of the dead so he could free captives from the powers of sin and death.

Jesus is careful, however, to mark a strong distinction between himself and the fiery serpents/bronze serpent. God sent the serpents to condemn complainers to death, and then the bronze serpent was constructed to save them. Jesus only came to save, not to condemn. “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.”

Jesus used the image of the bronze serpent on the pole to explain to Nicodemus that he was sent directly from heaven and wasn’t just another prophet, that he would be broken and given over to the empire as a ransom for the people, and that his death would involve being lifted up. So Nicodemus doesn’t have the wrong idea, though, Jesus quickly described himself as coming on behalf of God’s love, and that he didn’t come to condemn but to save. Whether it was God’s word that commanded Moses to make the bronze serpent or God’s Word made flesh, God’s Word saves humans.


There are some Bible texts that are so prominent that it’s hard to imagine that we could find something new to say about them. This week’s Gospel includes one of them, John 3:16.

I spent my childhood and adolescent years in small Southern Ohio town; and then went to the Ohio’s Capital; and then dabbled in a few other states for little bits of time, and all the places I’ve been have one thing in common…this text was often used as one to exclude people. Most responses to the text that I’ve seen zero in on the idea that we must believe in Jesus to have eternal life, and I’m certain that I don’t want to wander into that theological muck today. I used to be able to spend many hours deliberating whether or not a Hindu could go to Heaven, or an atheist or your beloved pet; but not today.

  • Today, I’m much more interested in how we live our lives here—not so that we get into Heaven, but so that we participate in God’s visions for us and for the larger world now.
  • Today, let us focus on the text that reminds us that God doesn’t enter the world to condemn us—many pop culture preachers forget that. But almost every verse of this week’s Gospel reminds us that God comes to us out of love, not judgment. God comes, not to cast us away into the shadows, but to save us. Most of us spend many hours dwelling in murkiness. God comes to lead us into the light.

Many of us have come from Christian traditions which would find this theology strange. Many of us have been scarred by a theology of a divine judge who finds us wanting. Many of us fear hell. Many of us have been taught that the purpose of religion is to save us so that we get to go to Heaven not Hell. But the message that Jesus delivers again and again is that God is interested in the life we’re living right now, not just the life we’ll have or not have after we die. 

Jesus comes to announce to us that the frayed piece of cloth that we clutch is not the quilt of life that God intends for us to have. Jesus comes to show us new fabrics, new patterns, stronger stitches to hold all the pieces together.

Our world is desperately in need of the message that Christians can tell. We live in a world of rampant Consumerism, which is doing a wide range of harm. The world needs our message of something that is more vital, something that is more important than making money and buying more stuff.

We can be the lighthouses that lead people to safer shores—not the shores of Heaven or Hell, but the shore of a transformed life. We can be part of God’s quilting team, reminding people that life is more than the scraps of cloth they see before them. We can be the ones who offer new fabrics and the knowledge of how to stitch the small pieces together into glorious new patterns, a quilt that will remind us of God’s saving promises.


We’ve created a culture in which people believe that you can either accept every verse of the Bible on its own and without debate or you have to throw the whole thing out. There used to be this bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And it used to make my blood pressure rise every time I’d see it. Because the Bible says a lot of things, some of them contradictory, and we have to wrestle with that.

The good news is that there’s a lot of room in the valley between “God so loved the world” and “slaves be obedient to your masters.” But it takes a lot of work to live there. It’s not easy. It’s nuanced. It’s sometimes uncertain and tenuous.

We live in a soundbite culture. The message has to fit the billboard, or the T-shirt, or the five-second preview of the news. But the thing about slogans and soundbites is we grow weary of them. We don’t believe them for very long, especially if they don’t generate real action. And the people who hear them finally grow disillusioned and move on to something else.

It’s the same with faith. I find it interesting that we are getting more and more evidence that the largest group of new nonbelievers are former Christian fundamentalists. People who once lived in a world that couldn’t tolerate nuance when it came to faith are now leaving that world and going to one that cannot tolerate nuance when it comes to doubt.

That makes some sense, because fundamentalism is fundamentalism, regardless of what you believe in. And if all you’ve ever learned is that the only way to have faith is to believe a list of things without question, then when you leave of course you think there is no place for you other than in a culture of disbelief.

And so, live the chapter, not just the verse. And live the book, not just the chapter. And live beyond the book, and for a God who so loved the world that God wants us to love back with our heart, and soul, and mind. I’m not sure how you squeeze that all onto a sign at a sporting event; it probably wouldn’t fit.