John 3:14-21 / Lent 4B / 18 March 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“How do I love thee, let me count the ways.” When it is the Father talking to His world, you need only count to one. His only-begotten Son. The Father loves the world in His beloved Son. This is the exclusively inclusive love of the Father. God is love. He can’t stop Himself. That’s what He is. Love isn’t simply something God does; it’s also something God is. Love is His very essence. God is love and God loves. The Father loves the Son, and He loves the world in His beloved Son. And He loves you in the same way.
Love is expressed, made known, manifest, shown in action. You can’t keep it bottled up inside. It must be expressed in words and actions. We reveal it in words. We say, “I love you.” Maybe you remember that first time you said those words to someone. Often those words come with great trepidation, anxiety, a tinge of fear. Rightly so. That’s a powerful sentence that can put into motion big plans and actions. She longs to hear him say, “I love you.” He breaks out into a sweat just thinking about saying it for the first time. Or other contexts too, not quite so scary. A father and mother to a child; a child to a parent. Good friends who have been through much together. Many of us don’t say it often enough, and none of us can hear it often enough.
Love is expressed in action too. A bouquet of flowers, a nice card, a box of chocolates, preferably dark. Or shiny little rocks set into rings and bracelets, tokens and trinkets of love. More significantly, love is expressed in giving yourself away in acts that have no return in view. This is the love that the Greeks called agape. They had other words for other kinds of love. Philos for the warm bonds of friendship. Eros for the heat of passion. Storge for comfort of nurture and care. But agape was the love that pointed back to its Source, to God. God is agape. Self-giving, self-sacrificing love.
God does agape in this way: He gave. Agape is giving with no regard for receiving. Agape does not ask “what’s in it for me” nor does it seek to have the needs of self met. Agape is wholly focused on the other, the Beloved, the object of agape. Agape expresses itself in giving. God loved the world in this manner: He gave His only-begotten Son. The Father loved the world by giving His Beloved Son to the world. Christ is the token, the sacrament, the sign, the gift of the Father’s love. Of the Father’s love begotten from all eternity. Of the Father’s love given to the world.
God gave the Israelites a sacramental sign back in their wilderness days. The Israelites had rebelled yet again, and grumbled and complained against Moses and against God. In judgment, God sent snakes into the camp, fire snakes that caused horrific wounds and death. In mercy, God gave an curious antidote, an image made of bronze (something ordinarily forbidden), a bronze serpent, the very image of the disease, raised up on a pole so that all the eyes of Israel could look on it. And in looking on it, they would live.
That bronze serpent on a stick, rather hideous to look at, and were it not the direct command of God Himself, idolatrous as well, was a tangible token of God’s love for His people, rebellious, stubborn, and sinful though they were. To look on that image trusting in the promise of God was to live, to survive the venomous bite of the fire snakes. And it was the only way to survive. There was no other.
It’s a picture of humanity and of us. Snake-bitten with the venom of Sin coursing through our systems. It’s killing us and in the process bringing on a destructive delirium some mistake for life. We are born this way, born with the fangs of the ancient serpent sunk deep into our veins, injecting that fatal lie that begins with a question “Did God really say?” ringing in our ears and in the back of our skeptical minds and ends with disbelief, disobedience, and death. We are born into this world snake-bitten.
In mercy and love, God gave His Son. “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. In His death on the cross, Jesus is the bronzed serpent on the pole, the Antidote, the Cure, the Medicine of Immortality. To look on Him is to believe in Him, that is, to trust Him. Taking any medicine is an act of trust. We trust our doctor when he or she ways, “Take this three times a day.” You look at the data sheet that comes with the drug. If you’re like me, and you know a thing or two about chemistry, you cringe at the molecular structure of this drug and wonder what it will do to you. I heard one doctor describe drugs as poisons with some potentially beneficial side-effects. And what about that list of side-effects ranging from bad dreams to depression and death. And yet the good physician said, “Take this three times a day,” and so we do in trust.
God have His Son, lifted up on a cross, marred and disfigured almost beyond recognition. And He says, “Look on my Beloved Son in faith and you will live.” Look on Him, and don’t avert your eyes. He is your Sin and He is your Salvation. The Cure looks terribly much like the disease. That’s why the cross is so hideous, so painful to look at, so macabre. Why would anyone want to look at this? We’d rather look at flowers and sunsets and kittens and puppies. We’d rather seek the signs and tokens of God’s love somewhere else, something more uplifting than being lifted up on a cross. But this is how God loves the world, and He loves the world in no other way than to give His beloved Son into death for the life of the world. This is the Father’s agape. This is God’s love for the sinner enfleshed. And this is all there is to look at. Every other image is idolatrous. No other image can save you save this One. Jesus is the image and icon of God come to down to us. He is the love of God incarnate, in human flesh, dwelling among us. He is God’s love for the world, and God loves the world in Him.
This agape of God, God’s love is an inclusive world. It is for the world. Not simply the respectable, religious, lovable parts of the world but the world in toto. It is a cosmic love that loves the cosmos to death and in so doing saves it. Does that mean that everyone is saved? Well, it depends how you look at it. From the point of view of God’s agape, the answer is “yes.” God loved the world. God have His beloved Son to the world. God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world. You can’t any more inclusive than that. And you can’t divide up the world into the saved and unsaved parts. As far as God is concerned, the world is saved and loved in His beloved Son.
But it is only and exclusively in His beloved Son. There is salvation in no other. There is life in no other. There is no other revelation of God’s love for the world. No other sign, sacrament, token of God’s love but the one act of self-sacrifice: The Father sending and giving His Son into the world, knowing that men love darkness rather than light, knowing that this Love Incarnate would be rejected, knowing that He would be lifted up in the darkness and evil of this world, knowing that this is the only way to save this snake-bitten world.
“Every one who practices evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed.” We come kicking and screaming. We need to understand that or we won’t understand what’s going on with us spiritually speaking. Our old Adam, our snake-bitten sinful nature hates the light, hates the truth, hates the law, and yes, hates the Gospel and Christ. It’s the new man in Christ who delights in the Law, who rejoices in the Gospel, who “does the truth” and comes to the light in order that it may be seen that his works have been wrought in God and not in himself.
Our old Adam needs to be crucified, to be mortified, to be put to death. The new man, the new you, in Christ needs to live, and this is a work that is worked in God by the Spirit of God working through the Word. Sometimes you will observe this. People will come to church for a while, they’ll get all religious for a while, they’ll be all enthusiastic for a while. But then some issue comes along, some sin comes to light, the Law begins to do its killing work, and they turn away and go back into the cover of darkness again. And it can happen to you too. That’s why the resistance, that’s why you’d rather run off to brunch than extend your Sunday in Bible class, that’s why you can’t wait for the service to end. It has less to do with the music and the preaching and whatever other excuse we make. It has to do with our old Adam who hates the Light, who prefers the darkness, who loves the practice of evil, and must be coerced and forced to go through the motions of doing the truth.
I’m sure their were many Israelites who preferred their own homeopathic treatments, their own alternative medicines, to that bronze serpent on a stick. I’m sure there were many who refused to look and live. They died rejecting a promise of life that was intended for them.
The coming of Christ, the preaching of Christ, the knowledge of Christ precipitates a crisis. “Crisis” is the Greek word for “judgment.” “This is the judgment, the crisis, that Light has come into the world.” The coming of Christ is a game-changer. The death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Your hearing of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a crisis. You can never be neutral about it again. Your knowledge of Baptism and of the Lord’s Supper and it’s true nature and meaning precipitate a crisis of faith and unbelief. It’s one thing to turn your back on Christ, on Baptism, on the Supper, on the Church, on His Word, if you do not know what they are. But once you do, once you have been “enlightened,” once the knowledge of salvation has to come you, you can never be neutral or apathetic again. Now it is faith or unbelief; there is no middle ground.
We worry sometimes about those who have never heard the Gospel, and what about them and how will they be judged? But that whole question is misplaced. If you know the cure and you know someone who is diseased with Sin (and you don’t have to look too hard for that), how much do you have to hate your fellow sinner not to tell them? That’s the crisis. You might say, “Well, I’d have been better off had I not heard,” and the answer, “Too late. You’ve heard. Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Now is the moment of your salvation.” You have no excuse. You have no choice in the matter. God has ordained it that you hear the Word of Christ.
God loved the world in giving His Son. The Son loved the world by giving His life. God loved you by bringing you to Baptism, by joining you to His beloved Son in His death. God loves you in His beloved Son. The Son loves you in giving you His Body and Blood to eat and drink. He loves you in putting His Word into your ears to hear. To reject these whenever they are offered to you is to refuse the token of His love.
His is a wondrously inclusive love. No one left out. It is also a terrifyingly exclusive love. Only in Jesus, the beloved Son, and no one else. Apart from Him, there is only the nothingness of darkness and death.
You are baptized. You have been brought to the Light. You are loved in the Beloved Son. Look on Him, lifted up for you. Look on Him in faith and live.
In the name of Jesus,