A sermon preached on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21 for the Fourth Week in Advent for Preston High Street Uniting Church.
This is such a well-known passage – or, at least, it contains a verse which seems to stand alone. For a long time it seemed like you couldn’t see a sporting event on TV without someone holding up a placard with “John 3:16” on it. I remember seeing a documentary about a guy who made it his life’s work to go to every sporting event he possibly could and display his John 3:16 sign. I wonder what happened to him? I wonder what happened to that whole thing. I don’t remember seeing it at the Australian Open.
Perhaps it is one more way in which our culture is forgetting about Jesus, forgetting about God. If I asked a random person on the street what “John 3:16” meant, how many would know that it was even a reference to the Bible – much less know how to look it up? Would they know they could just Google it?
And it goes a lot deeper than people’s unfamiliarity with Scripture. The whole idea of who Jesus is and how faith in him might be the solution to what ails us is increasingly alien to our culture.
As a culture, we don’t really know what our problem is, and we really don’t know where to look for a solution.
In this we are a long way from “the people” in our first reading. The people in question are, of course, the children of Israel – the people Moses led out of captivity in Egypt and through the Red Sea to freedom. Exactly the same people who saw God’s presence on the Mountain from afar, and the same people that God fed with manna in the desert.
But here they are, grumbling. Why have you led us out here to this stupid desert? There is no proper food and no water and we detest this horrible manna.
They are grumbling against God, and against Moses, and so the Lord sends an infestation of poisonous snakes. As Australians, we know about snakes. We all have a story or two about a close encounter with a snake.
For instance, when my parents were looking to buy a house in East Maitland, they found a lovely house, with beautiful views, convenient to the main road my Dad would need to get to work. But there was just one problem: it was infested with brown snakes.
Not a place to bring up children, and definitely not a good place for our dog.
Needless to say, we didn’t move there.
But, for the Israelites, it’s not quite such a simple matter as moving elsewhere.
There’s a bit of a theological puzzle here: do we really think that God is in the business of punishing wrongdoing in that sort of direct way? If so, I have a list ready and waiting of people God could usefully get busy smiting.
Of course not. Otherwise Stalin and Mao, to name just two, wouldn’t have died in their beds. And lots of other Scripture points towards the overwhelming love and generosity of God. Including the passage we are going to get to in just a moment.
But, on the other hand, it is also true that, when you turn your back on God, then bad things do happen. The poisonous snakes show up, and we don’t know where to turn.
Unlike us, this people , does know where to turn. They turn to Moses and Moses turns to God, and God gives Moses a very strange instruction: make a serpent and stick it on a pole, and then whenever someone is bitten, all they have to do is to look upon it, and they will live.
It’s a strange instruction, not least because in a reading not too long ago, God was exceptionally angry when the children of Israel made themselves a golden calf. This bronze serpent, isn’t it exactly the same sort of thing?
Anyway, so far so weird. It’s just one of those odd stories which show up from olden times, and perhaps it would be best to avoid it altogether. Except for two things.
The first reason is a pretty straightforward one: today’s gospel reading directly quotes from the Numbers reading. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” and what Jesus has to say in the Gospel passage doesn’t make sense if we don’t know what the deal is with the serpents.
Secondly, I’m struck by the contrast between the world of the ancient Israelites on the one hand, and ours on the other.
The ancient Israelites knew what their problem was: snakes. And they also knew the cause of their problem: rebellion against God. And they knew where to turn: God, through Moses.
I don’t think our culture has a clue, really, what the problem is. We think that with our science and progressive social policies and our disdain for the past, we have solved, or are well on the way, to solving all our problems.
The answers we seek come from within, or at least so we are told. We can save ourselves – with perhaps a little bit of help from suitably qualified technical specialists. A psychologist to help me understand why I’m so sad. A life coach to help me optimise my success. A carefully chosen array of pharmaceuticals – both prescription and self-administered, to take the edge off.
And still it isn’t enough. Not because of any problem with psychologists, life coaches and pharmaceuticals, and thank God for them, in their place.
But because it doesn’t touch what actually ails us.
We are a culture which thinks it has no room for God, that salvation can only come from within. There is a deep chasm between what we see in the external world, and what we
And we are paying the price for that mistake, with the rapid increase in inequality, loneliness, and deaths of despair. And that was before COVID made everything so much worse!. Our search for “authenticity” ends up in living lives of maximum in-authenticity. Rather than “to your own self be true”, we buy whatever the culture is selling.
We think we are somehow self-reliant, but we are inextricably linked with one another. We have all these desires – for freedom, for fulfillment, for connection – for a hundred different things, and they can be directed to good and bad aims.
Advertisers are the masters at taking our desires and directing them towards whatever they happen to be selling. Instead of selling mobile phone plans, they sell connection. Instead of car, they sell the freedom of a sweeping coastal road. Whatever your desire is, we have a helpful gadget or service which will get you there.
But, of course, as we all know from experience, the desires aren’t ultimately fulfilled. I am not sorry I bought a new car, but, when you get right down to it, it has not fulfilled my desire for real, for spiritual, freedom. I make a lot of use of my mobile phone; I still yearn for true connection.
In a strange way, what I long for is a freedom from myself, and from my own preoccupations. But I am unable to get there on my own.
I’m doing a preaching course at the moment, and one of the main take-home points for me so far is to refrain from saying things like “in the original Greek of course…” But, apparently, exceptions can be made, and this is one of them.
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world.” Hands up if you think that it means something like “God loved the world so much”? No shame there, that’s precisely what I thought to until a few days ago, when I learned that “so” in the verse means “in this manner.” Or, perhaps, “thusly.”
So the verse isn’t saying that “God loved the world so much that he gave his unique son”, though of course that is true. God does love the world with an infinite and unstoppable love.
But it isn’t what the passage means. It means “This is how God loved the world: he sent his unique son.”
Given that God loves the world with this unstoppable love, this is what God chose to do about it.
Christianity has always tried to have it both ways with God. On the one hand: God as pillar of fire and cloud of smoke. Objective fact, completely other to us. But, on the other hand, the Holy Spirit works in and through us: John Wesley’s heat being “strangely warmed.”
The objective fact of God’s reality we call the “transcendence” of God.
Our subjective experience of God-with-us we call the “immanence” of God.
Christianity says that, in order to understand what is going on with God and how she deals with her people, we need both.
Our culture has a complex relationship with this tussle of objective and subjective. We are very good at objective reality: look at how quickly we have created not one, but many different vaccines for COVID-19. The sheer amount of scientific research, clear government policy, human resources, and all the rest which we have deployed is staggering.
But when it comes to “values”, to “meaning of life” stuff, the objective world takes a back seat. We really, really, really don’t trust external authority. We feel like it compromises our authenticity. We feel it is oppressive.
Or else we can’t see how some alleged event hundreds of years ago has anything vital to do with my actual life right here and now.
A key mystery of our faith is that this external event, this almighty fact of Jesus in the world itself leads us to eternal life: which is to say, not just life extending into eternity, but the eternal sort of life. The sort of life which comes from God, the sort of God which is rooted in God. A transformed life.
Jesus coming into the world isn’t just a bare, flat fact, like knowing the date of the Battle of Actium. It is a fact which reaches into us, and which demands a response.
Specifically, it demands a choice of whether to put our faith in Jesus. Those who believe in him – whoever takes the step of faith, whoever places their trust in Jesus – will have this eternal sort of life.
This erases the boundary between the objective and subjective. We find our true authenticity, our true freedom, in our response to the fact of God sending his Son into the world.
Jesus, the passage says, will be lifted up, just like Moses’ bronze serpent. Just like the serpent, which was an instrument of death to the Israelites, but became the mechanism through which they were healed and saved, so too the cross of Jesus Christ turns from an instrument of humiliating death to the thing which saves us; the very thing which gifts us with the eternal sort of life.
We are not alone with ourselves. We do not live in a God-less universe. We don’t even live in a universe where God and God’s love for the world is hard to figure out. God is not found in our misty subjectivity, but in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. And that, ironically, is what transforms our futile attempts at self-sufficiency into true authenticity. We can become the very people who we were created to be, living lives of meaning and significance. Collaborating with the mission of the God who both sent Jesus into the world and raised him from the dead, and who loves us with unstoppable, unlimited, inescapable love.
The Good News is this: that God sent her unique, one and only Son, into the world, so that, through faith in him, the world could be saved.
 On the other hand, the Good News Translation renders the verse “For God love the world so much…” See
‘By The Well for Lent 4 Year B” https://bythewell.com.au/b112-lent-4-num-214-9-john-314-21/ accessed 8/3/21
 September 2, 31 BC. Important at the time, dubiously relevant two thousand years later.